There is a cartoon of a cowboy in the middle of a barren desert, with only the odd cactus nearby, answering his mobile phone, saying, "I'm completely alone, with no one to talk to." The joke, of course, is that in answering his phone he is not completely alone. But perhaps the deeper joke, or the deeper insight, is how far we go not to be alone, for even desert dwellers need the company of others.
This is something we see all round us. We see it in the lengths people go to to find someone to share their lives and to love them; and in the efforts people take to keep friendships alive. We see it in what men and women have sung about for centuries, the need to be loved by another and the pain when it does not work out.
We see it even in the proliferation of mobile phones, to be able to contact others and be contacted, no matter where we are. We see it in the prayers people utter, that they may not be left alone by God, but may feel his presence as they journey through life.
Our need not to be alone is a deep one, and has to do with something much more than mere human proximity. A person can feel completely alone in a busy city, and two people can be in a room together without being present to one other in any meaningful way. Yet a person who knows that he or she is cherished might not feel alone, even though their loved one is far away.
What makes the difference is that being present to another in a meaningful way involves some gift of self. When you are loved and cherished by another, that person has given something of himself to you, and even a person who listens with compassion to a stranger has given something of himself for that brief time.
It is a presence of the most meaningful kind, a real presence, and a gift of the most ultimate degree, that we celebrate today on this Feast of Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. The presence of God was shown to the People of Israel in the wilderness, feeding them with manna, giving them water from the rock, and leading them to the Promised Land.
Yet, the presence we celebrate today is of a deeper kind than they understood. Christ says just as much, for the bread he gives is not like the bread our ancestors ate, for they are dead, but whoever eats the bread he gives will live forever.
This presence of Christ to us is a presence so intimate that it is appropriate that it is signified and brought about through the consecration of food and drink. Just as food and drink nourish us and become part of us, so Christ nourishes us and becomes part of us too, living in us. As consumed by us, Christ's gift of himself is total, shown during his life on earth by his giving his life to us by dying on the cross, giving us his body and his blood. As a total gift of himself, his presence to us is therefore presence in the fullest sense, whole and entire:
For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.
What this shows to us is that what we celebrate today is not so much the presence of God among men and women in the past, two thousand years ago, when Christ walked among us. No. Today's feast is about the here and now. The complete presence of Christ to us is at all times, shown most powerfully when men and women come together to celebrate the Eucharist. Here the body and blood of Christ are consumed by us, transforming us, making us men and women in whom God dwells. In this common presence of Christ we have a unity in Christ, forming, as St Paul tells us, a single body. And this presence is not just a reality existing only when we celebrate the Eucharist, but is carried by us into the world throughout our daily lives.
That is why the Christian faith tells us that we are never alone. Far from it. Even when we feel abandoned by others, God is always with us, present to us. We are perhaps not so different from the cowboy in the cartoon: we may sometimes think we are completely alone, but we are not, and that is indeed something to celebrate with great joy.