‘Where would you choose to go on a retreat if you could travel anywhere in the world?” This was the question I was asked recently, a question you might ask yourself this Christmas.
At first, I thought of the Cave of Bethlehem where Christ was born for us. How close I would be to the Saviour born for us there. Then my mind went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where our Lord offered Himself on the Cross, His body was laid in the tomb and He rose again on the first Easter morning.
How close I would be there to our Redeemer, kneeling on Calvary or in the emptiness of that tomb. However, I quickly recalled the striking words of St John Paul II who insisted that it is in the Holy Eucharist that “we meet Jesus Christ anew… As it was there so it is here.” And I saw that I had no need to undertake a journey: the living Christ Himself is found in every Tabernacle of the world. It is always in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist that we will be closest to Him. As the Second Vatican Council affirmed: “In the Blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself.”
After his reception into the Catholic Church, Blessed John Henry Newman contrasted the dutiful religious practice he had known from his childhood with the joyous, earnest devotion he now found in the Catholic Church. In doing so, Newman reflected that an observer might be puzzled by a seeming heedlessness of the presence of others in Catholic churches; a lack of self-consciousness; a focus beyond themselves. Newman recognised that the reason for this behaviour lay in the fact that “the Incarnate Saviour is present in the tabernacle”. He described how “this intimate, immediate dependence on Emmanuel, God with us, has been the characteristic, almost the definition of a Christian. It is the ordinary feeling among Catholic populations.”
Emeritus Pope Benedict spoke of how urgent it was for us to rediscover the Real Presence of Christ among us. Writing in Sacramentum Caritatis, he said this: “Today there is a need to rediscover that Jesus Christ is not just a private conviction or an abstract idea, but a real person, whose becoming part of human history is capable of renewing the life of every man and woman.”
Benedict XVI’s profound insight into the Church’s history led him to recognise how, throughout the centuries, every genuine reform had been linked to a rediscovery of the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among his people. It was this witness that Pope Francis would single out when, speaking of the profound gratitude owed to his predecessor, he said that Benedict XVI had lived with “his gaze always firmly on Christ, the risen Christ, present and alive in the Eucharist”.
The parish priest who guided my early years as a priest, Mgr Charles Egan, used to recall the memory of a retreat given in the 1920s at St Mary’s, Oscott. After the horror of the Great War, the young men who came forward to offer themselves for the priesthood might have been expecting quieter, more predictable times. However, the preacher reminded them that the future was an uncertain place. We know now that those young men were to face a second global war and the continuing upheavals of the 20th century. The lesson the preacher drew was a simple and profound one: the one constant of their lives would be recognised by the light of a single flame pointing to Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Much may change in our lives, too, and in the world around us. Yet we know that Christ has chosen to remain with us. My elderly parish priest wanted his young curates to recognise this would be the sure point of reference as we looked to the future. In Advent we heard the words of St Paul to the Philippians re-echoed: “The Lord is at hand.” The same Lord who will return in glory is now intimately close to us in the Holy Eucharist. Together with St Paul, we too recognise his presence as the source of our joy and our forbearance.
If, as we come to the end of 2016, the world seems a less predictable place; and if the received wisdom of society’s leaders is increasingly challenged, then Christmas once more invites us to recognise the unique Light revealed in the Child of Bethlehem. This is a Light that never fades because the same Jesus, the Incarnate Saviour, is present with us now in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. It is in the Light of his presence which Christmas invites us to celebrate anew, that we can look forward to the coming year with confidence.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury
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