“And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world.” These are, according to Matthew, the last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples. These words remind us that we remember and celebrate on the Solemnity of the Ascension not only Christ’s bodily departure from earth, but more importantly, we remember and celebrate his continued presence in a new way through the church, his mystical body, with himself as its head. We experience this presence in a very real way at any liturgical celebration, in particular, the Mass. We believe that Christ is present in four “modes”: in the assembly of people who have gathered, in the word proclaimed, in the consecrated bread and wine, and in the priest.
Actually the Mass is Christ’s action, his “exercise of priestly office,” his sacrifice, and his offering. We who participate do so as members of the body of Christ. As we celebrate the Mass it may seem that the priest, or we who have gathered, are the main actors and that God is our audience. Actually the Mass is the high point of God’s action of making the world (and us) holy and of the human race’s worship of God through Jesus. Through the priest’s ministry, our spiritual sacrifices are completed as they are united with the sacrifice of Jesus, right here and now. The Eucharist is offered to God through the priest’s hands in our name until Christ comes again.
Christ is present in the priest who acts “in the person of Christ.” That is, he does, and we see him do, what we would see Jesus doing if he stood before us as a man. Many of the prayers the priest voices at Mass are said in the name of God’s people. When the priest acts in the person of Christ for the sacraments, it is actually Christ who offers, baptizes, who gives absolution, who anoints, etc.
Jesus is indeed in our midst, even though we cannot see him as the disciples saw him. We are his body on earth and he the head of the body. We see the priest perform what Christ would do in liturgy; we act as Jesus would in the world, believing that he will come back one day to walk among us, easily recognized and fully visible. The angels at the end of the first reading have promised us that “This Jesus who has been taken from you will return, just as you saw him go up into the heavens.”
Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.