Today, billions of people worldwide commemorate one of the central mysteries of Christian faith: the irruption into time and history of Jesus — Immanuel or “God with us.” Many will attend services at which they will receive Jesus Himself under sacramental signs. This concept of sacramental presence is one of the richest in all of Christianity, and many gallons of ink have been spilled in (often angry) discussion of what this concept entails. I offer here one of the best, from Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s 1975 reference work Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi. Specifically, it’s from the article on “Transubstantiation,” by Engelbert Gutwenger: “The words of institution [of the Eucharist] indicate a change but do not give any guiding line for the interpretation of the actual process. As regards transubstantiation, it may then be said that substance, essence, meaning and purpose of the bread are identical. But the meaning of a thing can be changed without detriment to its matter. A house, for instance, consists of a certain arrangement of materials and has a clearly established nature and a clearly established purpose. If the house is demolished and the materials used for building a bridge, a change of nature or essence has intervened. Something completely different is there. The meaning has been changed, since a house is meant to be lived in and a bridge is used to cross a depression. But there has been no loss of material. In an analogous way, the meaning of the bread has been changed through the consecration. Something which formerly served profane use now becomes the dwelling-place and the symbol of Christ who is present and gives himself to his own. This means that an ontological change has taken place in the bread. . . . The consecrated bread [signifies] that the Lord who offers himself as food is not just at a distance but is present in the bread. By virtue of this concentrated symbolism, the bread becomes the sacramental manifestation of the presence of Christ. Hence transubstantiation means a change of finality and being in the bread and wine, because they are raised to being symbols of Christ who is present there and invites men to spiritual union.”
The analogy of the bridge is, I think, especially inspired, because it reminds us that the purpose of sacramental presence, and even more fundamentally the purpose of Jesus in his incarnation, is to bring God and man together, to see – as many of us sing today – “God and sinners reconciled.” The prominent Dominican theologian Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx died a couple of days ago; may he rest in peace. Father Schillebeeckx wrote a book called Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God, and that title summarizes in eight words the purpose of Christ, of Christmas, of the incarnation, of sacramental presence: God is with us that we may be with God. These are the joyful tidings that resound in our churches, on our radio stations, in our homes and hearts today.