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Opening to the sacred in presence and absence

Posted 21 November 2019 | This article originally appeared in The Summit in 2010 

From time to time, people are invited to identify issues in the church that concern them. Almost without fail, one of the concerns that emerge in this kind of forum is the involvement of young people in the life of the church. The increasing absence of young people from our liturgies is something that older generations feel keenly, regretting the opportunity to pass on something that has been so precious in their own lives.

Of course, young people are not the only ones whose absence we notice. Church attendance is dropping across all age groups, a fact that is as evident in the pews as it is in the statistics. This matters to us, not only because of the increasing burden that falls on those who remain, but for a more fundamental reason. Being a Christian is not something that we do on our own. It is not an individual lifestyle option, but participation in a community. Our identity as part of a church, and our core ecclesial activity of liturgy, is always about ‘us’, and not just about ‘me’.

However, we need to be cautious, lest we become too focused on those we see around us on a Sunday, as if they were the only ones involved in our liturgical action. The ‘we’ who celebrate liturgy are never just those who are physically present, but the whole church. Every liturgy is celebrated as part of a communion that extends throughout the world and across history, even to include the saints who have gone before us. One of the reasons we pray for particular people at liturgy is to name their presence in our thoughts, and their participation with us in a shared relationship with God. There are many ways of being present at liturgy other than simply sitting in a pew.

We are more familiar than we might think with such ways of being present, even though physically absent. Sitting at a cafe table, waiting impatiently for a friend who is late for lunch, there is little that is more present to us than the friend who is yet to appear. Similarly, when a family gathers for Christmas dinner after a loved one has died, the person’s absence can be more vivid than his or her presence ever was.

Presence involves much more than what we can observe as physically present before our eyes. Reading a letter from a distant friend or family member, our relationship with that person is very much present to us. When we focus our attention most intently on a person who is speaking to us, we notice almost nothing of their physical features. Indeed, we are likely to focus on the most featureless and empty part of their face: the black holes that are their pupils. When a person is most present to us, we are least likely to observe and describe them.

This, too, is familiar to us in liturgy. What we see on the altar appears to be only bread and wine; what we feel on our forehead and hands is only the smear of oil or the pouring of water. Yet in these simplest of objects, the sustaining and healing love of our God is present to us. Our sacraments not only point to something that is physically absent, but make that real and present in our midst.

In spite of all this, we are still disturbed by absence. We grieve for those who have died, and we miss those from whom we are separated by circumstances or distance. We grieve too for the absence of much that was familiar to us, and is no longer part of our experience. Changes to Mass times in many parishes and, especially in rural areas, churches no longer being used leave us feeling dislocated and unsettled. We orient ourselves around the familiar, and often don’t notice how much we rely on its presence until it is altered. In liturgy, this might mean the Mass time we have always attended, our favourite hymns, a particular seat in the church, people we recognise. When these change, we can easily feel displaced and uneasy.

We might find that we feel less at home outside the church as well. Much that was familiar to us is shifting. Expressions of religious faith are no longer as comfortable and conventional as they once were in our culture. To be a believer can feel like being set apart as an outsider in a society that is increasingly unfamiliar with religion, and even suspicious of it. The scandal of sexual abuse of children in the church has sometimes led people to open hostility and opposition to anything and anyone related to religion.

To be a believer in our time can feel like we are wandering in a strange and godless land, unable to find a place for what matters most to us.

But we are far from the first to experience this. Some of the most defining stories of our Judaeo-Christian heritage recount precisely this experience of being forsaken. The people of Israel were established in their covenant with God at Sinai, as they wandered through a desert where they pined for the familiarity they had left behind in Egypt. When exiled to Babylon, they rediscovered their identity, and the presence of God with them, despite being in a strange land where they felt deserted and forgotten. The fulfilling moment in Jesus’ gift of himself happens on the cross, where he seems most abandoned, both by God and by his closest friends.

It is no coincidence that this moment becomes the central Christian symbol, with which we sign ourselves and all that is precious to us. For the cross is a symbol that points in two directions at once. It is a place of defeat that points to the absence of God and the rejection of Jesus’ message, but at the same time it is the place that fulfils God’s entry into our human experience in the incarnation. God not only takes on our flesh in Jesus, but on the cross enters into the very worst our flesh can experience. In that moment of abandonment, there is now nothing about our human lives that can be cut off from God’s presence and love. The veil of the temple is torn in two.

Far from being a godless experience, absence is perhaps the place in which the God of Jesus Christ is most present. As a people marked by the cross, absence will always be part of our experience. Yet that very absence can be a moment of discovering God’s surprising presence beyond what we can see and beyond what we are familiar with. It can also be an opportunity to make that presence real in a world that suffers from its absence, by our life together as a community that is nourished by and transformed into the broken body of Christ.

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Bishop Shane Mackinlay was ordained Bishop of Sandhurst in October 2019. Before that he was Master of Catholic Theological College, East Melbourne, and Parish Priest of St Michael’s, Bungaree, in the Diocese of Ballarat.


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