The mystery of the presence of Christ

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings: – Our story this week is about the recognition of the risen Lord, and how Christians right from the beginning have done, or in many cases failed, to do this. Our Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) continues the account of New Testament failures to see what is before one’s very eyes; something so unexpected, even so familiar, that our senses refuse to recognise the truth of our experience. Quite clearly, in this account from Luke, the risen Jesus went to considerable lengths to help his distressed followers to see the truth. He met them on the Emmaus road; the one they knew, but literally didn’t see. He argued the case for his passion and death and resurrection by way of Jewish prophetic history, but all to no avail, and it was not until he took the bread of the evening meal and did something quite out of the normal with it that the penny dropped. Now we know that Jews did thank God before meals for their food, but what Jesus did with it was precisely what he had done at the Last Supper at the Passover meal, when he had commanded his disciples to “Do this in anamnesis of me.” They recognised him in the breaking of bread.

The two disciples told their colleagues that once they had recognised the risen Lord he had vanished from their sight. Clearly then the risen Jesus is not to be held onto, confined by our needs or expectations. After all, think for a moment the power the disciples and the Church could have had if this had been the case. They would have used Jesus as a weapon, compelling belief, commanding faith and understanding, so that our acceptance of God in Christ would become a tyranny instead of a gift and a grace in which we participate through faith.

So we of the Christian faith are left with his command and the Eucharist, his Real and Bodily presence among us, given for our belief and worship, but forever shrouded in mystery.  Here the Risen Lord is, touchable, eatable, given for worship, but elusive, and in the hands of manipulators utterly meaningless.  It will forever be what the believer truly recognises the sacrament to be, Jesus’ body in my hands, in my body, in my sight for prayer and adoration. Just as in his earthly life he was derided and scorned by some, but by others loved and honoured, so here too the objective reality of his risen presence involves us, and whilst our response is continually invited, it is never demanded. It is when we are truly receptive to the sacrament and most involved with its mystery and grace that he really enters into conversation with us in thought, in consciousness. Our receptivity, our willingness to appreciate what his presence means, is essential.

Our reading from Acts (2:14, 22-33) shows that this was always the case. At Pentecost, the feast of the first spring harvest, Peter reminded the people that they actually knew the identity of Jesus before by his miracles, but rejected and killed him, totally failing to understand that the scriptures had already spoken about him. Peter uses part of Psalm (16:8-11) as the way into his teaching, and reminds them that the line of Davidic kings that it had originally spoken of, and which they had expected to live forever, was dead and finished. It did however, as he said, reinterpreting the scriptures, live on in Christ, born into the House of David through Joseph.  It is this effort to understand, to engage with the scriptures and the events of the Jewish story and the Holy Week message, which is so essential. We, all of us, from the first witnesses to the resurrection and down through the ages, are invited to wrestle with these events and these writings. They are not flat sheets, nor are they as it were set in stone. They are events in which we too, like the first witnesses, are involved whether we meet him on the Emmaus road or at the tomb in the garden or on the train to London or elsewhere. Above all, it is when we meet the risen Lord in the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament and RECOGNISE HIM that his impact on us will be most marked.

Our readings from the Petrine Letters, (1Pet 1:17-21) are graphic images of the complete turn-about Jesus wrought in the lives of converts from paganism, and the call Peter made for them to transform their lives into icons of Christ. Note too, how he uses specifically Eucharistic language to speak of that change, as he speaks of their ransoming “In the precious blood of a lamb without spot or stain, namely Christ.” He goes on to point out how this Christ is now revealed in our times, the end of the ages. We too are inheritors of the Kingdom with them.

Just how did those early Christians grab hold of the power of Jesus risen and present with them? Recent historical and archaeological work has looked into how it was that Roman Emperor’s held power over, and fascinated, far flung provincials, ensuring their loyalty. These people believed that the Emperor’s portrait on coin, in statues and pictures, and in temples, theatres and courts were in fact a ‘real-presence’ of the emperor with them, even though he was miles away in Rome or at war. Attempts to abuse the imperial image were severely dealt with and cities, towns and villages would write to the Emperor of their festivals in his honour and appeal to him on matters of very local interest just as though he were there. I just wonder from this if it was easier for these ancient peoples to understand the Real Presence among them of the Lord in the Eucharist than it is for us, who have to work at new ways of actualising what for many may have become a lost language in a world so devoid of corporate living.

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