Ihave long questioned the idea of God as a “puppet-master.” That’s the kind of thinking that says whenever disaster strikes, “Everything happens for a reason,” as if some great manipulator in the sky has pulled some strings, contrived this event as part of an overall plan that will somehow, somewhere, lead us to an as-yet-undefined triumph over adversity. It’s the same thing that happens when, in a moment of crisis, a person says, “God must be trying to teach me something.” Interestingly, I have never heard either of those statements made when joyous events occur. But I digress.
As I see it, “stuff” happens—be it an accident or illness, a sinful lapse with all of its consequences, a wonderful new job, the birth of a much longed-for child, or a tornado or wildfire upending our lives. And in that “stuff,” God walks with us, inspiring us (if we have ears to hear) to new directions, new actions, on the road to salvation.
If I don’t believe in God as a puppet-master, do I believe in God as a puppet? To my mind, the idea of God as a puppet is most forcefully demonstrated in popular Eucharistic belief. In such belief, when a priest says certain words and performs certain actions that we hold sacred, Christ becomes truly present in what appears to be bread and wine, but somehow, in a mystical, metaphysical manner, is now his body and blood. If this is what we believe happens through those words and actions, are we seeing Christ as simply a puppet, simply waiting to respond to become truly present where, a moment ago, he wasn’t? Or is there something more at work?
Consider for a moment the biblical story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two disciples are walking to Emmaus, discussing the events of the previous days in which Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified. A man joins them, walks with them, and asks them what they were talking about. Wondering how it is possible that he doesn’t know, they tell him, at which time he launches into a recital of the ways God has been with them through it all. Arriving at Emmaus, they invite him to join them for a meal. As he breaks bread with them, they suddenly recognize him as the resurrected Christ.
Did Jesus suddenly become present as he gave thanks and broke the bread? Or had he been with them all along, and the recognition of his presence (rather than his presence itself) suddenly came in the breaking of the bread? Did they not recognize, then, that their hearts had “burned within them” as he spoke on the journey? Did their recognition not bring with it an awareness that he had been there all along? This is not the story of a puppet, made suddenly present, but of a person who truly walks and talks with us even when we don’t recognize him or detect his presence. In this understanding, the action of breaking bread is not what immediately makes Christ present; rather, it is what causes a sudden recognition of his presence, a presence that was there all along.
And who is this person who is recognized as being present? We get a sense of this when Jesus says, earlier in his life, “My Father goes on working and so do I” (John 5:17-18). His work is an ongoing one, not flitting in and out of people’s lives, becoming present only when the words and actions of the Eucharistic liturgy are proclaimed and carried out. Just like the Father, the Christ goes on working, day in and day out, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
In fact, as seen in the beginning of John’s gospel, this Christ was truly present from before the world began. Again, in the first letter of John, we are told that the disciples heard this Word, saw it with their eyes, touched it—and that it was at last revealed to them. Rather than become present, it was made manifest. This is not a statement about a person who comes and goes at our will, but one who is present, everywhere and at all times, for us to recognize.
Perhaps, then, the words and actions of the Eucharistic prayers, while directed to God, are not words and actions making present the Christ of the Last Supper. Perhaps these words spoken to God are in a sense meant to cause us to recognize this Christ who was, is, and always will be present to us and to the world.
We know that Jesus took bread and wine for his thanksgiving prayers and gave them to his apostles. But is the bread and the wine the focus, or is the focus on the words and actions? If we are called to remember him, is that remembrance limited to a mental calculus? Are we not embodied spirits, kinesthetic learners with our bodies also involved in storing memories? Our bodies store and remember the actions needed to run, play tennis, tie a knot—should they not be similarly involved in storing memories of the truth of Christ’s ever-presence?
The scriptural words of the institution of the Eucharist (a formula which, according to the late Joseph Martos, was always in verb form in the New Testament, then morphed into a noun in its translation into Latin) support this concept. Jesus handed the bread and wine to his disciples, saying, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me” (Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:18-20, 1 Cor 11:23-25). Not “do it and I will be truly present,” but “do it in remembrance.” We are, in the “Eucharisting” (to approximate the verb form) celebration and reception, acting physically in a way which helps us recognize and remember the Christ, who is truly present here and now, but who also was truly present in all our yesterdays, and who we can trust will be truly present in all our tomorrows.
Perhaps, too, our practice of gathering in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament might become not an event where we focus our gaze on the elements, as though Christ is present there as nowhere else, but rather where by focusing on those elements we consciously take time to become aware of, and reflect upon, Christ’s ever-presence everywhere.
I believe that when we act to receive the elements, we receive Christ. But that reception might, in our minds and bodies, take the form of recognizing that Christ is, always has been, and always will be present for all creation. If that is the case, then perhaps we can move to the next step: namely, to take away from that celebration the awareness that Christ is present, not only in the “Eucharisting” and receiving of the bread and wine, but in every moment of every day.
We learn to play tennis by practicing until our muscles have strengthened and our body remembers the needed actions so well that it naturally acts when called upon. If this is so in tennis, so gathering regularly each Sunday to actively participate in giving thanks, taking, eating, and drinking as one body, might be less about obeying a church dictate and more about developing the mental and bodily “skills of recognition” (as Rowan Williams has phrased it) that we need to readily recognize Christ as truly ever-present.
Ultimately, the sacraments might not be discrete events in which God acts at our behest like a puppet on a string, but events in which we humans recognize his ever-presence, ever-acting—and go on to live accordingly. ♦
Ray Temmerman (Catholic), with his wife Fenella (Anglican), administers the website of the Interchurch Families International Network. A former Board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), he continues to conduct research into the place of interchurch families and the gift they bring to their churches and the Church.