The Presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament

(This is Neil) Todd has already drawn your attention to a homily given at the 9th Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). I’d like to direct you to a pastoral reflection [PDF] delivered there by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, SDB of Guwahati, in northeast India. (Archbishop Menamparampil, incidentally, wrote this year’s meditations for the via crucis on Good Friday in Rome.) Let me first explain why I find the reflection interesting.

We can surely tell that our theology is inadequate if we place the modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy in competition to one another. Christ is present – among other modes of presence – in the word (himself speaking when the scriptures are read), in the gathered assembly, in the person of the priest, and “most of all” in the Eucharistic species (see Sacrosanctum Concilium 7; Todd’s commentary is here).  If we see these modes as rivals, what has happened? Perhaps, in our despair, we see the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as not a transformation of this sad world, but a displacement of it through annihilation and recreation. Thus, any connection of the Eucharistic presence to a presence of Christ in “ordinary” human activity – a prayer or a meal – appears to be a diminishment. Or, on the other hand, perhaps we see the Eucharistic presence as merely the sign of the bonds of the community, and we imagine that a renewed emphasis on the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist belittles those bonds.

I think that Archbishop Menamparampil’s reflection is interesting because it relates two of the modes of Christ’s presence in liturgical celebration –the word and the Eucharist. Obviously, the Archbishop notes that Christ really is present in both the word and Eucharist. But the Archbishop also provides seven other ways to relate these two modes of presence:

2. Both the Eucharist and the word are sources of life. Thus, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever” (Jn 6:51). This is also true of the word: Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63).

3. The presences of Christ in word and Eucharist both call us to intimacy with him. Jesus says, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:56). Regarding the word, Jesus likewise says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:22-23). (My emphases.)

4. Both modes of presence call us to unity. In Acts, we read that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, Archbishop’s emphases.) And, so they lived in unity, even holding all things in common. Both word and sacrament also provide the “spiritual stamina” necessary for ecumenical and interreligious efforts.

5. The presences of Christ in word and Sacrament call us to fruitfulness. If we listen to the word, we will act in defense of the poor and marginalized, “always making a preferential option for the more humiliated and less privileged.” Archbishop Menamparampil also quotes the Catechism about the Eucharist, “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (1397).

6. The presences of Christ in word and Sacrament call us to be communicative. Here, Archbishop Menamparampil reminds us of the Emmaus account.  Jesus interprets the scriptures, the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread and remember that their hearts had been burning within them when Jesus had talked to them, and they return to Jerusalem to communicate what they had heard and seen (Lk 24:13-53).

The Archbishop here offers some very interesting comments on how to communicate the Gospel:

In the Asian context I have often referred to “whispering the Gospel to the soul of Asia”. Whispering, not because we are apologetic about the message we carry, but because in Asia the most sacred words are whispered; the most precious secrets are whispered; the most intimate sharing is through a whisper. However, in order that the whisper may be effective, we have to come close to the ‘soul’ of a community, enter into an intimate relationship with its inner identity, catch something of its inner vibrancy and rhythm. That is where we so often fail. However, some missionary geniuses have negotiated their way through the inner world of a community, touching its core values and ways of self-expression, and have found acceptable utterance in an amazing manner, leading entire societies closer to the Gospel. The expression ‘whispering’ does not intend to deny the duty of “announcing from the housetops” where such a strategy is possible and relevant. But in every case, one should know, what, where, and how. What is important is that the message goes across.

I have also often spoken about ‘non-threatening’ ways of evangelization, meaning that we should never go against the selfhood of a community. While Jesus at times had strong words for his own intimate friends and members of his own community (‘woe to you’, ‘get behind me satan’) to emphasize a point, dealing with other communities he seems to be gently trying to come on their wavelength and drawing them to reflection, e.g. with the Samaritan woman, Syro-Phoenician woman, Roman officer. We find Paul too consistently trying to build bridges across to the people of Greco-Roman world, emerging courageously, but always with a great sense of responsibility from the Hebrew world.

7. Encountering Christ in word and sacrament, the Archbishop says, produces people of genuine depth.

By ‘persons of depth’ we do not mean merely persons of intellectual acumen, but those who are deep in their spiritual perceptions, human relations, and commitment to values and to the common good. This sort of depth comes from true God-experience and is characterized by authenticity, sincerity, deeds matching words, capacity to endure for common causes, gentle joy and religious seriousness.

8. The presences of Christ in word and sacrament, insofar as they produce depth, can help Asian Catholics avoid the temptations of fundamentalism, nationalisms, and other ideologies. How is this? With regard to the word, Archbishop Menamparampil says that “Deep persons discern a design even in a chaotic situation” and quotes from one of his meditations for the via crucis this past Good Friday:

Below the surface of cataclysmic calamities, wars, revolutions and conflicts of every kind, there is a quiet presence, there is purposeful divine action. God stays hidden in the world, in society, in the universe…and reveals his plans through the ‘word’, showing how he draws good out of evil both from the little events in our personal lives and the great happenings of human history. His ‘word’ makes known the ‘rich and glorious’ plan of God, which says that he frees us from our sins and that Christ is in you.

Comments are always welcome. How can we relate the presences of Christ in word and Eucharist?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to The Presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament

  1. Jim McK says:

    “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’” Mt 4: 4

    As much as I like the bishop’s reflection, I was sorry that he did not use the above passage. Bread is only bread without the Word. The Word is the form of the Eucharist, and it is only by the Word that we have the Eucharist.

    With that vision of Word and Sacrament, the unity of the liturgies of Word and of Eucharist should be clearer. Without the Word, the Eucharist cannot be; it will never be more than bread. So hearing the Word prepares for the Eucharist in a way we can barely grasp. The greater our reverence for the Word, the deeper the Eucharist may penetrate our hearts.

    I say this as a way of deepening what the good bishop says, not to contradict him in any way. For example, it is not just that “6. The presences of Christ in word and Sacrament call us to be communicative.” The Eucharist IS communication, given not just for the many who receive it, but for all. Llistening to the Scriptures and homily enables us to better share the Eucharist with those who can only hear words.

    It has been a long day, so I hope this is comprehensible. So many meanings to “the Word of God” I am not sure I have sorted them properly. But this is my reaction to this wonderful reflection.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    As always, thanks for writing. You are comprehensible.

    If there is fault here, it is mine. The archbishop did write, “For, it is God’s word that explains the mystery of the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is the privileged moment for the announcement of the ‘word.’” I probably should have quoted that line.

    Perhaps I should also have said more about how the Eucharist can be considered “communicative.” The archbishop mentions Jesus’ appearance at Emmaus, where, after the Scriptures were explained to them by Jesus, the disciples recognize him in the breaking of bread, and “set out at once” to recount their experience. Thus, participation in the Eucharist send us (pushes us) forth to share what we have seen and heard.

    We might also say – the archbishop mentions the “Asian way of reading the Bible,” which is attentive to its spiritual dimensions – that sharing in the Eucharist helps us grasp the Scriptures and share them with others. (Of course, the same Scriptures help us perceive “the mystery of the Eucharist,” as I mentioned above. It is a blessed circle.)

    Does this make sense?

    Best,
    Neil

  3. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    It was late when I wrote last night, and I sometimes leap more than I should, thus my concern for comprehensibility. Your notes are always well thought out, and make sense. (though I sometimes have to work a little to get there, but that is no doubt my problem, not yours.)

    My comments were about the bishop’s reflection, not just your well thought out summary of it. Since my thoughts came from reading, I am sure they have a foundation in what he said, even if he always treats presence in Word separate from presence by bread. I assume that separation is intentional on his part.

    That does not keep me from trying to bridge that separation, even if it does meet the tangle of meanings for the term “the Word of God”:
    1> The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, John 1. Comparably, the Word of God becomes bread in the Eucharist, and dwells among us.
    2> The Word of God in human words as a description of the scripture.
    3> Transubstantiation is effected by the Word of Christ, so that the bread is not bread, but the incarnation of Christ. (pane, not carne, so impanation? or is it encorporation?)

    Together, those say to me that the Eucharist is not “bread alone”, but bread blessed by the Word of God. That is what we have to realize in order to grasp the relation between the Eucharist and the Word of God.

    Sorry to go on. Some thinking will make this clearer, so I can express it more briefly. But thanks, to you and to the bishop, for setting me thinking on these lines.

    Jim

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    I’ve thought a bit more about my post and your question about the separation of the presence of Christ in the word from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And, now, I would like to reframe things. I don’t think that my original post and the Archbishop’s reflection are wrong, but perhaps somewhat inadequate.

    Number 4 in my post – “Both modes of presence call us to unity” should have been placed first. My post, tellingly, does not even include the word “church.”

    The main effect of the Eucharist is to create and sustain the unity of the Body of Christ in which we are saved. Likewise, the main effect of the proclamation of the Word is to call the Body of Christ into being – the same Body of Christ that will offer the Eucharist that unifies and sustains it.

    See this very helpful post. The Word is proclaimed and the church is born in response through faith – as creatura verbum Dei. But the church is also creatura sacramenti as, through the priestly action of Christ, the faithful are incorporated together into Christ’s self-offering to the Father.

    Thus, the main thing is that the presences of Christ in Word and Eucharist do not exist for themselves or to achieve their own particular ends.

    I’d write this post differently today.

    Thank you.

    Neil

    PS I would not speak of the Eucharist as the “incarnation of Christ” – that seems to mean a local presence.

  5. Pingback: Pope Francis pulls “whispering” Indian bishop out of retirement | Catholic in Asia

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