The Gospel we read today, and the one we will read next week, both come from Saint John’s account of the Last Supper. We can imagine that our Lord’s words must have sounded a bit cryptic to the Apostles—we have the benefit of hindsight and know that He was speaking about His impending ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. It is appropriate that these words came at the Last Supper, because our Lord was talking about God’s Presence with His people on earth. Whether we are talking about the Eucharistic Presence, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost accompanying sanctifying grace, or even just the eternal attention that God directs to each one of us while conserving the universe in existence, God is always present with us. That ought to give us pause when we are tempted to sin.
Although they were just beginning to learn about the Holy Ghost and the Blessed Sacrament, the Apostles—who were all of Jewish background—were familiar with the idea of God’s Presence, for they knew that the Presence of God—the divine “Shekinah”—dwelt in the Temple at Jerusalem, where they had probably been that very morning to sacrifice the paschal lamb which they ate at the Last Supper.
The two were very much related—the presence of God and the sacrifices offered by the priests of the Old Law. God had prepared the early Christians, who had been Jews, with about 1300 years of His tangible Presence in the place where the sons of Aaron offered sacrifices to Him. In the desert He was seen by His people in a pillar of smoke by day, and in a pillar of fire by night. When they built the Temple at Jerusalem, He took up His abode in the Holy of Holies, in front of which stood the altar where the sacrifices were offered.
The Apostles would thus understand God’s continued Presence in the places where they would soon offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Apostles and their successors would offer bread and wine to God—and, acting in the person of our Lord, they would pronounce the words of Consecration as Jesus had done: “This is My body…. This is a chalice of My blood … poured out for many in forgiveness of sins.” And since they were acting with the power and authority of God Himself, these words of Consecration caused the substance of Jesus’ body and blood to replace the mundane substances of bread and wine. As you know, “God can never deceive nor be deceived,” so the words of His divine Son, Jesus Christ, are always effective when spoken by His appointed priests with the intention to do what Jesus did. God is present with His people wherever the Holy Sacrifice is offered—even more substantially than He was in the Temple at Jerusalem. And, under our Lord’s New Covenant, that Sacrifice may be offered in many places, even at the same time. God is not bound by the material limitations of time and space. Where ever and when ever the Mass is offered we stand with the priest at the foot of the Cross, offering with Jesus the one same Sacrifice that He offered on Calvary.
To some, there seems to be a paradox here. We say on the one hand that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is effected by the separate Consecration of the two elements—we sometimes use the phrase “a mystical sword” to describe this separation of our Lord’s body from His blood in sacrifice—there is no Sacrifice of the Mass if both Consecrations do not take place. Yet we also say that Christ’s entire being—body, blood, soul, humanity, and divinity—is present in each and every crumb that had been bread, and also in each and every drop that had been wine. But there really is no paradox in this, for the Presence is real—it is only the separate appearances that give the understanding of separation of body from blood. Our Eucharistic Lord is the living God, Who admits no possibility of division. This is why Holy Communion can be received in Its entirety by receiving the Host alone—or even (though it is much less common) by drinking the consecrated wine from the Chalice alone. Only the priest-celebrant is required to receive both, for as he acts in the Person of Christ his duty goes beyond the personal reception of Holy Communion to the public offering of the Holy Sacrifice—the one who wields, as it were, that “mystical sword” by separately consecrating and consuming both species.
It would be wrong though to suggest that Christ’s faithful (apart from the priest) complete their Christian duty simply by receiving Holy Communion and their private prayers surrounding that reception. Understand, please, that the Mass is not the priest’s private prayer; rather it is the public worship of the entire Catholic Church. The Mass has two dimensions that are borrowed from the Jewish customs that were observed by the Lord and His disciples. The first part of the Mass is similar to the Scripture readings which the Jews attended in their local synagogues, the simple meeting houses that were established in each Jewish community. The second part of the Mass is similar to what took place in the Temple of Jerusalem, where sacrifice was offered in the Presence of God. Both of these constituted the public worship of God’s people before they were replaced by the Sacrifice of the Mass. No less than the Jews of the Old Testament, it is incumbent upon us, the Christians of the New Testament, to attend Mass with devout attention to what is going on, taking the parts that are assigned to us, and reverently following what is said by the priest. That is one of the major reasons why Mass is said in Latin, so that no matter where we are or may be from, at least the essential parts of the Mass will be familiar to us, no matter what might be the language of the congregation.
Let me close with one more observation about God’s Presence in the church. In Catholic churches we have the privilege of God’s Presence, not only during the few minutes between the Consecration and the Communion, but, in all churches and public chapels and oratories our Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament, reserved in the tabernacle—first of all so that He may be taken to the sick, and, perhaps more significantly to us most of the time, so that we may continue to pray in the Real Presence of Almighty God, at any time of day or night.
Once again, let us not be out done by the Jews of the Old Testament; rather, come often to visit our Lord in the tabernacle, and to join the priest in offering the Sacrifice in His Presence—more than just a pillar of fire, or of smoke—the true body and blood, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ—the True Presence of God Himself.
 John xvi: 16-22; 5-15.