Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Invisible God Made Visible by Love.

Let's explore for a moment the two ways of spelling the word "sacrament." One is with a lower case "s," that is, sacrament, and the other is with a capital "S," that is Sacrament.. I contend there are more "small-s sacraments" celebrated and capable of being celebrated in the world than the number of dollars in the hole represented by the United States' present bankruptcy bottom line of more than $17 trillion. Yes I maintain that there are at least 17 trillion (and perhaps even more) "small-s sacraments" in the world available to the earth's human beings.

Here's an example of what I mean by "small-s sacrament": A young couple, obviously very much in love, both wishing to get married, are taking a walk out in nature, holding hands, both wishing to get married. They rest for a moment on a majestic mountainside, gazing silently at the beautiful sunset. The vision essentially transfixes them. The young man presses his beloved's hand even firmer than when they were walking, looks into the young lady's eyes and says, as if he could wait no longer, "Darling, will you marry me?"

She responds with a glowing smile on her face. "Oh, yes, Sweetheart, please let's do. I am so sure of our love that I can wait no longer to begin to love you for the rest of my life." This episode is a "small-s sacramental" moment. With astonishing clarity and intensity, the two lovers are brought by the circumstances of the present moment to observe and admit the truth of their love for each other clearly and the truth of the commitment they choose to make a lifetime marriage. Why is this a "small-s sacrament"?

It is such a moment because the Catholic conviction is that if one sees clearly and unmistakably a great, God-given truth and yields to it, so as to make one's life more meaningful and the life of another happier and more rewarding, both parties will have been deeply graced. And grace is the Christ-given love that undergirds all that exists. The two lovers "love one another as Christ loves each of them respectively." Without necessarily realizing it or being "knocked over" by it in a dramatic fashion, the young couple beholds the omnipresence of grace in their agreement to marry and live together as lovers well and wisely.

The entire sacramental life, both "small-s," and "capital-S," is based on people being nurtured to become beholders of and to surrender to the grace that is based on Christ's love which fills the entire universe and is made abundantly available, especially in the "Capital-S Sacraments." But we need to say more about the "capital-S Sacramental life." That life is the conviction that if we truly see and fully appreciate what is there in the Church's divinely instituted seven Sacraments we will be encountering Christ's grace, stored up for us by him for centuries.

We will encounter his love as it undergirds all that exists, most powerfully in the Sacraments. Christ's love, when it can be fully perceived by the recipient of a Sacrament, awakens, enlivens, and expands the imagination, opens the vision, and enriches the sensitivity of the recipient toward an elevated love for Christ. (And even in infant Baptism godparents can "stand in" to nourish their godchild along to the age of understanding the amazing gift they received from Christ in the Sacrament of initiation.) Catholicism is shaped by the conviction that Christ's grace lies at the root of all reality. Dante, in the closing lines of his Divine Comedy, recognizes deeply "the love that moves the sun and other stars."

This is Dante's statement of the Sacramental principle: the universe, the sun and all the stars, are grounded and governed by love. The universe exists because of Christ's infinite self-gift. This enlivens the Catholic tradition at its best in the Sacramental life, where the recipient of a Sacrament receives Christ's infinite self-gift, not as the glory of all that is created in the universe, but in the heart of Christ's beloved who has received Christ's self-gift personally, intimately, person-to-person in the Sacraments.

This person-to-person communication between the loving Christ and his beloved who receives Christ through the Sacraments, there is something more profound than our two lovers' "s-sacramental" moment on the mountainside -- in fact something of more ultimate, infinite profoundness--namely the Catholic Sacramental Tradition. You will have noticed that the young couple above said nothing about God's presence either in their lives or in their upcoming marriage. In the Sacramental tradition, especially as it has been bequeathed to us by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), God is at the core of both Catholic theology and the practice of Catholics participating in the Sacramental life.. Here, Thomas makes one of his all-encompassing definitions in just a few words of an absolutely essential aspect of Catholic Sacramental theology:

"The Power of Christ's passion is joined to us through faith and through the Sacraments, yet in different ways; for the contact which is through faith takes place through the act of the soul, but the contact which is through the Sacraments takes place through the use of external things." [He speaks to the concrete manner in which everything that the Savior did and suffered in the flesh reaches us] "spiritually through faith and bodily through the Sacraments, for Christ's humanity is simultaneously spirit and body in order that we might be able to receive into ourselves--we who are spirit and body--the effect of the sanctification that comes to us through Christ."

So now we know that the Sacraments are essentially connected to faith, that they involve the use of "external things," and that they are instruments of saving grace. Putting all this together we find a concise definition of the Sacraments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The Sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the Sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each Sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions."(CCC 1131).

The Sacraments are not simply ceremonies. They are efficacious, which means that they DO SOMETHING. And what they do is what they signify. They actually do what they point to. So, for example, Baptism, which is a sign of washing, actually washes us, i.e., it washes us clean of sin. Why do the Sacraments have this power to DO SOMETHING?

The Catechism gives the answer: They are efficacious, i.e., they do something because in them Christ himself is at work. For example, in Baptism, it is Christ who baptizes, and further it is he who acts in his Sacraments as a whole in order to communicate the grace that each Sacrament signifies. At the moment of reception, Christ is thinking of the recipient, turning his redemptive love upon him, and reaching out to sanctify him. This is consistent with the theology of Jesus' Passion, Death and Resurrection. As Jesus experienced these mysteries he could see all people of all time.
Jesus was thinking of you and me as he suffered and died for us, and in the same vein he was mindful of every Sacrament we would ever receive throughout our lives. More powerfully, Jesus was inviting us in each Sacrament that we receive now to be united with him in the mystery of his sacrifice back then.

The Sacraments, then, have the same miraculous quality to them that Jesus' saving of us through his
death on the cross has. He saw all of us in those terrible three hours of incredible suffering on the cross, where he poured out infinitely his saving love for us. The salvific effect of his crucifixion and death for us had the same effect back then as it has now in the Sacraments.

We can distinguish clusters of the Sacraments: Three of the Sacraments are Sacraments of Christian initiation, namely, Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation. Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace, as through the anointing with oil in Confirmation those who are baptized share more completely in the mission of Jesus. The Holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been baptized and confirmed participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.
 Post by Tony Gilles