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Constant presence

Gospel Commentary May 24, Mt 28:16-20

Trying to understand the feast of the Ascension and its importance in our lives of faith can be difficult. Today we see Christ return to heaven, out of our sight. Having finished his earthly mission, he promises he will be with us to the end of the age, and that’s that. It can seem like too neat an ending. Christ promises he’ll be in our hearts, and now it’s our job to be good Christians. Yet, if we understand the Ascension as the ancient Christians did, we find riches of meaning.

Pope Leo the Great remarks that after the Ascension, “what was visible of the Lord has passed into the sacraments.” He explains that in passing out of our sight into the sacraments of the church, Christ is fulfilling his promise to be with us forever. When we hear this, we immediately think of the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. This is certainly a good response, but while the Blessed Sacrament is a unique and preeminent manner in which Christ is sacramentally present, we miss something important if our meditation ends there. 

Particularly in these days, when we have not been able to receive Communion the way we normally would, we must understand the truth of Christ’s sacramental presence after the Ascension in as complete a way as possible. If our sense of his presence is limited to the reception of Communion and access to Mass, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that in times of quarantine, he has allowed us, his church, to be abandoned, or that he has somehow allowed our leaders to deprive us of grace. Neither of these is an acceptable conclusion, and the truth of the faith does not let us believe such horrible things. 

So, what is the whole truth? How is Christ present to us?

First, we want to affirm that Christ, as God, is omnipresent in the way that God is already omnipresent. St. Gregory the Great teaches us that God is everywhere in three ways: in power, in knowledge and in essence. God is always and everywhere enacting his will, all things are present to his mind more than they are present to themselves, and he holds everything together in existence as the source of their being. Even prior to the sacraments, this is true. 

From the level of nature, we then consider how Christ is present to us sacramentally. While Our Lord is really present among us in the Eucharist, body, blood, soul and divinity, this is not the only way he is sacramentally with us.

The ancient Christians certainly believed in the Eucharist, yet their piety centered on a different means of his presence, namely, baptism. Those who are baptized have been joined to the body of Christ as one living thing, the church, with Jesus the head. St. Augustine reminds us that this union is so close that when Christ speaks, God the Father hears the voice of the church, and when a baptized Christian in grace speaks, he hears the voice of Jesus, his Son. This presence of Jesus living within us in the church by baptism is not mere poetry or a nice spiritual reflection, but a concrete fact and reality at the heart of our faith. Christ is with us to the end of the age, because his presence now lives in his body the church, because he has chosen to make us one living thing with himself, and, as St. Peter writes, “partakers in the divine nature.”

Celebrating the feast when Christ passes into the presence of the Father and passes glory on to all of us in his body, let’s take courage, and remember how abundantly he loves and provides for us, never leaving us without his constant presence.

Fr. Rampino is chaplain at Marymount University in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020