THE SEVEN SACRAMENTS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
GRACE IS FOR-GIVING AND FOR-GETTING
This second talk is building upon the first talk and I would like to explain briefly how it is. The first talk was an introduction to the idea of sacrament. It was titled "Growth by Oath" because we tried to see the deeper meaning of sacrament is wrapped up with that term "oath" once it is properly understood. We are going to move on now. Our second installment, if you will, is going to be on an overview of the seven sacraments of the Catholic faith -- an overview. The title I've given it -- it's kind of clever, I guess, -- it's "Grace is for Giving and for Getting."
Introductory Review of Previous Talk
Just to review briefly from last night: four main points or maybe five. First of all, sacrament is the most important idea in the Catholic faith. It's the most distinctive element in Catholicism. When you look at all the other non-Catholic variations of the Christian religion, it's the one thing that stands out the most and when you understand the Catholic faith, it's the one thing that stands clearly at the center.
Secondly, we also said that sacraments may well be the least understood part of the Catholic faith because of our society, perhaps because of lack of training, but also a lack of historical sense when it comes to understanding what sacramentum is all about.
The third idea that we tried to get across last night was that the oath concept on which sacrament is built is perhaps even less understood than sacraments themselves. So we have a kind of double duty for ourselves if we want to understand the sacraments. We are going to have to understand the Catholic distinctives. We are also going to have to understand why the Holy Spirit led the Catholic Church to use this term "sacramentum" to describe these sacred and holy actions that Christ gave us.
We saw, fourthly, that the oath, sacramentum, is constitutive of a covenant bond. That is, covenant and oath are practically interchangeable terms. Let me give you just a little bit of backup so that you can see what I mean there. In Ezekiel 17 we read in verse 8, "I gave you my solemn oath and entered into covenant with you," declares the sovereign Lord, "and you became mine." When he swears the oath, he forms the covenant and we become his possessions. Likewise going over to Ezekiel 16, verse 59, "I will deal with you as you deserve because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant." The next chapter, Ezekiel 17, verse 13, "Then he took a member of the royal family and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath." Likewise, it talks about verse 16, "As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, he shall die in Babylon and the land of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke." Verse 18, "He despised the oath by breaking the covenant," and on and on we go.
You may say, "This is just simply an Old Testament idea, but we actually find that one of the first occurrences of the terms "oath" and "covenant" in the New Testament together is found in Luke, Chapter 1 where Zechariah is giving us his psalm. In Luke 1 beginning in verse 68 it says, "Praised be the Lord the God of Israel because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David to show his mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, yea, the oath he swore to our father Abraham."
You see how oath and covenant are interchangeable terms. They are practically synonymous ideas in our religion. So to pledge oneself to God and to plea for God's help, as we do in an oath, we say, "I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." That's our pledge and then comes our plea, "so help me, God." That is what constitutes a covenant bond. We are going to look into that a lot more this morning.
Finally, we concluded last night by saying that what is distinctive about the New Covenant, as opposed to all of the Old Testament covenants is that Christ swears the oath. Christianity is the only religion in the world, the only religion in human history where God is the one swearing the oath. God says, "I give you my word," and the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. That word speaks love and truth to us and says, "I'll stake my life on it," and then he proceeds to stake his life on the cross so that from his body, as a result of his curse, we might derive our supernatural life.
Now this talk is going to explore more in depth how the sacraments relate to the central idea of the covenant, to discover what it really means. If you ever read through the Bible from beginning to end, and that's something I would really encourage all Catholics to do; the Bible is not a Protestant book, it's our most treasured family heirloom. Vatican II compares it to the Eucharist as the bread of life for our souls. So if you have read the Bible all the way through or if you will read the Bible all the way through, you will discover, I am sure, that the covenant idea is central to scripture. It's central to understanding what the Bible means by salvation and what the Catholic Church teaches about salvation.
Meaning of Covenant
But what is the covenant? What is the meaning of the term "covenant"? We see its relationship to oath. They are practically interchangeable but how do we move on from identifying sacrament and oath, oath and covenant? What is the practical meaning of covenant? You might say, "Well, that's simple." It's not! Just as we had many confusions and misunderstandings about oaths, I would say that we have at least as much misunderstanding about covenant.
Let's remove some of the misconceptions. One of the most frequent confusions I run into is people identifying a covenant with a contract. A contract and a covenant are often used interchangeably in our society. That is one of the greatest blunders you could commit, if you really want to understand the nature of a covenant. The difference between a contract and a covenant is practically as great as the difference between prostitution and marriage, between your boss and your grandfather, between your employees and your children. They are practically antithetical at one level. The difference is profound and so the confusion is dangerous if we are going to see the covenant as the center of the Christian faith and then misunderstand it as a contract. A contract is a mutual relationship between two parties based merely upon promises exchange, to exchange goods and services. Contracts exchange property through mutual agreement between two individuals.
The oath is what transforms a contract into a covenant by bringing down God and interposing him between the two parties. God becomes judge and provider. He helps us if we open ourselves to it and he judges us by what we do and say according to our oath. The oath transforms the contract into a covenant. A covenant doesn't exchange property; a covenant exchanges persons. That's why God said in Ezekiel 16, "I swore an oath. I entered into a covenant with you and you became mine." We become his treasured possessions, and he becomes our treasured inheritance. Persons exchange themselves in a covenant under God's care and under his supervision and with his grace.
An oath is what makes the difference because it brings down God to be actively present as provider and judge, the father-figure in the family. In fact, one of the greatest scholars of this century, when it comes to studying oaths and covenants, is a man by the name of D.J. McCarthy, a great scripture scholar. McCarthy once said that covenants were the means by which the ancient world took to extend relations beyond the natural unity of blood. Let me say that again. McCarthy defines covenants: covenants were the means the ancient world took to extend relationships beyond the natural unity of blood. If we are related by blood, we are family. If we want to extend family bonds beyond natural flesh and blood, we use oaths and form covenants, and those covenants become family bonds.
McCarthy, in fact, defines covenant, in his important work, "Treaty and Covenant" as "a quasi-familial union based on oath." A family-like union, a familial union based on oath. Now that is going to be one of the most important ideas to penetrate into the most glorious depths of the Catholic religion and the Christian life that we are trying to lead with God's help. Because the sacraments are the bonding agents in the family of God.
If the covenant that Christ forms in the New Covenant is that sacred family bond, then the sacramental oaths that he swears and then offers to us to reenact within the Body of Christ, if all this in fact is true, then we need to see the sacraments as the bonding agents in the family of God. It's interesting that even the Hebrew word for covenant, bereth -- if we trace the origin of the term bereth back to its etymology, you come up with the idea of chain or binding or fetter, a chain or a fetter, binding. Now that might seem odd, at first. To bind, to chain, to fetter? Yeah, that's right, because in a family you're in a bind. You're bound to each other. You're chained together. This helps clarify what Michael Novak means when he kind of jokingly defines the family as "the only place on earth where when you go, they have to take you in." When you go home, it's the only place where they have to take you. Why? Because you are all bound together and it's the oath covenants of the family that bind us together.
It reminds me of a very sad but enlightening experience I had teaching a course at an important Catholic university in the Midwest. I was teaching a course in the Theology of Marriage for four weeks and one of my top students -- she was not only brilliant, she was very beautiful and also you could tell, very committed to practicing her religion by her comments and by her demeanor. She didn't speak that much in class until the very last week. We were just sharing practical experiences about marriage at the close of the course and I asked around, I was asking various students what their plans were in light of what they were studying. I called on her. We'll call her Maryann. I said, "Maryann, what are your plans? Are you going to get married?"
She said, "Oh, no." A lot of guys looked down glum, you know. Doggone it, you know, it would have been nice. There goes one dream. I said, "Oh, okay," I was fishing, "Are you thinking of the religious life.
"Who, me? No, I'm not cut out for that."
And I said, "Oh, okay," sort of like option C, what is it again?
It didn't come to me. I said to her, "Okay, what are..."
"I don't know, I don't know."
"Well, okay, what do you think about marriage?"
"I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
She looked down and she looked back up and she said, "Well, do you really want to know?"
I wasn't sure I really wanted to say yes but I did. She said, "Well." She proceeded to explain that her father is one of the top divorce lawyers in one of the most important Midwestern cities and he has been for decades, and ever since she was a little girl, she would sit at the dinner table as Daddy came home and he would tell one horror story after the other, week in and week out about all of these terrible divorces that he was deliberating over as a lawyer.
One the previous week involved a married couple who had been together for over forty years. The man invented something, patented it, got rich and decided it was a new life for himself. So he decided it was time for a new wife. So he proceeded to run off with his 23-year-old secretary, she said. Well, the divorce was very bloody. The proceedings were very hard. She described them briefly and she said that the day before her father explained how hard it was. He was trying to settle, resolve this whole thing, trying to figure out some cash settlement. Here's a million dollar check, and he wrote it out and he proceeded to hand it to her attorney. He gave it to her. She ripped it up. She started crying.
"What do you want? That's just the way you are!" He wrote a check for twice the amount. She ripped it up. Three times the amount. She ripped it up, and he said, "What do you want?"
In between these uncontrollable sobs, she just began to say, "I don't want to grow old alone. I don't want to grow old alone."
She said, "Now, do you understand why I don't want to get married?"
I said, "No, I think you might be able to understand, though, why marriage is a sacrament because we need all the help God can give us to stay together."
But we fear growing old alone, don't we? Marriage as a covenant is the chain that liberates us. That's what an oath is. That's what a covenant is. If a covenant comes from the term to bind, to chain, to fetter, it's so that we can grow old in security, in freedom, not fearing our wrinkles, our potbellies, our varicose veins, our balding heads. You know, all of these things. We could have security because we belong to each other through covenants that chain us together. That's the idea. That's the idea in antiquity. That's the idea in the New Testament. That's the idea today, whether or not we understand it and God knows, we need to understand it better.
Old Testament as a Series of Covenants Whereby God Fathers His Family on Earth
All of the Old Testament reads this way: a series of divine covenants whereby God fathers the family that he has on earth by oaths with these very important people that we mentioned last night. He established an oath with Adam. He established an oath covenant with Noah. He establishes an oath covenant with Abraham and with Moses and with David and then ultimately, of course, with our Lord, Jesus Christ. But the Old Testament can only really be understood, this series of covenants needs to be seen, as a process by which God fathers his family.
Through these covenants he restructures and administers his love, his life, his grace, his justice and power to his people: that marital covenant with Adam, that domestic household covenant with Noah. A covenant with Abraham forms the family of God into a tribe, and you can just see God's family expanding. With Moses instead of just a tribe, there are twelve tribes and the covenant that God makes with Moses reforms and restructures those twelve tribes into a national family.
Then, with David that nation becomes a kingdom that subjugates and controls other nations, hoping to lead them closer and closer to their Creator and Father through these covenants. A national kingdom family is the best we get in the Old Testament, but when Christ comes, what is it that he establishes? What is it that he extends out in this great extended kinship network? Simple. The climax of the Old Testament series of covenants is when Christ establishes an international family, a Catholic covenant.
Jesus' New Covenant Establishes an International Family, A Catholic Covenant
The word for international, cataholiche, is where we get the word catholic. The distinctive genius and beauty of the New Covenant is precisely its Catholicity. We are part of a worldwide family. No longer do we divide and segregate between Jews and Gentiles. We are all God's children in the household of faith through the flesh and the blood which bonds us together, that flesh and blood of Christ that we receive in the Holy Eucharist.
We also need to see, however, that the Old Testament reads almost like a tragedy, almost like a horror story. How is that? Well, if mankind is God's family, the more you read the Old Testament carefully, the more you realize that outside of the covenants, outside of Israel, outside of God's family arrangement in the Old Testament, you can see that mankind was one, big, unhappy family torn apart by sin, broken by violence and injustice, selfishness. So much so, that mankind forgot that it was really one family under God.
That's truth. We all come from Adam. That isn't just historically true, that's biologically true and that's theologically significant because it explains why Christ comes as a new Adam, the founding father of a new family, not a natural, earthly family, but a supernatural family in heaven and we who are members of it on earth are pilgrims and sojourners, wayfarers, waiting to get home -- a colonial outpost, a kingdom established away from the royal capitol, here on earth. We're on probation and we're on pilgrimage, but we are in a new covenant that Christ has sworn the oath for so that we can have much greater assurance that we will make it home, back to the Father and back to the great family reunion in heaven.
If we keep this covenant connection in mind and we think about the covenant in light of the oath that Christ swears -- God swears the oath by becoming man and dying for us and taking on himself the curse -- if we see all of this, I think we are going to be able to understand grace in a radically new way. It's going to be much more significant, much more attractive and our Lord will be much more adorable and desirable for our life and for our love and for all of our needs.
This explains why the covenant is so central to the Catholic faith and why the life we lead is a family life. If we keep this covenant family connection in mind, if we keep it at the front and the center of our thinking, it's going to help explain three of the most important things that the sacraments do. Let me quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document from Vatican II in 1963, paragraph 59 where it describes how the purpose of the sacraments, "is threefold. First, to sanctify man." That's the first thing, that is, God personally fathers us, his children, to maturity, to love, to wisdom, to holiness.
The second thing, Vatican II says, "The sacraments are purposed to build up the Body of Christ," not just we, as children of God, as persons, but God fathers his entire covenant family in justice and love and mercy.
The third thing is to "give worship to God." The sacraments are to give worship to God because the father wants to fill us with all that which we adore and praise in him. One of the most forgotten laws in modern society is we become like the one we worship. That's not just true for Christians; that's true for everybody. Everybody worships something. Everybody serves something and we always tend to become like the one we worship. So we don't worship because God is some cosmic egomaniac who says, "Give me all the glory." We worship because through worship God fills us up with all that which we praise and adore in him, and so we become more and more like him. We worship him, ultimately, for our sake. It doesn't add anything to his glory, but it sure adds a lot to ours and that's what a father takes great satisfaction in.
So God gives us these sacraments so that we can say, "So help me God," and be assured that he will give us his help. That help isn't just truth. It isn't just justice. It isn't just laws. It's all of that embodied in Christ who lived and walked among us and who died for us to give us this New Covenant. That's why we do practically everything as Catholics, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Every time we make the sign of the cross, what are we doing? We're renewing our oath. It's like the court was dismissed for a day and we came back and it's in session again. And I remind you, you're still under oath, and so take the oath sign, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," because that was the sign sworn over you when you were reborn into his family. That reminds us we are his children. We're his possessions and he is our possession and our inheritance. We do practically everything under the sign of the cross because that is the oath that gives us certainty that we are truly his children and that isn't just some quaint metaphor that stirs up our feelings.
That's more true than everything you see around us in this room. That's bedrock reality. So, when we do this, we continually remind ourselves that we are children of the Blessed Trinity. That gives to us a sense of identity. It gives to us a sense of dignity. It gives to us a sense of royalty, and it should also give us a drive for holiness because it isn't just a reminder of who we are, it's a renewal of the oath that we swore in our Baptism and that was sworn over us in Confirmation.
We miss the overarching centrality of the family for Christianity and the Catholic Church. It isn't just a metaphor. It isn't just an analogy. It's the master idea to our faith. Somebody might say, "Well, wait a second. The family is a good illustration. It's a good teaching device. It's a helpful metaphor. It's just too ordinary. It's too mundane. You know it's just so... it's all around us, family, you know. We should look for something very unique and special and unusual to understand God." Is that right? Not if we really understand the character of our Father, because God's deepest desire is to give to all of his children the raw materials, that which it takes, whatever it takes, to understand his love. Not a Ph.D. in theology, though he might call some to that. Not necessarily graduate studies, though I hope we all commit ourselves to the apostolate of studying our faith.
Ultimately, God gives to every garage mechanic, every cleaning lady, every bag lady, every street person, everybody rich and poor, everybody famous and infamous -- he gives to every human being the raw materials to understand his love by giving them a mother and a father, brothers and sisters. Well, you might say, "Family experiences are often raw and painful." That's right. He gives us family, so that we can understand his love, but he gives us a fallible family so that we will desire the only true infallible family, the Blessed Trinity whose life is lived in the Catholic Church, God's international, universal family.
I'll say it again: the family of God is the master idea to the Catholic faith. Boy, did that come as a shock to me! I was still anti- Catholic when I was working on oath and sacrament and covenant and family. My sharper students were saying, "This is going to lead you to ruin," and I thought, "Ah, poppycock, it's not going to lead me near the Catholics." It did, and I'm glad to tell you why. Because there's really no other way to get to the heart of what we mean when we describe the Blessed Trinity or when we describe the Blessed Virgin Mary as our supernatural mother, or when we pay respect and homage to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, or we speak to the priests of the parish family as Father, or when we celebrate the feast days of the saints, because what family doesn't celebrate birthdays and anniversaries?
The statues and the icons and the pictures and the relics and the medals -- they're all family trinkets! They are supernaturally charged with a supernatural love, but the family of God is the master idea to our faith. If we try to understand it and if we try harder to live it, we are going to see how it is that the sacraments enable us to fulfill that family life. The New Covenant gives to us privileges that are just incredibly superior to the Old Covenant. That's why, incidentally, the New Testament sacraments are fewer than the Old Testament sacraments were. They're easier. We don't have to sacrifice tens of thousands of cows and sheeps and goats. Aren't you glad? They're fewer. They're easier because they're stronger to overcome our sin, because Christ is the one who swears the oath behind it all.
Sacraments Enable us to Fulfill our Supernatural Family Life
I'll tell you one thing that I want you to take home. The highest good in all creation, the greatest goal for all our lives can be reduced down to one thing, outside of God himself, of course, and that is the grace of divine sonship, Sanctifying Grace. The grace of divine sonship is the most precious thing in the whole universe, outside of God himself.
What is that grace? It's the life of Christ, the Eternal Son, within us. So it's no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me, as Saint Paul says. Jesus says in John 15, verse 5, "Apart from me, you can do nothing." But St. Paul says in Phillipians 4:13, "I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me." We need to understand that. The highest good in all creation is the grace of divine sonship. He wants to bring that sonship to maturity. He wants to bring that grace to perfection. He wants us to become like Christ. Romans 8:29, "Those whom he foreloved, he predestined to be conformed to the image of the firstborn among many brethren." Christ is the new Adam because he is the founding father of a new family in his own glorious and divine and human flesh and blood and he calls us to bring that sonship to maturity and he gives to us all that we need to do so. That's the bottom line. The supernatural life of His children is His biggest concern for History and for the world.
He wants to bring us to maturity. I once spoke to a former professor of mine, probably the most brilliant man I have ever studied under, certainly the godliest person I have ever had the privilege of studying with. I talked to him a couple years before I became a Catholic. I called him because I was scared that I might end up having to take the Roman road and swim the Tiber and "Pope," as they say, and it was the last thing on earth that I wanted to do. So I called this professor and he said, "Come on, you know my wife is an ex-Catholic, and she left in her childhood and she's glad; she's been glad ever since. And all of this sacramental business, what do you make of that?"
I proceeded to explain how the sacraments can fit into a family program, that you can see a natural family life cycle reflected in the supernatural life cycle. "A family life cycle," he said. "That's curious. That's a novel teaching tool to try to make sense to what is so obviously wrong and superstitious."
At the time, I did think it was novel. I thought it was one of my clever innovations, you know? I was sharing with my students as though I had come up with it. I was in for a rude shock. Of course, I thought I had found it in the New Testament, but I had never heard any of my teachers who found it there.
Then I began to read the early Church Fathers. The early Fathers frequently speak of the sacraments as the most essential part to what they call "God's economy of salvation." Now that's a phrase that is hard to understand for modern Christians. Why? The sacraments are an essential part of God's economy of salvation. What do they mean by economy? God's GNP? The heavenly market place? You know, is there Wall Street up there on the streets of gold? I don't think so. I don't think that we are merely commodities that are being traded on the heavenly exchange.
The idea that the early Fathers had in mind when they said that the sacraments are the essential part of God's economy of salvation is only understood when we see that the word economy is a compound in the Greek of two terms -- oeconamia is literally family law. Oecas-namas, family law. It's a household management program. That's what the sacramental system is, supernaturally charged with divine life for us weak and fallen and needy humans. Family management because God the Father as our provider and as our judge fathers his children from cradle to grave through the sacramental grace that we can receive.
Now that isn't just something that the Fathers in the early Church had but then the Catholic Church lost once it became so encumbered by superstition. That's what I thought. What I found in the early Church Fathers I thought, "Well, it's too bad the Catholic Church lost it." Then I discovered that in 1439 at the General Council of Florence in Exaltate Domino, one of the great decrees on the sacraments in the 15th Century, all these Papists had it right.
These Roman Catholics were teaching way back, right before the Reformation, "The first five sacraments are ordained to the interior spiritual perfection of the person, God's children, and the last two sacraments are ordained to the government and increase of the whole Church." Then they go on to explain what they mean. "By Baptism we are spiritually reborn. By Confirmation we grow in grace and are strengthened in the faith. By the Eucharist we are nourished with Divine food. By Penance we are spiritually healed. By Extreme Unction we are healed in spirit and in body. Through Orders the Church is governed and through Matrimony the Church receives bodily growth or increase."
The Family of God is the Master Idea of the Catholic Faith
Now, put it all together. Where do you find in life, birth, growth, strength, nutrition, healing, governing and fruitful expansion? Sounds like a family to me. Sounds like God's family and the Council of Florence understood it quite well, unless we mean by family the impoverished view of parenthood that we have today in modern society or unless we have a very rootless conception of kinship, which is unfortunately too common these days. Then it might be hard for us to understand what and how the sacraments work to bring about this supernatural family life cycle under God's control.
It's tragic that Protestants and other non-Catholics don't understand this. But what is even more tragic is that many Catholics don't understand it either, many Catholics. The sacraments are not some mechanical, magical ritual, like a car going through a car wash. "Put it in neutral. Now just stand still" and we go through all this mechanical ritual and we come out clean on the other side. That ain't the way it works! We're children. God knows that paternalism is a lousy way to father and so the sacraments are oaths that call us to grow up and receive from the Father all the grace and all the truth and the power we need.
This mechanical, magical ritual process is a total distortion of the sacramental economy of God's family laws. We lose this vision of the supernatural family life cycle. It wasn't lost in the Council of Trent, the Council in the 16th Century that was called to rebut and respond to the Reformation, the so-called Reformation of the Protestants. In the seventh session on March 3, 1547, in the Decree on the Sacraments, I discovered that even the opponents of the Protestants sought in terms of God's family: "Because the sacrament, validly administered, contains grace in itself, thus the sacraments effectively confer grace to those who receive it worthily. The sacraments are explicitly linked, therefore, to our justification." That's session seven.
Session six, had just explained justification and it explained it basically in one way: sonship. Session six says, "Justification by faith is the gift of sonship in God's family." Session seven says that the sacraments are ordered to growing up and maturing that justification, that sonship. In the forward to this decree, it says, "All true justification, that is, all true divine sonship, begins through the sacraments, like in birth through Baptism, or once begun, increases through the sacraments or when lost, is regained through the sacraments."
Think of the Prodigal Son. When he came back, what did the father say? "Good to see you, kid. You've been my son all along. Why did you squander the wealth?" No. He said to his older brother, "This is your brother who was lost but is now found." And then he says, "He was dead, but he is now alive." Sonship can die and through penance, it can be revived because Christ gives to us what the Catholic Church calls the "caro vivificens," life-giving flesh, the power of Christ within us. Trent goes on to explain how the sacraments of the New Covenant contain the grace they signify and "They bestow it on those who do not hinder it."
In other words if you have a sincere desire as a child to receive something you want from your parents, Jesus says, "Even bad parents know how to give good gifts to their children, and how much more our heavenly Father." Trent explains that the primary minister of all the sacraments is Christ himself and, in a sense, the original recipient of the sacraments, we saw last night, is Christ himself. It is also Christ himself who produces their effect in our souls, so says the Council of Trent. In other words, the human ministers, the priests, and so on, are merely God's tools, Christ's instruments to give his life to his loved ones, to his brothers and sisters.
So the recipients of the sacraments are God's beloved children. This is not, then, magically manipulating God to get our way. This is a humble submission on the part of God's children to the words and the works that God has in store for us as a good father. He takes created human symbols. Somebody could say, "Well, they're just symbols, that's all, just signs. All they do is signify." "No," the Catholic Church says, "they are not just symbols and just signs because they are divine actions by Christ himself. They are Christ swearing oaths for us." Then, in our lives, they are Christ swearing oaths in us and by us and through us.
As the new Adam, Christ fathers his New Covenant family through the oaths that he allows us to share. This is still something that is a cherished part of the family legacy. In 1947, Pope Pius XII in "Mediator Dei" reaffirms this family of God perspective, this family paradigm, if you will. He says, "In the whole conduct of the liturgy, the Church has her Divine Founder with her. He is present in the sacraments by his power which he infuses into them as instruments of sanctification." Pope Pius XII goes on, "It is certainly true that the sacraments possess an intrinsic efficacy, that is an intrinsic power to sanctify us because they are actions of Christ himself transmitting and distributing God's grace." He goes on, "But to have their proper effect, they require our souls to be in the right disposition so the work of our redemption, though in itself, independent of our will, really calls for an interior effort from our souls." Let me say that again, "These sacraments have intrinsic power because Christ is the one who administers them, but to have their proper effect, they require our souls to be in the right disposition." We have to be sincere in desiring what children need from their parents.
So the work of our redemption, though in itself independent of our will, really calls an interior effort from our souls. When we receive the sacraments, we don't put ourselves in neutral, like a car in a car wash. We don't say, "Well, here God, you take it from this point on." We say in effect, "I am going to give you my all because that's what I received from you and now in this sacrament I ask that you would supplement it with your grace and with your power." It really calls for an interior effort from our souls.
As I mentioned, this is something that was reaffirmed in 1963 in Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium. This was stated perhaps more beautifully there than anywhere else. I quote, "By his power Christ is present in the sacraments so that when a man baptizes, it is really Christ himself who baptizes. Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ, for the purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify man, to build up the Body of Christ as the family of God and to give worship to God as his children gathered together in this big family reunion around the altar, the Lord's table, and we celebrate the family life that we receive in his name through baptism." And Vatican II concludes, "and because they are signs, they also instruct. Sacraments are powerful teaching tools that the Father uses to instruct his children in the ways of love and justice."
Vatican II Sacrosanctum Concilium concludes, and I want to stress this, "It is, therefore, of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs and should frequent with eager earnestness those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life."
Do we seek after the sacraments with an "eager earnestness?" Do we desire them with this holy resolve to use the wills that God has given us and the grace that he has given to supplement and to empower us to grow up and to give glory to him. Jesus illustrates this perspective. He says, Jesus says in John 15, verses 7 and 8, "If you abide in me and my words abide in you," in other words, the words made visible are the sacraments, "ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you. For by this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit."
How is the Father glorified? By fruitful children, children who have wisdom and power and love. Is the Father threatened when his children grow up to be great or is the Father's greatness magnified and manifested? My wife insists that it was not only academic study that made me a Catholic. Since she's a Catholic, she can say this more emphatically now. She says that it was academic study of the scriptures and prayer, but even more, it was when I first became a father seven years ago. I think she's very perceptive, right on target.
When I became a father I was really thrown for a loop because I was a typical American, very individualistic, very self-centered, even in my marriage, until all of a sudden I saw this baby who a year ago never existed, whose life came from my wife and me and from our love. All of a sudden I discovered how God calls us to be co-creators and doesn't feel gypped in the process, but is glorified. Then, all of a sudden, I realized that I don't give glory to God when I grovel and call myself a mere worm and stop there. On my own I might be a worm, a wretch, but what makes grace so amazing is that it saved a wretch like me!
One of the great unfortunate tragedies in the Catholic Church is how they have mangled that song by the Protestant John Newton. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound..." The first time I sang it in a parish, "that saved and set me free." Give me a break! Another version I heard a few weeks later was "that saved a soul like me." Original, "that saved a wretch like me." Oh we don't want people to feel like a wretch. Well, that's what makes grace so amazing, that it saves wretches, that it takes nobodies and makes them somebodies! It takes ordinary folks like us, through whom God does extraordinary things. You might say, "Well, I'm a nobody. I don't study theology like you. I don't speak like you. I don't, you know, emote like you do in front of a crowd. I can't do much." Bingo! You're more qualified, then, because the less we are, the more the Father's grace and glory will be manifested in us.
People see the extraordinary work of ordinary people and they will no longer confuse the cause. "Well, he went to Harvard," they'll say. "He has to be filled with God. Look at him! It has to be the Lord. He must be right in giving glory to his Father in heaven." When we bear that kind of supernatural fruit, our Father takes absolute delight. Our salvation is free, but brothers and sisters in Christ, it ain't cheap! Christ purchased for us this gift of salvation at the cost of his own life.
This inheritance is ours, freely given within God's family, but it came at a very high and steep cost. But it is only for those who trust God enough to entrust themselves by oath. God's free gift of salvation is only for those who trust God, not themselves, but who trust God enough to entrust themselves to God by an oath. Somebody could say, "Well, I'm not going to swear to God to do all of these things because I don't trust myself enough. Good, don't! But the whole reason why we swear a sacramental oath is because a sacramentum is an oath plea for God to make up for what we lack.
Don't trust yourselves, but entrust yourselves to the one you can trust. For those people, salvation is free and full. This is not paternalism. God wants us to work hard. He wants to fill us with his power because when he does his work in us, his life grows up and comes to perfection. He loves us like a father, just the way we are -- total acceptance no matter what you've done, no matter what sins you may have committed.
At this moment, no matter how far you feel from God, no matter what crimes you have committed, no matter what horrible thoughts and resolutions you may have reached, God the Father loves his children just the way they are -- total acceptance! But he loves us too much to let us stay that way, and the sacraments are the tools by which he will transform us into mature sons and daughters. So don't say, "Really when it comes to religion, I'm a nobody." God's greatest joy and his age-old specialty is taking the ordinary nobodies and doing extraordinary things through them.
Let me conclude then by saying the sacraments are not a substitute for holiness. They are not some kind of mechanical morality. To treat them as such is worse than perjury. It's tantamount to sacrilege. But those sacraments that Christ has given us are powerful because every time we receive those sacraments, we get grace so that we can give grace, and we say to God again, "We swear to live the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So, help me, God."
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. And thank you.
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