|"Christ of the Breadlines," urban mural by Gary Palmatier.|
It makes sense that the communities among which the gospels arose, and apparently in a more specific way the community that gave birth to the gospel of St. Matthew, were concerned about that promise. Now that Christ was risen and ascended, where was he? When could he be expected to return? The first generation of witnesses had virtually disappeared, Jerusalem was in ruins, Christians were a diaspora around the Mediterranean basin. What kind of hope was being summoned? How might we know the "real presence" of the Lord?
The gospels were presumably written "backwards," that is, having known and told the experience of the Lord's death and resurrection, the gospel writers then added stories from other sources to create their "good news". Luke and Matthew added midrashic infancy narratives that contain themes and motifs that appear throughout their gospels, Matthew taking some that showed the Messiah's development out of the Jewish tradition as well as his epiphany to all the nations (e.g., in the Magi), Luke interpolating the role of the Holy Spirit and the community of strangers and outcasts around the manger that would later populate the community of Jesus. It is in the Matthaean infancy narrative, too, that Jesus is called by the name "Emmanuel," a Messianic name that refers to Isaiah 9, and means "God-who-is-with-us." With the closing words of the Gospel, "I am with you always," this allusion forms an inclusio that gives a certain flavor to the whole gospel, and gets us looking for just what it might mean that "God is with us" in other passages.
I'm not a scripture scholar, but a couple of passages in Matthew jump right off the pages in that context. One is in the discourse on the community, in chapter 18. It is there that, in describing the way the community of disciples should act together (it is only in Matthew that the word "church" is used to describe the community), Jesus tells the community that it has the authority to bind and loose, and that God will hear the prayer of the church when it agrees to pray together. It is in this context that Jesus tells the group, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." So here, in the heart of the discourse on the community, is one clue: when we are together in dialogue, prayer, and forgiveness, and together is the crucial word here, Jesus is God-with-us.
The other citation is in chapter 25, of course, the great parable about the final judgment. In a series of parables that concern how Christians should be prepared for the parousia and therefore how life should be lived, we hear that the righteous and wicked alike are surprised to discover, at the end of life, that their activity or inactivity on behalf of the least of Christ's brothers or sisters was done on behalf of him. In other words, while we went about doing our business, day after day, for better or worse, interacting or ignoring the poor, thirsty, hungry, naked, and imprisoned, we were meeting (or ignoring) Christ himself:
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'Perhaps most startling of all, but very much in the spirit of Matthew 25, is Matthew 10, part of the missionary discourse. Sending his disciples to do his work of announcing the arrival of God's reign, showing signs to support their proclamation by healing, raising the dead, exorcising. Telling them not to be afraid, he assures them of the Spirit's presence in their time of trial, and that people of peace will indeed receive them and give them shelter. In his final exhortation, Jesus tells the apostles: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." Here, for a third time, we get a glimpse into the meaning of God-with-us: in those who preach the gospel. Those who bear the gospel to others bear the Word of God, and in that Word is the reality both of Christ and of the Father.
Christians who gather around the table of the Eucharist believe that in their gathering to remember the Lord's supper he is truly present. The Eucharist has become a kind of litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy: how real is the real presence? Certain people jump through hoops to demonstrate how real it is. But here, in the gospel of Matthew, we have Jesus's own words describing how God is with us, how he is present to us in every age: in our gathering to pray, in helping the poor, and in the ministers of the word, we encounter the Lord in our daily lives. That is real presence. We'll leave the beauty of the Eucharistic presence for another meditation. For today, let this be enough: that Christ is with us always in community, in the service of those in need, and in those who bear the gospel to us. Let's try to be attentive to that real presence, Emmanuel, God-with-us until the end of the age.