Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

To hear saintly people bearing witness to “seeing Jesus” in others had always intrigued me. On my first trip last October to the “tiradero” in Mexico City — inelegantly translated as “the dump,” the place where things are thrown away — some companions who had previously joined such missions spoke warmly about how they had encountered Jesus among these poorest of the poor there. I envied them. 

Others have told me they envied my own faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. This doctrine of our faith I have never doubted. But I never “saw” Christ in what we call the species or “accidents” of bread and wine that contain, in substance, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. I just believed.

What has always helped to strengthen my belief is the total credibility of the crucified Christ, who suffered and died on that cross. The cry, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28), from the heart of a God pining for our hearts, in human words and flesh, ratified by the total emptying (kenosis) of all that God incarnate is and could be in that one moment of total self-giving. Nothing could speak love more convincingly and completely than that. To put it bluntly, this is the affirmation that “God IS love.” And true love does not lie.

Jesus willed to give himself to us, pouring out himself on the cross, and leaving us that Real Presence in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, the Holy Eucharist, instituted the night before he died. We can count on this. I cannot forget the bluntly honest comment of Flannery O’Connor who said that “If it’s just a symbol, the hell with it.” Well, Jesus really died. Brutally. And his resurrection is God’s affirmation that this death, of all deaths, is the one that turns mortality on its head. Even death itself no longer distracts from the life that really is. Or as O’Connor put it, the Eucharist “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

Life and not death has the final say indeed. I had not realized fully how the power of Christ’s salvific act extends well beyond the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist to the world itself, changed by his death and resurrection. I accepted this as an article of our faith, but now I am coming to see how real this life is in our encounters with the poor. 
For one thing, I am learning that it is in the poor that I discover my own poverty. The poor are not “other” than me. They only show me who I really am in God’s eyes, possessing nothing that is really mine to have and to hold – except the belief that I am loved by God and God is my hope. Jesus is my only hope! The old expression “you can’t take it with you” came home to me loudly and clearly on my second mission trip to the tiradero last month. 

A particularly enduring image, one I might even call “sacramental,” was in an encounter with a man — I will call him “Diego” – who had been separated from his daughter since she was 2. That was some 20 years ago, when he and his wife parted. For all these years he had suffered the excruciating pain of separation, hoping that someday he would see his daughter again. He showed us her picture, a tattered photo he had kept in his humble abode all this time. 

“Diego” is a man of deep faith, much in command of operations on the dump, respected by his co-workers. He is so present to them that some have imagined him even to bi-locate. Separated from his daughter and wife, he also longs for the Real Presence of Christ at Mass, which is not available to him often. That chance came to him at a Mass we were so privileged to celebrate right on the dump one day during our visit. He shared the good news with my companions and me that, through someone who had made contact over Facebook, it turns out his daughter and ex-wife were living nearby, not more than a mile or so from the dump. In two weeks he was going to be reunited with them. That joyful encounter may be happening right about now. 

Coming close to the heart of this man in his suffering was a powerful experience of the humanity of one among those whom the world often forgets. It is only one of many stories we heard during our five-day pilgrimage, which not only formed a bond with our own hearts, in our joys and sorrows, but brought us all closer to the cross and the heart of Christ, making his presence among us so real and palpable. I was beginning to understand how those with nothing to hang onto but their faith and their humanity can expose the emptiness and — in a real sense — the poverty of so much of the worldly wealth we often cling to: who we know, what he have, where we have been, what we earn and wear and treasure. It brought home the truth of the first Beatitude about the poor – that theirs (yours) is the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 5:3, Lk 6:20). 

Very truly, as Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). What was becoming clearer was the intimate link between the Real Presence of Christ in the guarantee of his sacramental reality, which he gives us in the Mass and the truth of words that assures us that “the Mass IS” (or, in the Latin, “ite missa est”), that he is with us in the world as we encounter his intimacy as disciples in the world God loves, especially when we allow our poverty to be revealed to us, that nothing lasts but him.

I guess that to maintain the distinction between the mystery of the sacramentality of Christ’s presence in the world and the Sacrament of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we could say that Christ is “really present” in the world among us, especially in our encounters with one another in our poverty of spirit, but that he is “really ­really present” at Mass, which is guaranteed as a true encounter with him as he is. All human encounters can be fraught with lies and deceptions in that each of us, as a sinner, can stray, cling to an idol, abuse the freedom that God gives us. The Eucharist cannot lie, on God’s own word. We always go back to that source of life and be sure we find it there, in the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:35).

In our encounters with one another, especially among the poor, we find a privileged place to meet the living Christ. It is, as it were, an ongoing miracle of God’s presence in the world that the death and resurrection of Jesus offers until the end of time. In giving us himself as food for Eternal Life, he remains in us and among us. Only sin can separate us. As we encounter and accept our own poverty, we are less likely to be seduced by the allure of the wealth and riches of this world. Lent, with its penitential practices of prayer, fasting and abstinence, is such a blessed time for “letting go and letting God” as they say in the 12-step programs. Attending Mass, daily wherever possible, keeps us connected to Jesus, in his most intimate sacramental presence, and ready to encounter him among us as he remains with us on our pilgrimage of faith in this world. My thoughts and prayers are with you throughout these 40 days of extraordinary grace.
 facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd
 @AlbBishopEd