When I say that I am in the presence of someone, it seems clear what that means. If I am in the presence of my friend, it is apparent that we are in the same room, physically. But we can infer certain weaker kinds of presence. When we get a letter from a friend and read it, they are present to us. When we receive a phone call and hear their voice, they are present to us. When after their death, we imagine them to be with us, they are also in a sense present to us.
We talk about the Real Presence (notice the capitals!) of the Holy Eucharist. I remember a professor in the seminary challenging us by saying: does that mean that when I pray in the silence of my room, Jesus is not really present? The varied stages and levels of human presence are magnified when we consider the Divine Presence. We must consider this category of Presence since Jesus was both wholly God and wholly man.
God is first of all present in His Immensity. By that I mean: nothing would exist without God being present. So God is all around us and in us and in every atom of our body and soul. But He is also distinct from creation. To identify creation and God is the heresy of pantheism.
Jesus is present in this sense too, since He is the second person of the Blessed Trinity. So Jesus is present to us when, in the middle of the night, we turn to Him in prayer.
He is also present in all the Sacraments, since He is the true minister and giver of all the Sacraments. In Confession, Jesus forgives. In the Anointing of the Sick, Jesus heals. In Marriage, Jesus unites husband and wife.
But in the Holy Eucharist, something truly amazing happens. The Almighty uses the medium of food to make His presence physically real. While through the immensity of His Divinity Jesus is present everywhere, in the Eucharist He is present both in His divinity and in His humanity. The Eucharistic Presence of Christ is the closest one can come to the historical Jesus.
Even in this there are gradations, or better, intensifications of His Presence. The Church posits a difference between praying and adoring Him while the Eucharist is in the Tabernacle, and adoring Him when, in Exposition, the Eucharist is placed in a Monstrance (the word literally means ‘showing’). What is the difference? There is simply a further intensification of His Presence.
But that is not the end of this wondrous Sacrament and of the Sacrament’s intensification! As we process to the Altar at Mass to receive Communion, we make an act of Faith by saying ‘Amen’. Then Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, enters not just our souls but also our bodies. Even more intimately than the marriage bond, the Eucharistic bond unites us to Jesus completely Body and Soul, Humanity and Divinity. We are consumed by Him whom we consume!
This gradual intensification of Presence is a process that can only be approached by pure faith.
Now, this doctrine has had significant trouble throughout its history. Even while Jesus walked the earth before the glorification of the Resurrection and the Ascension, people could not accept the Real Presence of Jesus Himself in the Eucharist. Many of His own followers left Him as related in the sixth chapter of The Gospel of John. So many abandoned Him that He was left only with his closest friends: the 12 Apostles. Sadly, He looked at this meager remnant and asked: Will you leave me also? To which sturdy Peter responded: To Whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.
But it did not stop there. More recently in Christian history, many Protestant churches rejected this doctrine. They considered the Eucharist as merely a sign or a symbol. The great Catholic story teller Flannery O’Connor, when confronted by a group of lapsed Catholics who called the Eucharist merely a ‘sign’ of Christ’s presence, humorously voiced her chagrin with the remark: “Well, if it’s only a sign, to hell with it!” She was firmly grounded in Catholic teaching and would have nothing to do with watering down what Jesus clearly meant.
Without doubt, it is a doctrine of the faith that is very difficult to believe. But that does not mean it is not true. All of our faith is replete with mysteries difficult to believe: Three persons in One God; Jesus fully human and fully divine; Mary, Virgin and Mother. Christianity is not a religion that could ever be invented by human beings. It defies logic. But for those open to these realities, it makes deep mystical sense which is hard to explain to someone closed to the faith.
The Presence of Christ in our world is on many levels at once, and way beyond our powers of perception and understanding. The Cosmic Christ is omnipresent and yet deeply here and now with me at Mass and in Communion. It seems too good to be true. But it is. And that is the Good News!