2011: Easter 5

A few years ago when Danny LaRue visited the College, the kitchen staff were so eager to see him that in trying to peep through the small windows in the kitchen door they almost fell through in a heap.

If President Obama turned up in our front hall, who wouldn’t go out to see? If a famous person is around, people want to see them. You realise that an important thing about this seeing is presence: being in the presence. 

The message from today's gospel is: seeing Christ and in him seeing the Father.

This is St John’s Gospel, so we can’t say whether Christ actually said this but with John you know that Christ might just as well have said it. John is not making it up - in his gospel John works like an artist, teasing out  what was evident in the Jesus that he and other people encountered. In meeting Christ there was, for his early followers, a sense of God impinging directly on them in a way they’d never come across before. So St John recognised that, in order to see God, it was important for us to see Jesus. Where then can we see Jesus?

I’d like to start with the theatre. The Latin term Dramatis personae is often put at the top of the list of characters in a play. The persons of the drama. The word person in Greek drama referred to the mask worn by the actor. Each mask represented a different type of character. The actor was in the mask, in the person. In Christian usage we have the phrase, again Latin, in persona Christi, which is used of the priest. In the drama of the parish’s life the priest is in the person of Christ. So in the Eucharist it is the priest who acts out the part of Christ at the Last Supper.

This needs a bit of explanation, because it sounds as though it could be a bit dodgy.

There are two levels of seeing Christ. The first level is fundamental: wherever there is good, wherever there is love, there is Christ at work. Even an atheist who does an act of generosity to a person in need is doing the work of Christ. Anyone with eyes to see can see it but the atheist does not have the eyes to recognise Christ. Christ is veiled.

For that we have to be in the second stage in seeing Christ: the veil is removed as Christ is made manifest. How is the veil removed? It was done by Christ himself in his cross and resurrection and in the birth of the church that poured forth from that. The Church, the Body of Christ, makes Christ manifest. The veil has been removed, and we recognise Christ for what he is.

How does the Church make Christ manifest?

1. The church names him for who he is: Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, the source of amazing teaching, crucified under Pontius Pilate. We make known his name and his location in history.

2. Christ is seen in some unusual qualities in the church. At their best, Christians beaver away at a life of love and service, marked by a particular kind of cheerfulness and confidence and a relaxed attitude to some things the world gets rather anxious about, as well as the proclamation of some ringing truths when the world’s standards get too low . 

However, you will say to me "What about good Christians who are gloomy by nature? What about parishes that are terrible, or in a mess? What about communities where people are unfriendly and the clergy hopeless? What about all the power-mongering and shortsightedness in the church" ?

Christians are human beings and we have a propensity to draw the veil back over Christ. That propensity will always be there. What it will never undermine, however, is the confidence that comes from knowing we are in Christ. The second way that the church makes Christ visible comes out in certain key qualities of its life where it is being faithful. Qualities to do with joy, confidence, and simply being alive.

3. We see Christ in the church at worship. In Christian worship people can come and be struck. What they are struck by expands their understanding of all the good they see being done in the world. Their eyes are opened. All of us at least a lot of the time have the same experience of worship.

Those are three ways in which Christ is made visible by the Church.

Christ is known in the Body of Christ. That means all of us, not just the clergy and the Church is just like Christ’s mission in Palestine. It is a drama. If the priest is in persona Christi, that is precisely in terms of this drama. If you think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, if all the other characters in it were sacked, Hamlet on his own would be useless. Similarly, if a parish priest were to be called Christ’s representative but had no congregation to be it with, he or she would be like a Hungarian Admiral. Where we see and encounter Christ is in the community and its ministry, acting together.

We can gain a little more insight from the monastic tradition. For St Benedict, the Superior is vices Christi, Christ’s deputy or representative. Yet the Superior is only superior for a time and then he lays it down and returns to the ranks. When Benedict speaks of the Superior being Vices Christi, what he primarily means is:

(a) There is the symbolic office of leader in a group, where the leader represents the group to itself and focuses its sense of identity. What is the monastic community’s identity? It is Christ.

(b) A Superior’s task is to work with the Community in ensuring that both he and they remain aware all the time of Christ’s presence in the midst.

(c) The Superior is ‘parish priest’, ensuring that the Community lives up to the responsibility of being the church in this place, an ecclesiola, a ‘little church’, in a way that is fully part of the Catholica with its public ministry.

There is something here to be learned for all who are called to be, not monks but priests in the parish. The parish priest is not like a walking sacrament (except in the sense that we all are) and neither is a Superior. Their task is to ensure, through a proper living of their symbolic role and through their performance at the wheel of the community’s life and thinking, that all remain aware of Christ in the midst, Christ’s sovereign call, and Christ’s leadership.

Certainly, the leader of any Christian community has a commission to exercise the leadership of Christ. One effect of worshipping in this temporary chapel is rather curious: whenever I look at a preacher here I am rather disturbed by the picture on the wall behind me - in the Resurrexi painting Christ seems to be looking over the preacher’s shoulder as if to say, ‘you are to speak and act for me’. I hardly dare speak any further after that. Just to say: if the world wants to see Christ, it needs to be able to look to you and me and see Him. If we want to see Christ, we need to look to each other. Not just in any old way. We look to one another in this mysterious moment, as we bring lives of sacrifice and service together at the table of the Lord. Around this Table We see acted out before our eyes the relationship of the Lord with his Disciples. We see him with our eyes and he sees us and we receive him.

George Guiver CR