The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in our life: Pentecost Letter 2005
Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
We need his presence...
There are times in our lives when we do not wish to be alone.
One of these times is at the end of the day, as the sun is setting. We try to avoid facing the prospect of spending the night on our own. If we are out with friends, we seek to prolong that time. If we are home alone, we might phone or message someone to say: “What are you doing tonight?”
Another such time is when we are grieving. The passing of Pope John Paul II was a time like this. Instinctively, many came together to share the burden of grief with others. They were drawn to the Cathedral, and to parish churches around Melbourne. It is not good to be alone in grief.
In one of the last letters he wrote to the Church, Mane Nobiscum Domine, John Paul highlighted the Gospel story of two lonely, grieving disciples (Luke 24:13-35). They were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus on the Sunday after Jesus’ death. Unexpectedly, they found themselves in the company of a Stranger who listened to them and spoke with them about the Scriptures. It was almost night when they reached their destination, so they pressed this Stranger into staying with them. But when they sat down to eat, it was he who “took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them”. In that instant, they knew that the Stranger was Jesus himself. They were not alone.
Who is present?
In the Holy Eucharist – the “Breaking of Bread” – Jesus does not leave us alone. He knows our need for friendship, companionship and intimacy, and so he comes to us and stays with us.
Who is this Jesus who stays with us in the Eucharist? Is it a different Jesus from the one who took human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary at Christmas? Is it a different Jesus than the one who died a real death on Good Friday? Is it a different Jesus from the one who rose bodily from the tomb at Easter and who returned to the right hand of the Father at the Ascension? No, it is the very same Jesus, with us now just as he was with Mary and the apostles that first Easter Sunday.
Is he really present?
It is not easy to look at the bread and the chalice of wine and believe that this is Jesus present with us. Christians have always faced the problem of believing without seeing (John 20:24-29). God uses hidden ways to reveal himself to us. Even those who saw Jesus during his earthly ministry saw only a man. It took faith, like the faith of Peter, to say “You are the Messiah, the Son of God”.
Jesus’ presence with us in the Eucharist is also hidden. It takes faith to believe what Jesus said: “This is my body given for you”, “This is my blood shed for you”. It takes faith to believe what the Church teaches: “The consecration of the bread and wine effects the change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.”
Jesus himself gives you the faith to see what your eyes cannot. In baptism and confirmation his Spirit sets your heart on fire. The teaching of Scripture fans your faith into brightness. The burning love of Jesus draws you to the sacrament of reconciliation. There you confess your sins and open your heart to receive Jesus. With such preparation, you will recognise Jesus in the Eucharist.
So we know where to look if we want to be with him: we look where his Body is. As to the Emmaus disciples, Jesus makes himself known to us “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), wherever “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt 18:20). So Jesus is present for us in that special gathering of his friends and companions which we call the Church. The Church too is his Body, brought into being in and through the Eucharist, formed and nourished by his Body, the gift of his own true presence.
Present through sacrifice...
There is no friendship or companionship which does not involve sacrifice. Just being with someone who needs our presence requires that we sacrifice our own priorities and give attention to their needs.
Jesus is present for us in the Eucharist through his sacrifice. His Body had to be broken on the Cross before it could be broken on the altar. His Blood had to be shed at the Cross before it could be shed at the altar. In the Eucharist, Jesus’ own sacrifice is repeated – not in the sense that he is crucified all over again – but in the sense that his sacrificed body and blood is made present with us here and now.
Jesus invites us to be joined to his sacrifice, making a gift of ourselves to God and to others, just as he did. This is only possible because Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. Saint Augustine says: “If you are his body and members of him, then you will find set on the Lord’s table your own mystery.” United to Jesus, the Eucharist simultaneously becomes our offering of praise to God, and the giving of ourselves to the world. Through us, Jesus brings his presence to the whole of humanity in its loneliness and grief. Why is he present?
Anything less than this “real presence” would not satisfy the yearning emptiness in our human hearts. When we are grieving or lonely, we don’t want to hear someone say “My thoughts are with you”. We want them to be right here in the room with us, to listen to us and speak with us, to comfort us and to encourage us. We can only touch and hold a real body that is really present.
Jesus gives us that. The Eucharist is Jesus two thousand years ago, Jesus in heaven, Jesus who will come again – yes, all of this: but above all it is Jesus here. It is Jesus now. It is Jesus, God and man, body and soul.
Jesus desires your presence as much as you need his. “Come to me,” he says, “all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus because he knew their need. Only his presence could fill that need.
Jesus is in the Eucharist for you. He is waiting for you on the altars and in the tabernacles of every Catholic Church. You can come to receive him at Mass, where he calls you to be present with him among his people. You can come alone at any time to kneel before his body reserved in the tabernacle. There, in silence and stillness, he will speak to your heart. Or you can gather to adore him with friends by singing and praying together in his presence. You do not have to bear your burdens alone.
Present on the road...
The road leading to the Eucharist is a two-way road. The disciples walked to Emmaus – and Jesus was with them. The disciples ran back to Jerusalem along the same road – and Jesus got there before them (Luke 24:34). Jesus walks with us in our lives, leading us to the altar where he will break bread with us. When we have learnt to recognise his presence in the ‘breaking of the bread’, he leads us out into the world again (“Go in peace to love and serve Lord”) so that we may learn to recognise him waiting for us in the people we encounter on the road.
In his Letter for the Year of the Eucharist, Pope John Paul II described the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as “magnetic”! (MND. 18) It is a presence so strong that it draws our lives individually, and humanity as a whole, into its orbit. We go out from the Eucharist to serve Jesus in the world, but he always draws us back again.
He is with us always. We are never alone. “Stay with us, Lord Jesus.”
+ Denis J. Hart,
Archbishop of Melbourne