A ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’
It’s easy to impose our own prejudices in evaluating our relationship with God. When we are asked if we truly have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” the expression suggests an emotional, warm, intimate feeling of the encounter. Of course, as Catholics, we may easily respond, “Yes, indeed, I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ every time I receive Him in Holy Communion.”
An emotional response when receiving Communion can be a welcome consolation to be sure, but it is often lacking. Mother Teresa—Saint Teresa of Calcutta—turned to a priest during the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and lamented, “I feel nothing.” Would Mother Teresa, in view of her now well-known spiritual desolation, stand accused of failing to cultivate or find a “personal relationship” with Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist?
Shortly after the miraculous multiplication of loaves, Jesus begins to reveal his Real Presence under the appearance of bread and wine: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35) The response is, perhaps, predictable: “[T]he Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (Jn. 6:52) Jesus is unmoved by their objections, as the disciples fail to grasp the ultimate purpose of the miracle of the loaves: to elicit their faith in his words and promises. So “…many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (Jn. 6:66)
At the Last Supper, Jesus completes the revelation of the mystery of the Real Presence: “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body”—and similarly with the wine. (cf. Mk. 14:22-24) No metaphors. Literally the Real Presence under the appearance of bread and wine. “What the senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith’s consent” (from the Tantum Ergo).
“[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Faith is necessary to enter into communion with Him. The Divine plan is to spark a response of faith rather than promising the good feelings that can be expected to come with everyday friendly personal relationships. During spiritual desolation, God redirects love of his consolations—a love that can distract and consume—to authentic Christian love. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) Faith is tested and strengthened when God suspends his consolations for a time.
It seems easy to imagine Jesus continuing his sacred ministry in person after the Cross and Resurrection, cultivating friendly “personal relationships.” The Gospel provides us with clues as to our likely response. Undoubtedly, without his Ascension into Heaven after the Resurrection, most of his followers would continue to seek Him in a dysfunctional way: “…what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?” (Jn. 6:30) An identifiable presence of Jesus in modern times would likely ratchet up expectations for “new and improved” continuing revelations hoping to render obsolete inconvenient teachings such as, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk. 9:23) We could easily be distracted from our duty to keep his commandments with evangelical zeal.
True faith, rather, directs our attention to Jesus by way of the unchanging Deposit of Faith handed down throughout the ages after the death of the last Apostle. And cultivating personal relationships is the pastoral duty of his disciples who are commissioned to “baptize all nations” in his name. (Mt. 28:19) Jesus entrusts Himself to the members of His Church. So our encounter with Him is through healthy personal relationships with his representatives, members of his Mystical Body. Through the Mass—and through the ministry of the ordained priests of the Church—our faith directs us to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. The mediation of the priest gives way to a direct and true personal relationship with Jesus in faith.
Such a relationship may be unemotional, even dry, plodding, and frustrating. But a ready faith remains spiritually profitable, always ready to say with Saint Peter in times of confusion, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:68) True faith sticks with Jesus, and recognizes that Jesus sticks with us, through all the trials of life—like the faith of Mary at the foot of the Cross, like the faith of the holy martyrs in the early Church.
After the Ascension and Descent of the Holy Spirit, Saint John refers to his personal encounter with Jesus to spark our faith in Him: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.” (1 Jn. 1) Communion!
Our encounter with Jesus in Holy Communion is the most glorious encounter we can have this side of heaven, the very foretaste of heaven. It is an encounter of faith, but an encounter where faith comes into direct contact with a personal and living Reality. And God and man are reconciled.
Our communion with Him impels us to enter more deeply into a bond of familial love: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk. 3:35) Reception of Holy Communion in faithful obedience to Christ is the perfect personal relationship with Jesus, whether or not we feel it. But there is always something sweet and consoling about a good conscience at peace with God’s will.
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