In my last talk I spoke about memory and its significance to our sense of identity as Christians. Today I am going to talk about ‘the now’, the present. Actually I want to talk about ‘Presence’, about ‘being present’.
You may be aware that there has been something of a controversy about Presence within the tradition of the Eucharist. In the 16th century, what you believed about bread and wine and the doctrine of Real Presence could get you killed. The teaching that Christ is fully and really present in the elements, that his body, his blood, his full humanity and full divinity are expressed by and mingled with the material of the bread and the wine was not a matter of mere intellectual dispute. What you said about it in public, whether in support or denial of it, could be enough to sign your death warrant, depending upon who was in power at the time
Sadly there isn’t time to rehearse the arguments about symbol and metaphor, memory, transubstantiation, consubstantiation and so on (I know many of you will be disappointed about that). I want instead to think about how we, in the here and now, might be present to God, how God might be present to us, we to each other and indeed, to ourselves.
Let me begin with the latter and work backwards. What do I mean by being ‘present to ourselves’? How could we not be? Quite easily, as it happens. Think of a time when someone has said - “You’re not yourself today.” You might be worried about something that’s going to happen. Your mind is leaping ahead, anticipating some threat, some danger. Or you have had a traumatic experience which makes it difficult to live in the present because your memory is overwhelmed. Things that we’ve done that we wish we hadn’t, things our conscience troubles us with - these also make us ‘not present to ourselves’ - to our true selves at any rate. This thought suggests to me that Presence is actually about wholeness - the integrity of the whole. We know there are many levels to our sense of ourselves. Yet we are not just the sum of our parts. We need the parts to be integrated into something more. It is difficult for this to happen, or at least to happen quickly. We need to be shaped - to be shaped by God into his image, through prayer, through loving service, through worship, through generous community living. Our own integration, then, our own wholeness, is never our own achievement.
Being present, therefore, involves ‘encounter’ - encounter between the different parts of ourselves, but also encounter with each other, with others. We can choose to make that encounter a positive one by being open, generous with ourselves in self-giving, vulnerable to the other - these are all things that create trust. Or we can turn the encounter into a negative one by rejecting the other, by an insistence on having our own way - in other words by exercising power. If we do that, we are not fully present to our neighbour and neither are we truly present to ourselves. Being present to others, building community, enabling the community to be whole and integrated - let’s call this ‘fellowship’ - turns out to be deeply connected to our own wholeness.
We might start to see now that God being present to us, here as we are, is not really about the chemistry of bread, wine and the divine. God has given us, his creatures, the material world and as its creator he may choose to be present in it in any way he wishes. We do not make him present by performing particular rituals, but he may choose to reveal himself in bread and wine, just as he may reveal himself in a poem, or a landscape or the smile of a child.
In taking part in the Eucharist - in giving and receiving the bread and the wine - we are showing our willingness to let God encounter us - the God who encounters us in his brokenness, his vulnerability, his openness, his loving generosity. Our wholeness is completed by sharing in that vulnerability, in sharing the brokenness, by being broken, in fact, so that something new, something deeper may emerge - a self which takes its wholeness from God himself.
A final thought - if God makes himself present to us in this way, are we somehow necessary to God? Does he need us to be present to him in order that he himself may be whole and integrated? Well, God is God - he doesn’t need us but he has chosen, as a gesture of infinite love, that we should indeed be joined with him, directly, face to face and fully integrated with him. As the writer of John’s first letter says:”What we do know is this - when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” This is the destiny to which you as children of God are called and this is the destiny which is anticipated and enacted in the Eucharistic feast.
Face to face with God, being like him. The Eucharist radiates back into normal life from this perspective. Once you truly see this and understand it, ‘normal life’ is never the same again.
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