As we stand in heaven during the Mass, Christ is in our midst. He is in our midst mentally, as we think about, contemplate, and meditate on His saving work and His sacred gifts. He is in our midst emotionally, as our hearts are uplifted due to His loving-kindness and many mercies which we certainly do not deserve. He is in our midst spiritually, as the Holy Spirit draws us slowly, gently, kindly, into His soothing and invigorating embrace. But most of all, Christ is in our midst physically. He is really present, standing before us not figuratively but literally, not symbolically but actually, not metaphorically but truly.
How do we know this? How do we know most anything that really matters, anything that soothes our soul and helps us see beyond this life? Only by faith. Only by faith do we know, and trust, and embrace that Christ is in our midst. Just as, only by faith, do we know and trust and believe that we stand in heaven during the Mass.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Yet faith, for us, is easily distracted because we tend to get caught up in our own selves and so rely, way too much, on the impermanent things and feelings that we are convinced are so real. What is real is what lives beyond death. And what is real is what gives us a happiness that no heartache or suffering can diminish.
As well as being easily distracted, our faith is also weak because faith requires us to see beyond our eyes, to see past our hopes and fears, and even to see more than we can imagine. And so, to help our faith and to lift our hearts into what is truly real, Christ provides us with various means, modes and instruments that speak not just to our eyes but to all our senses, so that we might truly see Him as He stands before us.
We tend to think that our most powerful sense is sight. The Lord recognizes this, and so He offers us visual cues of His real and actual presence during the Mass. The most obvious of these is the priest. This is obvious, not because the priest stands up front and leads the liturgy, but because he dresses so differently from the rest of us; so differently, in fact, that the priest is covered, head to toe, with uncommon clothing. It’s as if we don’t want to see him; as if we want his shape and other attributes to fade away; as if his clothing wants to transport us to another time and place; as if we don’t want him there for himself, but instead long for someone else in his place. And that’s precisely why we dress-up the priest. It is so that we remember that Christ is in our midst, when the priest stands before us; and so that we remember that the words he speaks and the prayers he says are not his words but the Lord’s own Word. (By the way, that also explains why the bishop requires the priest to say so few words of his own, and to say instead the Scripturally-soaked words.)
Yet, if truth be told, one of our most powerful senses is our sense of smell. Among other things, it governs our reactions, triggers our memories, and directs our taste buds. Using our olfactory organ, Christ shows us that He is truly present. With the help of the servers, the priest uses the censor to produce, emit, and disperse perfumed fragrance. But not any fragrance; rather, the precise fragrance that was used when Christ was buried, the fragrance that emanated from His resurrected body when He stood in the midst of the Apostles. That cologne from His body as He spoke—that is the same scent we get to smell during the Mass. It announces to us, as it did to Peter and Thomas, that the resurrected Christ is in our midst, bringing not the stench of death but the aroma of life.
And how close to us is Christ? Consider what is incensed: the altar (which represents the tomb of Christ); the priest (who operates in the person of Christ); the Gospel (which contains the words of Christ); the faithful (who are the Body of Christ); and the Eucharist (which is Christ Himself). How close is Christ to us? “He is nearer than we believe.” Like the incense, He permeates and saturates and pervades the church and the liturgy.
And what ought be our response? To approach Christ Himself as He presents Himself as our means of salvation. For that is why Christ is in our midst—so that we might connect with Him, trust Him, and embrace Him as authentically and truly as He is present for us.