In the Order of Christian Funerals there is an intercession that I often pray at a graveside or crematorium chapel. There was, though, a time when I felt quite uncomfortable with it. The prayer implores the Lord to ‘lighten [the mourners’] loss.’ ‘Why should their sense of loss be lightened?’ I thought, ‘They’re entitled to feel any way they do at this time.’ The prayer only makes sense when it is completed. ‘Lighten their sense of loss with your presence’ is how it reads in full. A mourner’s loss will not be lessened by cheerful words but by nothing short of God’s presence, something that we encounter in a powerful reality, in happy times and in sad times, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist.
At Mass or when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for our adoration, Jesus Christ is present with us because he told us he would be. His presence shows the truth of his words recorded right at the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel when he told us to know he is with us always. Jesus is present, but that presence demands something of us too: our presence. At Mass we are present at the Last Supper. We are witnesses to the self-giving of Good Friday. God is here. In fact, God is always here. Everything else may change but not this. No matter what our response may be to his love for us and his command for us to love one another, God still loves us and is faithfully present with us always.
Sadly it is true that people have come to disagree so very often on the understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Swinging from one extreme position to another has led to division and discord when that same Christ calls us to be one. The Eucharist is real without being crudely realistic and symbolic without being unreal. Acknowledging that about how Christ is really present to us in the Eucharist ought to be both a comfort and a challenge to be present with Jesus at his time of suffering. Perhaps Pope Francis explains this best: to take part in the Mass ‘is to live once again the redemptive Passion and Death of the Lord. It’s a theophany: the Lord makes Himself present on the altar to be offered to the Father for the salvation of the world.’ (Homily in the Holy Mass, Saint Martha’s Residence, 10 February, 2014).