"There stands one in the midst of you whom you do not know."
Last week in Houston, I encountered a gentleman with whom I had graduated from high school many years ago. During our high school years we had been good friends. After graduation, we kept in touch with one another. He occasionally wrote me after I entered the seminary and I dutifully answered his letters. Following ordination, as I frequently returned home, he and I would usually manage to get together. But progressively, as the years lengthened, we lost contact with one another. The exchange of letters and of visits gradually discontinued; and so did our mutual concern. Meeting this old friend a few days ago, I felt guilty -- of neglect and unconcern.
There is a truth of the Christian religion which, somehow, has not been carefully proposed for belief; the truth that Christ the Lord is present within our midst in a physical manner. We accept the fact of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, in the celebration of the sacraments, in the authorities who rule us, in the poor and needy. But we seldom reflect on that bodily presence of Him in our midst, a corporal presence that is fully real, even though it is not visible.
In the last section of the Gospel of St. John, he describes several of the bodily appearances which Christ the Lord made to the disciples. But these seemed to have been relatively infrequent. Usually Christ was not apparent to the disciples. Yet he obviously lived and moved within the world. There came a day upon which his physical appearances were discontinued -- the day of his Ascension -- but his life within their world, our world, continued.
When St. Paul tells us, as in this day's reading from his letter to the Philippians, that the Lord is near, we are not to understand this as meaning only that the Second Coming is imminent, but also that he is in our midst even now. We celebrate the Sacrament of Penance because in its celebration Christ is among us forgiving sins through his ministers. We celebrate the Eucharist because in its celebration Christ is present in our midst and, under the symbols of bread and wine physically real on our altar. We accept as true the promises: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in their midst;" and "I am with you all days."
But we must go further. The Christian life requires a constant awareness of the astonishing fact that Jesus Christ is here, as each one of us is here, even though his presence is invisible. Yet even if we accept this truth of faith, the knowledge of Christ's presence easily wanes. Other concerns -- ones that are more tangible -- can readily displace the awareness of his nearness. Other values can easily begin to dominate one's life, as with those whom we have once held in friendship but from whom we have grown apart, we lost contact. Forgetfulness ensues,
It takes a certain amount of effort to maintain a friendship. Proximity helps. But proximity is insufficient, as you know when you reflect over your Christmas card list how many friends there are in this very city whom you never see. Does absence make the heart grow fonder! I think not, or at least not for very long. I suspect rather that absence makes attachment ebb, and finally fade away.
Even though the presence of Christ is always physically real, he can be absent from us psychologically. For attachment to Jesus Christ -- and that is the substance of the Christian life - is achieved only through diligence in prayer. This is why we are to be, ex professo men and women of prayer; not simply of that prayer which petitions God for our own and neighbor's needs, but more basically for that prayer which is a reflective union of mind and heart and will with Jesus Christ: The Emmanuel, God who came among us, and who is among us, and to whose abiding friendship we are called.
We do answer this call in Penance and the Eucharist. Christ acts in our lives. through sacraments. In very fact, a sacrament is an action of Christ with us. But the effect of these sacramental actions in our lives will be in proportion to our success in reflective union with Christ the Lord. This ought to be a daily exercise; for if our lives are to be dominated by a loving union with Him, we must put forth the effort to achieve this: first through a solitary, quiet reflection that focuses not upon ourselves but upon him; and secondly through those sacramental unions with him that are achieved in the celebration of the sacraments. The latter depend upon the former; the sacraments are effective in our lives in proportion as we prepare for them through mental prayer -- in solitude, turning our thoughts and our emotions to the fact of Christ's presence in our midst. Friendship with Christ is identical with the love of Christ. But no one loves what he does not know. And No one knows another except through a kind of diligence. To love another is to be concerned about him; but to be concerned, one must put forth constant effort to express concern.
So it is with the love of Christ. Truly, he stands in our midst though often enough we do not know him. We fail in that knowledge because we fail in prayer. And we fail in prayer because the life of prayer is difficult. At certain moments, it is easy to pray and to attempt the awareness of Christ. But to be an habituate of prayer, in season and out, when life is running smooth and when it is tumultuous, in good health and ill, in joyous days and painful ones, in successes and failures, through loyal friendships and betrayals -- ever to be aware of the nearness of Christ; that is, the achievement of a successful life.
Christ comes! His advent is a constant of history, because his presence in our midst is corporeal though invisible. This constant coming of Christ occurs in the lives of those who have an interior life. For those who do not, there is the sad reproach: "Have I been with you for so long a time and still you do not know me?"