Project Canterbury Six Sermons to Men Preached in St. Ignatius' Church
New York City
During Lent, 1888. By the Rev. Arthur Ritchie New York: American Bank Note Co., 1888.
FOURTH SERMON. THE REAL PRESENCE. ST. JOHN vi. 53.
"Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you."
I suppose that devout men in all ages of the world have longed for some visible manifestation of God. It is more than probable that this longing first moved men to idolatry; their religious instinct not being satisfied with a purely imaginative conception of God they made for themselves symbols of deity, which in a little while came to be looked upon as representations of deity. It is not wrong that man should thus crave a manifestation of God, but when he answers that craving in his own way, without waiting for God to declare Himself, he becomes an idolater. The great law-giver of the Hebrews, Moses, longed to behold the face of God; he cried to God, "I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory." God replied, "Thou canst not see my face for there shall no man see me and live."
Nevertheless God did give to His servant a wonderful and mysterious revelation of His glory. And to the Hebrew nation at large, He also revealed Himself in the visible appearance of cloud and fire. The Hebrews had a special word for the cloudy or fiery manifestation of the Divine Presence; they called it "Shechinah," the glory of the Lord.
1. The first apparent reference to the Shechinah is in Genesis, just after Adam and his wife had been driven out of Paradise; the words are, "He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." This flaming sword between the cherubim was probably the Shechinah.
2. The next most remarkable allusion to the Shechinah is found in the story of the Burning Bush which Moses saw in the wilderness, for the fire which burned in the bush but did not consume it was supernatural, and it made the place "holy ground," so that Moses was commanded to put off his shoes from off his feet, and not to draw very near to the Bush.
3. Then we may think of the Pillar of Fire and of the Cloud, of Fire by night and of Cloud by day which went before Israel on all their journeyings; this also was the Shechinah.
4. When they came to Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness, the cloud covered the mountain while at the summit it seemed to burn with marvellously bright fire.
5. After the Tabernacle had been set up, God was wont to come down upon it to give audience to Moses in the sight of all the people, in the appearance of the Cloud, which covered the Tabernacle. A notable instance of this revelation of God's Presence occurs in the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; for when all the people were gathered together about the matter of the rebellion of those men "the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the congregation."
6. Once more, when Solomon came, with all Israel, to dedicate the great Temple of the Lord which had been built at Jerusalem, we are told that "the Cloud filled the House of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the Cloud: for the Glory of the Lord had filled the House of the Lord." This was the Shechinah, or manifestation of God's Presence.
7. But the permanent abiding place of the sacred Presence, the Shechinah, was in the Most Holy Place of the Temple. For by God's command, as you know, the Tabernacle (afterward the Temple) was made to consist of three parts, the Court, the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. In the Court stood the Laver, corresponding to the Holy Water Stoup in the Christian Church, and the great bronze Altar of sacrifice; in the Holy Place stood the golden Altar of Incense, the golden Candlestick, and the Table of Shew-bread; but in the Most Holy Place, into which only the High Priest might enter, and he only once a year, stood the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the two tables of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written, and over the Ark the golden throne, called the Mercy Seat, which was overshadowed by two Cherubim of gold, whose wings met above it. This Mercy Seat was the central point of all the glory and holiness of the Temple, for on it the Shechinah rested; and God warns Aaron not to come at all times into the Most Holy Place lest he die, "for I will appear in the Cloud upon the Mercy Seat."
Thus we see that the Jews were given in a very real sort of way a manifestation of God's Presence. To be sure they could not behold the Shechinah in the Temple themselves, but they knew It was there for the High Priest beheld It once every year.
But because of their sins the glory of the Lord departed from the House of the Lord, and the Jewish writers agree that the second Temple was not honored by the presence of the Shechinah. Still they believed that when the Messiah came the Shechinah would return and so that word of the Prophet Haggai be fulfilled "The glory of the latter house shall be greater than of the former."
When therefore the holy ones who waited for the coming of the Lord Christ, as Simeon and Anna in the Temple, beheld the Holy Child Jesus, brought in by His Mother to be presented to the Lord; they felt that Haggai's words were fulfilled, that the Lord Himself had come to His Temple, and that the Shechinah was more gloriously restored than ever. Well might holy Simeon believing all this sing his Nunc Dimittis:
"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,
According to Thy word:
For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation."
Believing as we do the truth of the Incarnation, that our Lord Christ is indeed God manifest in the flesh, we feel that human nature now has the Shechinah in the most true and perfect sense. Yet perhaps there is a little feeling of unreality about it all, merely looked at after that fashion; for after the people of Israel had been unspeakably blest by having among them, dwelling most familiarly in their midst, the eternal God in human flesh; the heavenly Visitor suddenly ascends up in the air, and to the wondering gaze of His friends mounts up higher and higher until a cloud receives Him out of their sight; the Shechinah came in Its perfection, abode in the tabernacle of this earth for three and thirty years, and then returned to heaven not to come again until the last great day. Is this true? It is and it is not.
See what a wonderful fact underlies this superficial fact I have just rehearsed to you. Is it not a most extraordinary thing that so soon as our Lord's Apostles had seen Him disappear in the sky, and had been told by the two Angels who came down to them after He had ascended that He should not return until the end of the world, it is added of them, "They returned to Jerusalem with great joy?" Had they then no sense of bereavement, no feeling that the Shechinah had departed from the world? Evidently not, for their eyes were now opened to the fact that beneath this mere physical world there lies a spiritual world, the truest world of all, in which the limitations of time and space and material apprehensions disappear, and the soul walks about amid holy Angels and all celestial surroundings. Now they could appreciate the fact that our Lord had removed from their senses His natural Presence, that He might give them in its place His far more wonderful supernatural Presence. Therefore also He said as He left them, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." In some very real sense the Shechinah must remain in the world, for there is no explanation of the Apostles' gladness at our Lord's Ascension on any other hypothesis; no intelligible meaning to be attached to His parting words, "Lo, I am with you alway;" and no satisfaction of our belief in God's consistent dealing with His people, that having given them the Shechinah so long He should now take It away from them altogether.
It was not hard for the Apostles and early Christians to find out in what manner, and under what glorious excellence our Lord still abode in His Church, for they could not forget those strange, solemn words which He had uttered over the bread and wine, after the Passover Supper of the night before He died; "This is my Body, This is my Blood." Taking those words in simple faith they understood that their Lord still remained in His Church under a far more wonderful, but not less real manifestation, and they found in the Eucharist the true Shechinah, an abiding Presence of the Lord in His sanctuary not less worthy of a Nunc Dimittis than was that glory which aged Simeon saw. When I come to speak to you upon this marvellous mystery, this unique glory of the Catholic religion, I hardly know how to begin, for who is adequate to depict all the unearthly excellence which belongs to the Holy Eucharist?
Let me say, first of all, that the Catholic believes our Lord to have said exactly what He meant, and to have known in what sense the great majority of the Christian world would take His words. It is surely reasonable to suppose that when He said of that which to the eyes of His Apostles was bread "This is my Body," His own excellent power had caused His Body to be present, under the outward form of bread. At once our incredulity springs up and cries, Did He then present in the Body hold with His hand His own Body? Why not? Because His Body is but one not two. It was there, whole and entire, like the bodies of the rest, evident to their senses; how could It be also there, whole and entire, unlike any other human Body, veiled in the form of a piece of bread? I reply to you, Is His Body then limited to one mode of presence? Is that Flesh which was united to God the Word so feeble a thing that It cannot be present save after the manner of our poor mortal bodies? We dare not think that. Was His Body so subjected to the laws of matter that It could not rise superior to them when He willed it? You know it was not. Did He not go forth from the Virgin's womb "guarding the tokens of virginity unimpaired after His miraculous going forth also," as St. Gregory of Nyssa says? Did He not walk upon the sea as easily as on the dry land? Was He not transfigured with supernatural glory upon the mountain, with Moses and Elias for companions? of which Transfiguration an old writer says that the miracle was not really in the shining of His Body with that great radiance, but in the fact that He at all other times held back that glory, which was inherent in His Body, from the eyes of men. Did He not go forth from the tomb on Easter Day before the Angel had rolled away the great stone? Did He not pass through closed doors twice that He might present Himself to the eyes of His astonished followers? And did He not on Ascension Day mount up in the air as if it were the natural element of His Body's existence? Why then, with all these marvels before our eyes should we seek to limit the powers of His bodily part by the pitiful possibilities of our bodies? It is absurd. And, as I said to you in one of the other Sermons of this series, we must not forget the Agent to Whom all of these marvels are attributed. As St. Paul said to King Agrippa, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Our Lord's Body is indeed a veritable human Body, and He has but one Body, yet He Who has that Body is God; our Lord is not an human person, but a Divine Person. There is no antecedent unreasonableness in His Body being present at the same time, and in the same place, under two different modes of presence. The Catholic believes Him at this time to be present after the natural manner of human bodies in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, not to be revealed on earth again after that natural manner of presence until the last great day; but he also believes that He is present, in His own true Flesh and Blood after an heavenly and supernatural manner, or as we say Sacramentally; at one and the same time on thousands of Altars throughout Christendom, under the forms of bread and wine.
I have tried to show you that since it is His Body, and not one of our bodies, which is thus presented to us sacramentally; and since it is He, the Divine Word, and not one of us, Who thus gives Himself, there is no difficulty intrinsically in believing the truth of the Real Presence; let me try also to show you that there is every reason to convince us that our Lord meant His words to be taken literally and as they stand when He said of the Sacramental bread "This is my Body."
The Jew in old times longed to behold the Shechinah, and thought in that vision of the Lord's glory he could find full satisfaction for the cravings of his soul. Who could ask for more than this, that our Lord should dwell among men in some manifestation of Himself to our senses, that we might ever be assured of His care for us, and His interest in our affairs? yes, and that we might realize the personal direction of our acts of worship. Yet such is the wonderful way of God's dealing with His people that He has given us far more than this. Let me try to point out to you the three great needs which God has perceived in our human nature and how He has supplied them all by this gift of the Real Presence.
I. First, we need to worship God. I mean that there is an instinct in human life which impels man to worship. Yet all men do not worship, some out of bravado, because they would defy God, more out of heedless-ness and the engrossing care of their own matters. Nevertheless to worship God is an instinct of humanity, for all nations recognize it in some way. What then does worship mean? It means offering something to the Most High in token of our relation to Him. Cain offered to Jehovah only the fruits and flowers of his ground because he acknowledged only the relation of Creator and creature, of Benefactor and dependant, existing between God and himself. Abel, on the other hand, offered the lamb which he had slain, because he both recognized himself as a sinner, and believed that some innocent one was going to die on his behalf to take away his sin. In spite of Cain's arrogance in refusing to own himself a sinner needing pardon, the idea of animal sacrifice extended throughout the whole world, men testifying by these bloody offerings their belief in human sin, and their faith in human redemption by death. When our Lord came, and had offered up Himself upon the Cross for the sins of the world, the meaning of all the old sacrifices was plain. But what of human affairs since that time? Man still commits sins, and therefore should still worship God by sacrifice; yet what can he offer worthy of the occasion? Not an animal sacrifice as in the old time, testifying by the pouring out of the blood in death the need of man's redemption by death; for all that has been done, once for all, upon the Cross. Surely then man's offering must be the pleading of that sacrifice of the Cross, on behalf of his sins. How is it possible? It is possible because of this wondrous thing which our Lord Christ has done, leaving with us His own holy Body and Blood, once slain and poured out upon the Cross, but now alive for evermore, the only meritorious offering in all the universe, the only oblation which has power to make satisfaction and to intercede for human sin. The whole logic of the idea of worship compels us to believe our Lord should give us His very Body and Blood to offer as our sacrifice. With what singular appropriateness then come the words of St. Paul, "For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till He come." To whom do we shew the Lord's death in our Eucharist? To the eternal Father, doing it in remembrance of His Son who made perfect satisfaction for all the sins of all the world. Therefore, as I said to you, first of all we ought to have the Real Presence, for without it we could have no reasonable offering to present before God as our Christian act of worship. With it, with our Lord's true Body and Blood, under the forms of bread and wine, how significant and glorious a thing does Catholic worship become, men all over the world, lifting up by consecrated hands, the same adorable offering as was first lifted up upon the Cross, pleading everywhere and unceasingly the merits of the Lord Christ for the pardon of human sin and for the obtaining of all precious gifts of heaven.
2. A second need of human nature which God has seen is that of food to sustain the heavenly life in us. I tried to show you in a previous Sermon how Baptism, as we believe, is nothing else than the imparting to our natural humanity a certain supernatural essence, the germ of a heavenly life, which if it live and grow up in us shall some day wholly transform our being and fit us to dwell in heaven with God and all holy spirits, and to enjoy their society eternally. This tender unearthly life growing up in our souls needs nourishment, celestial sustenance. Where can it find it, how can it obtain it? What is the type of the heavenly nature which is thus developing in us? Our Lord's humanity, you answer, the perfect manhood which now sits at the Right Hand of the Father in heaven. The mother feeds the child which hangs upon her breast with her own substance. What if our Lord in His own unmatched way should feed the spiritual life in ourselves with the very substance of His own being? That, you cry, would be the very thing of all things the soul needs, the perfect ideal of food for the spiritual life within us. Hear then His own words, "The bread that I will give is my Flesh, which I will give for the life of the world," "For my Flesh is meat indeed, and my Blood is drink indeed," "He that eateth me, even he shall live by me." Just what we needed, the very answer which all the logic of the heavenly doctrine required. And not only does He say that His own Flesh and Blood are the suitable nourishment of the spiritual life; but He says plainly that except for this nourishment that spiritual life cannot survive in us, "Except ye eat the Flesh of the Son of man, and drink His Blood, ye have no life in you." For this second reason then are we sure that God has given us the Real Presence.
3. Thirdly, we need the conscious sense of God's presence in the world, to feel that He is indeed among us, where we can find Him, and be assured of His meeting us. We have the same craving as Moses in old time, "I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory." We do not need the magnificence of overwhelming majesty, that would rather terrify than help us; but we do need a manifestation of God which our senses can appreciate. You may say, It ought not to be so, Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. Now while that is true so far as seeing our Lord in human form is concerned, it is not true so far as Sacramental forms are concerned. Indeed since we are creatures of sense as well as of spirit God seems to test our faith more fully by giving sense something to exercise itself upon, than if He only appealed to our spiritual part. Was it not a more severe test of faith for Simeon in the Temple to acknowledge the holy Child of Mary for the eternal Jehovah than to believe in the Shechinah which once had revealed God on the Mercy Seat of the Most Holy Place? May we not think it was a greater test of the faith of the Wise Men that the Lord was revealed to them as the peasant Babe in the Stable at Bethlehem, than that they should simply have accepted the fact of His coming into the world because of the Star and the prophecy of Balaam concerning it? It requires no little faith to acknowledge the Host uplifted at the Altar to be the very Lord Christ Himself. He Who gave the Shechinah to the Jews, Who manifested the Divine Word to the Shepherds and the Wise Men in the form of the Babe of Bethlehem, Who made glad the hearts of the holy followers of the gentle Jesus in old time by the thought that their daily companion and friend was also their God, has not withheld from us the true Shechinah, the Holy Child of Mary, the sweet Presence of Jesus Christ. It is ours, here in this Church as in many other Churches, day by day abiding with us; the red light burning there testifies to His Presence, though He is hidden in the Tabernacle. The Bible tells us that upon a certain occasion some Greeks came to St. Philip, one of our Lord's disciples, and said "Sir, we would see Jesus." How many souls there are in the world which ask the same question, perhaps without receiving any answer. But if any one of these should ever so speak to you, you might reply, Come then with me to Mass to-morrow, or next Sunday, and I will show Him to you. The Mass proceeds, you hear the Gong sound, Jesus is coming to His Altar; again it sounds, He has come. Wait a little, yet once more it sounds, now look up, do you see what the priest is holding up? Yes, a silver cup and a round wafer of bread. So they are to your eyes, but in truth that silver cup contains the Lord's Blood, and that round Host is His holy Body; it is the Lord Christ Himself, revealing His Presence to you. So does God satisfy in His own all-perfect way the craving of our souls for a revelation of His glory.
Is not the Catholic religion a marvellous religion, since it can give us such a precious thing as this, a Presence of the Lord God among men so wondrously contrived that everywhere in all the world men may have it, and yet without loss of any of it to any other part of the world; a Presence of our Lord which enables us to offer holy worship to God with the all-pure Lamb of God as our oblation; a Presence of our Lord which enables us to partake of his own Body and Blood as our spiritual food as simply as we partake of our natural food; a Presence of our Lord with us always, full of unspeakable consolations?