Many years ago, the late Jesuit Karl Rahner wrote an essay titled “How to Receive a Sacrament and Mean It.” I read it in a journal called Theology Digest when I was in the seminary. It has lingered in me all these years. During those times I have lost my bearings in life — and there have been plenty of them — I take some comfort in the ideas set forth in that brief speculation.
Rahner proposed a fresh approach to the sacraments, which was in effect a deeper and more generous way of seeing them but which called for a revolution in the ways we have normally approached the sacraments. Sacraments are the living signs of God’s presence in this world. For centuries, Christians understood them as encounters with the divine in a certain place and a certain time. It was the Second Vatican Council through which the Church realized that a broader and less static approach to the sacraments was called for. Rahner made a significant contribution in providing the language and guidance that enabled the Church to re-engage itself with a world that was rapidly changing.
The Eucharist is a good example of the breadth of change suggested by Rahner. It was just taken for granted by Christians that the Eucharistic celebration was one that a person goes to; Eucharist was the giving of consecrated bread and wine to a person in the sacred confines of a church or place of worship. Taken this way, once the service was over, it was simply understood that one left the Eucharist as if departing from a dinner. Rahner asked that we consider the ramifications of a God who is living and present in all things, including everyone beyond the doors of the church. In this sense, the Eucharist would be a celebration, a reenactment of the dying and rising of Christ as that gift has not only changed the world but imbued it. We leave one revelation of God’s presence when we walk into a church or any sacred place and find therein the meaning and the truth of Who resides in which we just left.
Rahner’s words gave me comfort and a kind of assurance of what is going on all around and within me in life. A woman wrote to me recently and expressed a deep sorrow that her son had no God in his life because he had abandoned the “practice of the faith.” I read her words, thought of Rahner and wrote back to her. I wrote that it was not possible for her son to lose God, to depart from God. God is within all of us. God is our very life, the very breath we breathe. I expressed to her my belief that God will be with her son no matter how far he wanders or how much he wants to lose God. The life of her son brings home the joy and the gift that is Eucharist. We can never leave it. And we do not “go” to it as much as we do enter it and become it, hopefully to better see and take to heart the presence of God who can be found on our altars and beyond them.