Step by step: From the parking lot to the altar
As we proceed from the outdoors to the sanctuary, from the business of the week to the Sacred Liturgy on Sunday, the presence of Christ gradually intensifies until we greet him at the altar. And from the sanctuary, we are then sent out into the world to sanctify it and claim it of Christ. We do all of this with the knowledge that the universe, like our human bodies, will be transformed into the likeness of Christ's glorified body. As the Catholic Catechism states: “At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed.” (#1042)
In the meantime, the presence of Christ intensifies with each of the following phases: 1. God is present everywhere. 2. Christ is present in his body, the Church as they gather before the altar. 3. Christ is then present in this spoken Word. 4. Christ is present, in yet another way, that is, in his priestly minister as the words of consecration are spoken. 5. Christ's presence peaks, if you will, in the Eucharist. 6. Not only spiritually but Christ is then sacramentally present- body, blood, soul and divinity -in the Christian who stands before the altar. 7. Not only will the faithful Christian inherit a resurrected body from this gradation of Christ's presence, but a new and transfigured universe will come about as well. Indeed, it was a common teaching among the Church Fathers and early Christians that the world was created for the Church; that is, for the elect who, throughout the course of world history, would be saved by the saving merits of Christ.
God is everywhere:
To begin with, we know, as Christians, that God is everywhere in the universe. Psalm 139 reads, “Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too.” The might of the Lord sustains all things. Indeed, no part of the universe can exist without his presence.
The body of believers:
But as soon as we walk through the doors of the church building and into the sanctuary for the Sacred Liturgy, what we encounter is the gradual intensification of Christ’s presence. In the assembly, where the faithful gather, the presence of Christ is manifest in a special way. We are no longer considering God’s presence as he exists in creation but rather as he dwells in the hearts of his people. This presence is described as the Church or the Body of Christ by St. Paul. Our Lord himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The early Christians had a lively sense of this divine presence in the Church where the totality of believers is to be found and where the fullness of his gifts and revelation resides. Around the year 180 A.D., St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr, wrote: “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace."
The Spoken Word:
From the assembly we proceed to the Liturgy of the Word where the Word of God is proclaimed. When the Scripture readings are read aloud, the presence of God is taken to yet another level. Ancient Christians always made it a point to read Scripture out loud. For instance, St. Philip overheard the Ethiopian Eunuch, a court official of Candace, reading the book of Isaiah as he was traveling (Acts 8:30). The ancient belief is that when the Word of God is spoken, God himself becomes present and active. Here again, this is yet another special manifestation of his presence. It gives birth to faith. As St. Paul said, “Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” When the Word is proclaimed- not just read –grace does a special work; it pierces the soul. “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Persona Christi and the Eucharist:
Now we draw close to the culmination of the Mass when, in Persona Christi, Jesus Christ, the High Priest, mystically enters into his minister as the words of consecration are pronounced over the bread and wine. It is he who proclaims the Word through the priest. From this, another manifestation of divine presence is transmitted through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Through Persona Christi, ordinary bread and wine become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. His Incarnation is extended into our very midst so that the children of God contain, within themselves, seeds of resurrection. As St. Irenaeus said, “Just as bread from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, made up of two elements, one earthly and one heavenly, so also our bodies, in receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, for they have the hope of resurrection.” The Eucharist, therefore, is given to the Christian on the altar as Manna was given to the Israelites in the desert. Upon this altar- and only at the altar –is the bread of God is served. As St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of St. John the Apostle and Bishop of Antioch, referred to the bread of God as the “medicine of immortality.”
Christians as Tabernacles:
Before the altar the communicant receives the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. By virtue of our Sacramental Communion with Christ, we are made into walking tabernacles, Christ-bearers, if you will. In the sanctuary, we glorify God in our bodies, to use St. Paul’s words. We are then are sent out into the world to sanctify it.
The Transformation of the World:
As Pope Benedict XVI taught in 2005 at World Youth Day, the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus Christ prefigures the kind of change that God will bring about in our resurrected bodies. He said,
“By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence, from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).”
Every time a Catholic receives the Eucharist in faith and in love, he or she is participates in a cosmic transformative process. But God so ordained that before he renews the universe, we must allow him to renew our souls first.