Real Presence and Mission

By Brett Salkeld

This is the fourth and last in a series of posts, “Real Presence and…” . Earlier posts in the series are “Real Presence and Polarization,” “Real Presence and Ecumenism,” and “Real Presence and Idolatry.” 

It is a remarkable thing that the most common name that Catholics in the West use for our celebration of the Eucharist – “Mass” – is derived from the dismissal: Ite missa est. The key verb here, missa, means “to send.” At the end of the Mass we are sent forth, like missives. Or missiles. In calling it “Mass,” we are recognizing that the whole dynamic of our eucharistic celebration is ordered towards mission. As much as we might desire, like Peter, James, and John, to stay on the mountain of divine presence with Jesus, the Lord himself leads us down the mountain and back to the waiting world.

In Part 1 of this series, “Real Presence and Polarization,” we looked at St. Thomas Aquinas’s tripartite schema for thinking about the sacraments. In each sacrament, there is the sacramentum tantum, the symbol, the res et sacramentum, the thing and the symbol, and the res tantum, the thing itself. Contrary to what we might expect, given the centrality of Christ’s Real Eucharistic Presence in our Catholic faith, that presence is not the thing itself, the res tantum, but is, rather, the res et sacramentum. In other words, Christ’s Eucharistic Presence is not an end in itself, but points to something beyond itself.

Pope Francis has warned us against self-referentiality, against being a Church that looks only inward. To be truly Church, we must always look beyond the walls of the Church to the needs – material and spiritual – of the world around us. The liturgy is a good test case here. It is very easy for liturgy to become an end in itself. It is easy to remember that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian life, and forget that it is also the source for that life.

This mistake can take different forms. For some, the finer details of proper liturgical celebration can become almost an idol. I do not mean to say such details are unimportant. Almost anything that threatens to become an idol actually is important. But when some thing, good in itself, is taken out of context and its goodness is perceived out of proportion to other goods, it becomes an idol. If matters liturgical become an obsession without reference to mission, something is amiss.

Another form of this error, less obvious but probably more common, is that attitude which imagines that my mission as a lay person in the church is fulfilled by my liturgical role – reader, greeter, cantor, extraordinary minister of communion, etc. – at Mass. When lay participation in the Mass becomes a substitute for the laity’s irreplaceable role in the mission of the Church to the world, the whole Church’s witness is deeply compromised. This does not mean lay participation in the various ministries at Mass is itself wrong. Again, it is a question of right relationship and proportion. If such ministries enhance lay mission when the Mass is ended and we are sent forth, that is all to the good. If not, they need to be rethought.

Christ’s Eucharistic presence is a presence that feeds and transforms us. It is not an end in itself. Its end is to make us, more and more, into the body of Christ. That is what St. Thomas saw as the res tantum. But even that is not the end of the story. When we are transformed by our participation in the Eucharist – by receiving Christ, really present – we are prepared, like the bread on the altar and like Jesus on the Cross, to be taken, blessed, broken, and shared with a starving world.

The mission of the Church in which we share is cruciform, modelled on the mission of Jesus. This sacrificial mission is presented to us at each Eucharist. In the Mass, we put ourselves at God’s disposal. The New Testament makes clear that Jesus’s sacrifice was not merely his physical death, which it passes over with surprising brevity, but the conforming of his will to the Father’s. Gethsemane is as necessary as Calvary.

Bread has no trouble in conforming itself to God’s will and purpose. All that is needed is God’s creating and creative word, “This is my body.” It is harder for Jesus. Even without sin, his human nature naturally fears pain and death. Scripture is clear that Jesus’s struggle here was not trivial. There are drops of blood on his forehead well before the crown of thorns. For us sinners it is harder still. Indeed, we can only do it at all by joining ourselves to Jesus and his sacrifice. This is what happens, sacramentally, at Mass when we receive the bread which – unlike us – has offered no resistance to being transformed into Christ’s body.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, employs a strikingly contemporary metaphor from science:

The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).

The transformation of the bread and wine at Mass is like a catalyst for a chain reaction. It leads to the transformation of the Church into the body of Christ which, sent out, transforms the world. Jesus himself spoke similarly about yeast and dough.

Can I say something that is not tolerated in polite society? This process actually works! It is tempting to demur at this point and ask why, if Christians are supposed to transform the world, is it still such a mess? Why is the Church full of scandal? Why are the poor still trampled down? It is very easy to see the failures of the Church. It is even necessary. But, truth be told, the world is a better place because of the Church

Even at the purely material level, there is no comparable organization in history for improving human well-being, whether our metric is health care, education, or care for the poor. If one is tempted to point to the modern welfare state or international organizations like the Red Cross, it must be said that their animating ideals come from the Gospel. It is, in fact, telling that the Church fails not so much in comparison with other organizations (public schools and minor sports, e.g., are notorious for child sexual abuse), but with respect to its own standards. If the Church was too slow to condemn slavery outright, that is only because it might arguably have seen the implications of its own principles sooner, not because other religions and cultures were condemning the practice for centuries before the Church clued in.

Because God works through human freedom and not by coercion, God’s revolution is a slow one. Human revolutionaries don’t have God’s time. And so they do not find it hard to justify cures that are worse than the disease. They cannot wait on human freedom to come around. Scandal though it may be from our human perspective, God is content to let the tares grow with the wheat. And the seeds God plants in us at the Eucharist really do bear fruit in the world.

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