A notion that Christ is actually hiding from us, rather than we from Him, is alive in the subconscious recesses of our society.
He is not openly defied, as we might expect were he a public danger, needing to be exposed; His teaching is not entirely forgotten, but scrambled: He is not mentioned in our dispatches – except awkwardly by extremists, such as evangelicals; and by them, less and less.
The pope, for instance, helps maintain the Church’s silence on this matter of identity. In the homilies and tweets of our more prominent ecclesiastical figures, Christ is not mentioned, as if He is not “cool.” God can, of course, not be avoided, even in casual conversation, but Christ is passed over, as if his statue were missing from the niche of our gods.
But He is, or at least was, without question, at the center of Western civilization, and had been for most of the last twenty hundred years. Where is Christ hiding?
The doctrine of transubstantiation, or rather the sacrament, gives the short answer to the question above. Where the Catholic Mass still happens: this is where to look. Christ will not be found from a search of the world, and is invisible to our biological eyes. The “eyes of faith,” however, discern a presence in this Mass that cannot be described in material terms, which therefore cannot be described.
But Christ is more invisible than that. He is depicted, loosely, in our memoirs, and our histories, for His effects in human lives, and formerly throughout our societies. He could be imagined thus upholding a civilization, made up of His faithful, His believers, stretching through time. We called this “Christendom.”
Membership or citizenship in this Christendom could somehow be imagined, better than Christ Himself could be imagined. No boundary could be drawn, however; there never has been any permanent boundary in our world.
For a different story, we would have to retreat to a much earlier century, say 200 A.D., or at the present day perhaps to Nigeria. These would seem, on our arrival, to show Christ also arriving in full animation; so that we would notice the nothingness when we came home.
The idea, or rather the person, was negated by secular politics. Our very understanding of “a person” has been obviated.
Yet in all these centuries, among individuals, Christ has been alive, unseen. He was conceived, even in the old secular media, as a conduit of truths that cannot be reduced to mere principles; as the moral law that cannot be reduced to a chart.
For Christianity has no worldly absolutes. The Absolute works through it, we could say (if we had faith, and reason), so it is not changeable, which it would be if it were written in black and white. We are prevented, or encouraged, as we – when mobilized by faith – try to follow the good, try to avoid the evil.
But Christ is not reducible to this moral law, and cannot be restored as this kind of statue. He is as indescribable as what is presented in the Mass – beyond our powers of analysis. The mystical apprehension of God, through Christ, is lost on us today; the one route, through the gate of Christ, is closed, when He is hidden.
The paradox is that Christ is hiding from us because we have made him too familiar. We have identified Him with our civilization, our country, our race, our time; and we have transferred our expectations of Him.
As Pope Francis says, He is a God of surprises. This is perhaps another way of saying the same thing – that we are bound to be surprised when our experience of the divine skips out of conventional channels. We cannot conceive of God, of the Holy Spirit, of Christ, because we have located “them” in our past – a familiar and comfortable past we have “grown out of.”
But what is surprising is that God is not dead. It is our civilization that has surprised us, by dying. Of course, we “moderns” are the only people who could be surprised by this.
For if we had a profound understanding of the Christian religion, centered upon Christ, we would not be mentally trapped by it. We would not have expected Christ to be a narrow, finite Being.
We have abandoned spiritual exercise; abandoned the mental and spiritual equipment needed for mystical labor; and lost our sense of reality thereby. The sentiment of religion – that which we think was so warm and emotionally comfortable – is what we have lost. It cannot be recovered.
There were and are other lands, beyond the frontiers of our West; and peoples who acknowledged other leaders, other prophets. We have fought over our frontiers, and outside them, in the past as we will do again. But Christ has ceased to be with us. He has gone missing from our battle standard. Perhaps he will reappear, but in the standard of an enemy.
Christ today seems lost to us because our civilization is collapsing. But civilizations have collapsed before, and the one in which we live is just one of many cultures that have embraced Christianity.
We – not actually you or I – will create other cultures. They take centuries to form, which is why I don’t expect anyone I know to belong to one. Our fate is simply to be in the time between; the period of a “decline and fall.” There have been many, there will be many.
Or perhaps the end of the world is coming into view, though I am not inclined to be so dramatic. I do not like to invest our tedious, bureaucratic, secular life with cosmic significance. For all I know, it won’t even go down through global warming. Yet granted, at the approach of each death, the end of the world comes in view.
Where shall the Catholic hide in such a world?
With Christ, as always.
*Image: Institution of the Eucharist by Fra Angelico and assistant, 1441-42 [Convent of San Marco, Cell 35, Florence, Italy]
You may also enjoy:
Ralph McInerny’s Present at the Apocalypse
Robert Royal’s End Times