Assembly Required

Christ’s Presence in the Pews

Picture a choir-loft view of a church full of Catholics assembled for the Eucharist. It’s a solemn feast, Easter perhaps. The presiding priest has just incensed the gifts and the altar, and has himself been properly reverenced in turn by the server. The server, who probably doesn’t do this very often, manages to survive holding the thurible open so the priest can put in more incense, and now wobbles toward the congregation like one of those 1970s toy Weebles. Rare is the server who achieves oneness with the thurible. Most know it as an alien, near infernal smoking thing that wants to take flight on its own, and this is what it seems like as the server clanks it against the chain and wafts it three times over the congregation. In random clumps the congregants begin to straggle to their feet. From the choir loft they look more like a choppy sea than a wave. The server bows. The people are standing now. Most bow in return and watch the server wobble back into the sanctuary.

As a performance it is far from perfect. Important feasts don’t happen every week, and only the pure would expect us all to get it right. In the hierarchical scheme of things, this reverencing of the congregation with incense doesn’t seem that important—it is left to the server, after all, rather than the priest or the deacon. Nevertheless, it remains a precious symbolic transaction, enacting with more or less ritual grace the Catholic teaching...

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About the Author

William L. Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton.