The church is the sacrament of God’s divine presence

Father John A. Kiley

Advent is a four-week celebration of the presence of God. God the Father was present to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

He happily conversed with the first couple “in the breezy time of the day.” Sadly, the first effect of their original sin was that Adam and Eve shamefacedly avoided the presence of God, hiding as he came to inquire of the day’s events. Expulsion from the garden dramatically emphasized the separation of man from God. Man was now on his own.

The divine/human conversation was over. God was temporarily not present.

Yet God the Father was never very far from his people. God took the initiative to introduce himself to Abraham through a deep trance, inviting him to become the father of many nations. God intruded into the life of Jacob who wrestled with the divine presence in the night, truly sensing the presence of God in his life and in the shrine at Bethel: “This is an awesome place! This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” Moses was bid to acknowledge the unexpected presence of God at the burning bush. And he majestically and grandly experienced God’s presence atop Sinai as God signaled himself through cloud, lightning and thunder.

A provident and present God journeyed daily with his people through the 40-year sojourn in the desert and then resided mystically and centrally with his Jewish people in the Holy of Holies in the splendid temple of Jerusalem. There was indeed a true divine presence in the inner sanctum of the temple, a place so holy only the high priest dare enter the divine presence once a year on the Day of Atonement. The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. by Roman troops was a final blow to the comfort Judaism derived from the true, spiritual presence of God in a hallowed place. His presence in Scripture and in prayer would have to see them through the centuries ahead.

But the destruction of the temple did not herald God’s complete withdrawal from his people. In fact, Christians know that the generation that witnessed the destruction of the temple was the same generation to enjoy the incarnate presence of God’s Son in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was indeed Emmanuel, God with us. In Jesus the breach that began in Eden was repaired. Through Christ, man could once again converse directly with God. In Christ, the promises made to the patriarchs and the prophets were brought to fulfillment. God was really present to his people once again – physically in Christ and now sacramentally in Christ’s church.

Through the shared Eucharist, through the written Word, and through communal charity, Jesus continues until the end of time to be present to his people: “Behold I am with you all days until the end of the world.” Advent, the liturgical season that anticipates the bodily arrival of God’s Son into history though the Virgin Mary, is an ideal time for the faithful to relish anew the manifold divine presence. Every believer truly has Christ present in his heart through grace. The Christian may turn to Christ at any time through personal prayer.

Morning and evening prayers, grace before meals, visits to church, the rosary – these are time-honored and productive ways of enjoying the divine presence. The reading of Scripture, the inspired Word of God, especially invokes the nearness of God in Christ.

The regular celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and penance, are clearly effective vehicles for making Christ present in the minds and hearts of all believers. Involvement with other believers and especially concern for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters are guarantees of the divine presence: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.”

All of these contemporary occasions for enjoying the presence of God in Christ can all be gathered together under the name of church. The church is the sacrament of God’s divine presence. The churches in all its manifestations – hierarchy, clergy, laity, sacraments, Scriptures, traditions, teachings and lifestyles – make God real in history and in everyday life. God’s earthly presence with his people – from Eden through to the last prayer that has been said – is happily a pledge of that future glory to be found in the unending and undiminished presence of God in heaven.