Over the centuries, there has been a lot of ink spilled (and not a little blood) over the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (also known as the Mass, Communion, the Lord’s Supper). Particularly between the Roman Catholic Church and Reformational Protestantism, there has been much debate and division over whether Christ is merely symbolically present, or physically present in some material fashion, or spiritually present.
The controversy has often centered on what happens to the bread and the wine, if anything. Does it change in a physical and material way, in a metaphysical way, in a mystical way, or in its spiritual characterization from common to holy, ordinary to consecrated? I don’t really care to delve into the weeds here. (I seem to hear a large collective sigh of relief…)
One of the most helpful articulations I have heard is from a Catholic by the name of Michael Lawler. His explanation gives me more to reflect upon, more to engage, more to seek. In short, his explanation helps me to feed spiritually on Christ in a much more devotional and robust manner. The gist of his argument is that Christ’s presence is a PERSONAL presence when He is received by faith. The only real presence of lasting worth is interpersonal presence, the presence of persons actively interacting with each other. Think relationship.
But in any relationship, we can be truly present to each other, or truly absent. We can go through motions of relationship with our hearts fully engaged (real presence) or we can go through the same motions with our hearts detached and distant, and a nice thick invisible dividing wall between us (we could call that a real absence). The outer trappings may be the same, but the relationship between the persons is qualitatively and substantially different.
Lawler uses the example of making love (not meaning sex, but rather those behaviors, actions, and signs that both reflect love and make it tangible, manifest, real). Holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes, kisses, hugs and such are meant to communicate a gift of one person to another, of mutually reciprocating “I am yours and you are mine.” Such things “make love.” But again, you can go through those motions and yet be detached, or selfish, or deceptive. The gestures are signs that communicate an objective love – it can be readily observed by those engaged in these rituals of love-making, as well as by those around them. But the love does not become personally present until both persons truly offer themselves and their love and receive the same back from the other.
In the sacrament it is the same. Christ is objectively present in the Eucharist in that he truly offers himself, his love, his fellowship. The faith of the Church does not make this objective presence out of non-presence. Lawler states instead that the faith of the church draws the objective presence of Christ into personal presence, where we are his and he is ours. The Eucharist moves ever towards the mystical union of Christ and his Church.
Now, speaking of a real absence….where did I put my coffee?