The Four Presences of Christ

There is a Latin phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” which is usually attributed to English born Alcuin who lived from 735-804. The phrase can be translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief”. In other words, the way we worship reflects what we believe. In turn, liturgical celebrations are where we come to understand our faith more deeply.
Let’s take an example. The documents of Vatican II state that Christ is present in several ways when the Church celebrates Mass: in the people assembled for worship, in the priest or bishop who presides at the eucharist, in the word of God proclaimed, and especially in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine.
How does the way we celebrate Mass demonstrate this belief in practice?
During the Eucharistic Prayer people give their attention to the words prayed on their behalf by the presider. Some people bow their heads or make a gesture of reverence at the words of institution (“This is my body, This is the cup of my blood”). We sing the responses (memorial acclamation, great amen) because this is a high point in the celebration. The sacred elements are handled with care and respect by the ministers of communion and by all the faithful. The vessels are crafted from materials that are solid and noble. Everything speaks of honour and reverence for Christ present in the consecrated bread and wine.
What about the other presences of Christ in the liturgical celebration? For instance, do we show the same honour and reverence for Christ present in the scriptures when they are read? If we really believe that it is Christ himself who speaks when the word is proclaimed, we must give our full attention to this part of the liturgy too. A sermon given by Caesarius, Archbishop of Arles, early in the 6th century, could as easily be addressed to us today:
“I have a question for you, brothers and sisters. Which do you think more important – the word of God or the body of Christ? If you want to answer correctly, you must tell me that the word of God is no less important than the body of Christ! How careful are we, when the body of Christ is distributed to us, not to let any bit of it fall to the ground from our hand! But we should be just as careful not to let slip from our hearts the word of God that is addressed to us, by thinking or speaking of something else.”
We would be horrified if paper cups and plastic plates were used for communion, but it is not uncommon to see the holy scriptures proclaimed from flimsy pieces of paper or from books that are tattered and torn. What does it say if we sing the responses during the Eucharistic Prayer but speak the psalm and the Gospel Acclamation during the Liturgy of the Word?
And what of Christ present in those with whom we worship, the Body of Christ? Do we treat them too with respect and reverence? Hospitality is everyone’s ministry, not just the role of the greeters. We all need to be “present” to those with whom we worship – to acknowledge their presence, to share the sign of peace graciously, to sit with the rest of the community and not on our own at the back, to allow others to sit in our pew by not hogging the end seat, to join wholeheartedly in the responses, gestures and singing of the celebration.
Actions speak louder than words. It should be clear in what we do and how we do it, as much as in what we say, that we truly believe that Christ is present not only in the sacred elements but also in the assembly, in the word and in the priest presider when we worship together.


Elizabeth Harrington