Real Presence, or When is Jesus’ Presence Ever Not Real?

Real Presence, or When is Jesus’ Presence Ever Not Real? August 2, 2019
A sanctuary lamp occupies a prominent position in this church building.
Can the sanctuary lamp honor Jesus’ real presence in the world as well as in the tabernacle?

Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church, Part 10

I was walking through the vestibule of a local Lutheran church and peering into the sanctuary. (The word “sanctuary” means interestingly different things for Lutherans and Catholics; but see below for that.) As I was saying, I was walking, along with the church’s pastor, and peering, and I noticed a lighted sanctuary lamp. In Catholic churches that lamp signals the real presence of Christ in the tabernacle. I wondered what it meant in this Lutheran church. Lutherans don’t reserve Eucharistic elements, consecrated hosts, in a special place between liturgies.

I asked the pastor why that lamp was lit. He informed me—like I should have known—that it means God is present there. But I persisted, noting the difference in Catholic and Lutheran practice and belief. Those beliefs are not as different as I was taught ages ago. Lutherans have assured me that Jesus is really, not just symbolically, present in the Eucharistic celebration. We differ in that Catholics believe – and Lutherans do not – that Jesus’ presence continues in any Eucharistic elements that remain after the communion rite. The Lutheran pastor answered simply, “God is present everywhere.”

The sanctuary

That answer wasn’t immediately helpful, but it got me thinking about real presence. If God really is present everywhere, shouldn’t we have sanctuary lamps all over the place? Of course, that’s impossible. I suppose having one lamp perpetually lit in this one special place may be the Lutheran way of holding in mind and honoring God’s real presence everywhere else.

I went back to that Lutheran church to get another view of the sanctuary lamp. Without a tabernacle nearby, it seemed to be shining for the space where people gather. The Lutheran term for that whole space is “sanctuary.” Catholics call “sanctuary” the smaller space where the altar and tabernacle sit and the liturgical ministers perform their tasks. We call the space for the assembly of the people the “nave.” Such a plain term for such an important space! If my argument below has merit, we could adopt the Lutheran usage and be clearer about what real presence is.

Real presence

With the practice of reserving hosts in a tabernacle, Catholics have a concrete way of relating to different kinds of presence. But it’s a bit puzzling. We believe in a real presence of Jesus in that one special place and also in a presence that we don’t usually call real everywhere else.

The opposite of real is imaginary, but Jesus’ presence in the stranger and in the sunset surely isn’t imaginary or even merely symbolic. (Ironically, there seem to be a lot of Catholics who think Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is merely symbolic.) We need some different vocabulary as an alternative to “real,” “imaginary,” and “symbolic.”

The Body of Christ

Or some older vocabulary. William T. Cavanaugh (see this post) explains a switch in the way Catholics have spoken of the Body of Christ in the Church and in the Eucharist. Following Paul, the Church has always thought of her members as parts of the Body of Christ. On the same theme Pope Pius XII wrote the encyclical “The Mystical Body of Christ” my early favorite image of the Church. But Paul didn’t use the term “mystical.” “Mystical Body,” in Church history, originally referred to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist! How did we get from Eucharistic “Mystical Body” to Eucharistic “Real Presence”?

According to Henri de Lubac’s research, which Cavanaugh follows, in the 12th century the Eucharist became “Corpus Verum,” the True Body of Christ. Then Catholics needed a new term for the Church, and “mystical” was newly available. The Church became the “Mystical Body of Christ.”

The Church has a visible, institutional body, of course. At least as my young self imagined it, there had to be something else there—hidden, invisible, interior—the mystical body of Christ. And I loved that image from Pius XII’s encyclical.

Cavanaugh advocates going back to the original usage. The Church, with its people and their visible structure, practices, doctrines, is Christ’s True Body in the world. Jesus is not there like a reality over, under, or inside the visible forms that we see. True bodies are those visible things. But in the Eucharist we do describe Jesus’ presence as in or under the forms of bread and wine and in the sharing of a meal. That’s the kind of presence that a mystical body would have. We just might want to begin saying, once again, the Eucharist is the Mystical Body of Christ.

Levels of realness

The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is real, as real as God’s mysterious activity. But Catholic piety sometimes pays more attention to the physical elements of the Eucharist, especially the consecrated host, than to the Eucharist as an action of the Church with Christ. (The Blessed Sacrament and its cult, or worship, will be the subject of a later post.) So when we think of real presence, we imagine Jesus being present in the same way as a physical thing is present. Before it was bread standing before us. Now it’s Jesus, hidden, but standing before us just as the bread was doing before. That’s a real presence, alright, but is it real enough for the Eucharist?

One of the things I love about the Catholic Church is the positive attention she pays to the world of matter. This world is not a place to get through on our way to somewhere else. It’s a creation that God loves for its own sake. It praises God in its own unique way, and it enters into the Church’s praises, especially in the sacraments. But it’s a created world, not a self-standing one. It owes its reality to Another. That, in fact, is its glory, but it’s a glory that it must attribute to God. God is the “really real,” who has reality naturally, not by gift.

Catholic theology speaks of uncreated grace, grace that is identical with the uncreated God. The grace of the Eucharist, as of all the sacraments, is like that. So when we celebrate a sacrament, we are in the presence of the One who is more real than we can imagine, the source of all reality.

Mystical presence

I don’t think we can immediately dispense with the phrase “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. But we should be clear that “real presence” also applies to Jesus in the poor, in the People of God, in nature. We should begin to imagine the sanctuary lamp shining to honor that presence in the world, a world to which Jesus in the form of bread wants to go as viaticum and food for the sick.

I suggest two vocabulary changes. We could begin referring to Jesus’ “mystical presence” in the sacraments—a super-real kind of presence. We could also upgrade what we call the nave to the status of sanctuary, holy place. Let the sanctuary lamp’s light shine out from the tabernacle to the entire gathering place of the holy People of God. Let the people imagine the light of the sanctuary going on and on to the farthest reaches of God’s real presence in the world.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons via Google Images

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ame

    If real is to pertain to that which has substance in the physical or metaphysical world, then yes, imaginary could be it’s opposite in that it would then pertain to nonmaterial perceptions and exercises of the mind that visually resemble in our minds the things that are real. Even so, if real is to the true form of something, then fake, the imposter form, would be the more accurate opposite. But I think in the Church real takes on another meaning: the actual substance. The Eucharist is the transubstantial presence of Christ. Though He is present in a variety of ways to us, all of them “real;” as Eucharist, it’s His own Body present to us as food, although veiled in the image and accident of bread.

  • John M. Hudson

    I guess it depends on the Lutheran. 1st, sometimes the Sacrament is reserved, even if it is not reserved in order to be adored. Laity can be commissioned to carry the reserved Sacrament to the sick, in which case it should be reserved for them; but if a pastor visits a sick person, the pastor likely will do the full Communion order then and there. 2nd, I differ on the sanctuary lamp: If there is no tabernacle for reservation, or if there is no sacrament reserved, then there should be no lamp or there should be no lamp left lighted. 3rd, most if not all Lutherans in my area refer to the worship space as a nave; we call the area on either side of the altar rail the chancel; I really don’t hear “sanctuary.” 4th, God is indeed everywhere, but I as a confessing Lutheran believe that God promises his presence “in, with and under” the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar, and I believe that God in Christ is present in the species whether one believes it is so or not, because that is the promise. This objective truth must be so in order that we may trust his forgiveness. Talk to some other Lutherans — Lutherans who have read their confessions and believe them.

  • Peg Gawne-Mark

    Jews also have a sanctuary lamp. I remember being in a synagogue in Venice and being struck by that. A Shepardic Jew next to me commented, “Where did you think you got it from?”

  • fritzpatrick

    That’s interesting.

  • fritzpatrick

    Thanks for the reply. I didn’t know the first and third points. I have heard Lutherans refer to the whole gathering space as the sanctuary, though. I like that usage. Point #4 — Yes! Although Catholics would specify: “in, with and under” the FORM of bread and wine. I don’t know that that needs to be a church-dividing difference.

  • fritzpatrick

    I appreciate the “substance” part. Although it’s hard to think what Jesus’ “real” presence outside the Eucharist would be if not substantial. What other word would suffice? Also Jesus is really present in the proclamation of the word. Is that a substantial presence. Years ago I would have said No, but what else would it be?

  • Ame

    Oh, we do need to be careful to remember to use substantial, regarding the Eucharist or the consubstantial relationship of the Persons of the Trinity, in terms of its classical understanding of relating to the substance of a thing, not to be synonymous with words relating the degree of importance or the amount of something.

    We’ll, Jesus IS the Word, and we can only echo Him through our spoken proclamation and the text of the Bible. Our speaking and the written words themselves are just a transmitter of the Word, translating Him to all peoples through all languages. He is not present in what we say or write, He is present in our hearing Him. It’s a great mystery.