If you haven't noticed, the Scripture readings in recent weeks have been particularly apt for the times we're in, ecclesiologically speaking. There's a reason for that. The Scripture readings during the Easter Season have a single purpose: to help us see what the reality of the Risen Christ is all about. And what we hear, over and over again, particularly in the Gospels, is the assurance of presence. The promise of presence with His Church is made repeatedly and strongly by Christ. It's a good thing to remember in these days. More than good. Essential.
It's good to remember that our faith is in the enduring presence of Christ, not in weak and fallible human beings. It's a complicated thing, to be sure. But it's complicated in the same way that the Scriptures are complicated, and that the Incarnation itself is complicated: In both, God works within and through the world: through human experiences, memories and words, and through the limits of human flesh. We are regularly driven batty by the task we give ourselves of sorting out which is which - what's God's part, and what's the human part? The answer is always mysterious and most of the time, we are never quite certain of our answers. But that shouldn't surprise us. The fact that we're limited human beings with limited powers of understanding is one reason for our difficulty, but the other reason is simply the depths and intensity of the entwining of divine and human. It's sort of like trying to sort out our very own selves. Trying to figure out why you did something. Or didn't. Or, more fundamentally, when we reflect on who we are - body and spirit, it is not as easy as we think to tease the two apart. I didn't get much work done today. I am still fighting something - some little illness or allergy - and it has made me lethargic, especially mentally. So which is the problem - mind or body? But my mind is rooted in chemicals and nerves and electrons anyway, so...who am I, anyway?
It's our problem when trying to figure out the Church. Jesus promised to be with the Church. We call the Church the Body of Christ. But where is the Presence of Christ in the midst of a web of failure, sin and grave harm? Where is the Presence of Christ in a church on Sunday morning when the presiding priest or bishop has lied, and everyone knows he's lied? Where is the Presence of Christ in a church on Sunday morning when more members of the congregation that care to admit it have been subtlely complicit in harm done, by refusing to see potential harm in the innapropriate actions of a priest or religious educator or youth minister because that person was so charming or seemed so nice or built such a beautiful big church?
You probably know the answer already. Christ is present where He always has been: In Word and Sacrament. In Eucharist, there at the altar, inviting us to intimate friendship with him. Inviting us to be reconciled and to reconcile and to live in truth.
For too long now, we have succumbed to the lure of personality in our Church. Oh yes, there will always be the tempation, because people are people, and some people seem to speak more strongly to us of the presence of Christ than others. But the greatest saints - the real saints - will all tell you, as Paul does, that they are not the point. At all. The point is Christ within them. I daresay real saints would be appalled that they're canonized and would consider themselves the least worthy of all.
But we've succumbed, nonetheless. Part of it has been the changes in the liturgy which have given free reign to personalities - and I don't just mean presiders, I mean music ministers, lectors, greeters and eucharistic ministers. I remember being at one parish about ten years ago in which the practice was to introduce all these ministers at the beginning of Mass: "Our lectors today will be Sally Sanctimonious and Dan the Drama King..." As if it mattered.
It's also manifested itself in our emphasis on "community." On a false sense of community, I might add. Christian community is grounded in Christ, first, in our shared baptism, and secondly in our shared Eucharist. Communion. But of late, our sense of community has been, as you can tell from Catholic liturgical music, all about the big US. Our gifts, our talents, being special, being spectacular, being fabulous and phat. We've been obsessing about the externals, thinking that this was what Paul wanted us to do when he spoke of the gifts of the Spirit and the various tasks of the various parts of Christ's body. It's not. I'll go out on a big fat limb here and suggest that Paul could not imagine that his (literally) inspired metaphors of the Body would be used in way that would result in Catholics sitting around in parish meeting rooms with big sheets of newsprint posted to the walls, brainstorming about their gifts and talents, tearfully affirming the quality of each other's gifts and talents and then closing with a prayer in thanksgiving for their gifts and talents, followed by a song about their gifts and talents.
Somehow, I don't think that was the idea.
Oh, I'm wandering. Let's try to focus here. I could give other examples, and I'm sure you could to, but the point is that like it or not, over the past few decades, ordinary Catholics have been trapped, almost, into a spirituality which looks for God in other human beings in completely the wrong way. We're supposed to see Christ in others, as he said, in order to value, love and serve. We're not supposed to look for God in others as objects of veneration or inspiration. It's a subtle, but important difference. The latter stance does nothing but set us up for disappointment and worse. The former, however, opens us up to a profound and deeper experience because we are letting God be God, to work through us.
So when we wonder where Christ is present these days, it's good to remember that He's right where He's always been. In the Word. In Eucharist. In prayer. And in others, like Christ, broken and poor.
The reading I quoted above, today's second reading, is not on that theme. Oh well..but I thought it spoke to the times anyway. Pretty strongly, too. Peter calls Christians to defend ourselves, but in "gentleness and reverence" and to do so in a way in which our consciences will always be perfectly clear. Good words for bishops. Good words for all of us.