Do time and place really matter in our relationship with God?
On the one hand, God is everywhere by His essence, presence and power. That’s the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. It means that we find God in every time and place.
On the other hand, St. Thomas knew — and we can know, with a little reflection — that there are ways in which time and place still matter.
For example, we know this as Cardinals fans. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet we can watch a Cardinals game at any time and in any place. Still, for a fan, watching by yourself isn’t the same as watching or listening to the game with other people while it’s happening. And watching or listening — even with other people, even while it’s happening — isn’t the same as being there in the stadium.
The Old Testament readings for this week apply this lesson to Israel’s relationship with God. Solomon brought the Ark of the Covenant to the Temple in Jerusalem during his reign. The Lord came to dwell in the Ark, in the Temple, in Jerusalem in a special way. The Psalms for the week reflect this, with refrains such as: “Lord, go up to the place of your rest” and “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God.” The Jewish people organized their worship around recognition of these facts. It’s not that God ceased to be present everywhere else. But they knew that, somehow, He was also especially present in the Ark in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they sought Him out there. Time and place mattered to them.
The New Testament applies this lesson to people’s relationship with Jesus. Again, in one way, God continued to be present in every time and place. And yet, somehow, He was present in Jesus in a way that He wasn’t present elsewhere. That’s why — and we see it in the Gospel readings for the week — people flocked to Jesus. They came to Him for healing. They came to Him for instruction. They knew there was something special in His presence that was not available in the same way at every other time and in every other place.
Why should that matter to us?
Because Mass counts are down. Again. In St. Louis and around the country. There are a variety of reasons for that. Some of them are our own fault. But one of the reasons is the attitude that time and place don’t matter: “I don’t have to go to Mass to pray. God is everywhere. I can worship Him wherever and whenever I want.”
That’s a half-truth. While recognizing that it’s half true, we need to be ready to give witness to the rest of the truth: that Jesus is present in the Tabernacle, and in the Mass, and in the priest, and in the congregation, in a way that He isn’t present at every other time and in every other place.
Our biggest response to that half-truth needs to be the witness of our own lives. We need to be there at Mass. But we also need to be ready to bear witness, with solid words and solid reasons, to what we know from everyday experience, from the Old Testament, and from the Gospels: Time and place really matter in our relationship with God.