He dwells among us: The place of our identity

Christ must have his proper place in the sanctuary of our temple — in our heart’s center

by Bishop Richard F. Stika

Today, I must stay at your house. Luke 19:5

These beautiful words of Jesus to Zacchaeus the tax collector are words that He repeats to us every day. For by virtue of our baptism, each of us is a house of God, His holy temple.

And it is in the intimacy of our home, in our heart as the solemn place of encounter with our Lord, that Christ wishes to dwell in, in ever closer union with us. For only when our heart is a sacred place of communion with Christ are we able to know who we are and what we are to do in life.

The Mass, then, is where we learn our true identity and become most fully who we are.

In our society today, there is such a terrible crisis of identity— so many people who don’t know who they are and are desperately searching to discover an identity and purpose that gives meaning to their life. And if people don’t know who they are, then they also don’t know how to act either, for purpose in life is tied to identity.

There are so many who seem to be wanderers with no real destination. And while some may defend this as just being a “free spirit,” a road to nowhere eventually dead-ends in emptiness and despair.

Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen felt the reason so many people suffer from depression in our modern age is because they “are in a fruitless and constant search for the infinite in the finite, for God in carnality.” Despite all the technological marvels and the magnifying of the material and sensual, people seem more unhappy and sad than ever.

But it would seem, no matter the age, the painful experience of seeking one’s identity is the same. More than 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine described his own painful search for identity and purpose: “I was seeking for you outside of myself, and I failed to find the God of my heart.” Such are those who try to find their identity in something outside of themselves, for “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

God created us in His image and wants us to have the fullness of life in Him. And just as the tabernacle of our churches with our Eucharistic Lord must have its proper place within the sanctuary, so, too, must Christ have his proper place in the sanctuary of our temple—in our heart’s center. Only then will our house be a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13) that God can fill with His peace (Haggai 2:9). God’s presence must never be pushed to the periphery of our churches or our hearts.

The Mass is where we discover and become most fully who we are—it is the home of our identity— it’s where our identity is most fully revealed to us, nourished and made whole. And that is because, in paraphrasing the Second Vatican Council, “It is Christ Jesus who fully reveals to us who we are and makes our supreme vocation clear.”

If Jesus says to us, “Today, I must stay at your house,” He also says to us, “In your house, I shall celebrate the Passover….” (Matthew 26:18). If the Mass is to be celebrated, it must above all be celebrated within our heart.

When we come to Mass, we should bring the hunger and thirst of our heart as expressed in so many Psalms: “My soul is longing and yearning for the courts of the LORD. My heart and my flesh cry out to the living God” (Psalm 84:3). Particularly during the offertory, we bring these yearnings of heart, our whole being and our complete self-surrender to the altar to be joined with the gifts of bread and wine to be offered.

This moment truly decides our active participation in the Mass, where we decide to no longer belong to our self but to instead give our self totally to God.

We should be like the Samaritan woman who brings her empty earthen water jar and asks Jesus for “living water” that she might not thirst (John 4:15), remembering that Jesus also thirsts for us.

We should be like those who say to Jesus with open hands, “Give us this bread always” that we might receive the One who is the “Bread of Life” (John 6:34-35).

Only when our heart is a sacred place where we make our offering of self in the Mass to be joined and offered in the perfect and acceptable offering of Christ to God Our Father can we truly be said to be “Eucharistic.” Only then can we learn to make of our every day a series of offertories and to “live our Mass” in our love of God and neighbor.

Zacchaeus, we are told, received the Lord “with joy.” By welcoming Christ into his home, Zacchaeus’ heart was transformed and so was his gift. May the joy of receiving Christ into your heart in every Mass allow Christ to also rejoice as He did with Zacchaeus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19: 9-10).

And as you approach to receive our Eucharistic Lord, may the words of the centurion echo in your heart, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

Because love is unitive, we have our true identity in our communion with Christ.

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