(This is Neil.) Why would anyone want to post on the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly? I won’t resort to the old cliché, “Because it is there.” I think that reflecting on this theme can help us better grasp the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and recover an awareness of the “presence in the fullest sense” (as Paul VI would write) of Christ in the Eucharist. And, more immediately, I’ve just read a book by the Fordham theologian Judith M. Kubicki, CSSF, entitled The Presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly (2006), to which this post will be indebted. (I’ll probably post on her treatment of the Liturgy of the Hours later in the week.)
Sister Kubicki follows the late Jesuit Edward M. Kilmartin in suggesting that Vatican II’s description of liturgy contains two important developments. First, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) places great emphasis on the beginnings of Christian worship in God’s action: “To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in his church, especially in liturgical celebrations.” While this sentence is also found in Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (which Kubicki doesn’t note), the relative prominence given to God’s action in the liturgy in SC very possibly comes from the work of the Benedictine liturgist Odo Casel, who claimed (in Kilmartin’s words), “Through the sacramental rite the Church cooperates with Christ’s action, entering into his redeeming work by faith and responding to God’s initiative.”
Consequently, the Second Vatican Council viewed worship as dialogical – the assembly’s response to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Worship begins when we are baptized into Christ Jesus, which, as Kubicki says, allows us to “respond to Christ’s self gift with our own self gift.” Baptism, then, “authorizes us to do Eucharist since it is through baptism that we receive Christ’s mandate to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’” We receive a new identity as we are gathered into the ekklesia to more fully realize communion with God and one another through the body and blood of Christ. The second development of Vatican II on the liturgy has to do with the role of this assembly as the subject of the liturgical action.
This gathering (better: being gathered) for the Eucharist is mentioned at four places in the Didache, including in a communal prayer that asks God that his “church be gathered together” just as “this broken [loaf] was scattered over the hills [as grain]” and “gathered together became one,” and in the exhortation that the community “having been gathered together, break a loaf. And make eucharist …” Much more recently, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us that the first parts of the Mass are meant to ensure “that the faithful who come together as one, establish communion and dispose themselves to listen properly to God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily.”
Christ is present in this gathering/being gathered. As SC reminds us, “He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt. 18:20).” The 1967 document Eucharisticum Mysterium, issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, tells us that in “every gathering around the altar,” “Christ is present and the power of his presence gathers together the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” to receive that body and blood of Christ that will (as St Leo says) “change us into what we receive.”
But how do we keep from making this presence of Christ in the assembly a competitor to or a distraction from the presence of Christ par excellence in the Eucharist? Can the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly actually heighten our attentiveness to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist? Kubicki suggests that we might recover a Eucharistic awareness when we emphasize “the purpose of that presence – the presence of Christ in the community.” The res sacramenti is the unity of the Church, St Thomas tells us. But it in the patristic writers, especially Augustine, that we really see the ecclesial meaning of the Eucharistic presence.
Augustine writes (Sermon 272; for a quick exegesis see here):
However many loves may be placed there, it’s one loaf, however many loaves there may be on Christ’s altars, throughout the world it’s one loaf. But what does it mean, one loaf? Paul explained very briefly: one body is what we, being many, are. That is the body of Christ, about which the apostle says, while addressing the Church, But you are the body of Christ and his members (1 Cor 12:27). What you receive is what you yourselves are, thanks to the grace by which you have been redeemed; you add your signature to this, when you answer Amen. What you see here is the sacrament of unity.
The purpose of the “presence in the fullest sense” of Christ in the Eucharist – Augustine’s “sacrament of unity” – is made very clear in our Eucharistic Prayers. After asking the Father to look with favor on the church’s offering and to remember Christ’s sacrifice, the priest prays, “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III).
Also, if we remember that our unity only comes through Christ’s presence and not some sort of ideological program, our awareness of his presence in the gathered assembly should not fall prey to the danger of “autocelebration”: the worship of the community by the community.
If an awareness of Christ’s presence in the gathered assembly strengthens our awareness of his presence in the Eucharist, we should ask how to cultivate our awareness of the former mode of presence – both verbally and non-verbally. This can be difficult because well-intentioned revisions often lead to disunity (or absurdity), and, as always, there are practical concerns (while a single cup on the altar might powerfully symbolize unity – Augustine tells us to look at how “the juice of the grapes is poured together in one vessel” to understand how we must belong together to Christ – it increases the risk of spillage). Sister Kubicki does give at least three suggestions that most of us might agree on:
Giving prominence to the sprinkling rite. “The use of the symbol, water, makes the sprinkling rite a particularly significant gesture since recalling each person’s baptism ritualizes the basis for the assembly’s coming together for worship as members of the Church.”
Understanding the real role of singing. The Instruction Muscam Sacram associates singing with the unity of the eschatological banquet, for it makes “the whole celebration a more striking symbol of the celebration to come in the heavenly Jerusalem.” Furthermore, we sing because of our unity with Christ and each other (St Paul writes, “And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body,” immediately before telling the Colossians to sings hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs [Col 3:15]). We have to remember that singing does not create unity, but manifests or exists an already existing unity (“music-making is not propositional but confessional”). Ideas, Kubicki tells us, play only a secondary role. Is our music manipulative or overly didactic?
Use communion hymns that emphasize membership in the one Body of Christ. Kubicki suggests a musical genre that “allows the assembly to walk in procession, receive communion, and sing at the same time.” Songs that can be sung by heart are better than hymns with multiple stanzas. Cyclic, rather than sequential, structures “do not tie the assembly visually to a text” but focus attention on the corporate action of receiving the body and blood of Christ together.
Please let me know what you think. Other suggestions are welcome.