Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Encountering the Risen Christ in the Sacraments

In various ways, before ascending bodily into heaven, our Lord left for us concrete, tactile ways of making contact with Him: the sacraments. Sacrament is an interesting word. Sacramentum is what Roman soldiers called the branded tattoo on their shoulder, which read SPQR. It was a seal of loyalty to the Senate and People of Rome, and the physical manifestation of their permanent bond to their military unit. The seven sacraments of Christ have something of the same role in the life of a Christian: they seal and bind us to Him and His Church. The Eastern Christians call these same seven actions the seven mysteries. A mystery, for the ancient Greeks, was not a problem to be solved, but an interaction with the divine. In these mysteries, we Christians come face to face with the living God and share in His divine life. They are possible because in Jesus Christ, God already shares in our human life. This shared life of God is called grace, and is always freely given and only freely received. The Church defines the sacraments, the mysteries of the faith as “visible signs instituted by Christ to convey invisible grace.” It is important to note that sacraments do not merely represent grace in our life, but actually bring it into our life. This definition is not only words on a page, but it is the fabric of my spiritual life, and of the life in Christ of many, many others.

I don’t remember my baptism because I was just a few weeks old. I didn’t care much about my confirmation as a young teenager. My first communion, though, was important to me. I remember how even as a small boy, I felt drawn to the Eucharist, the sacrament by which Christians renew our relationship of intimate communion with Jesus. I couldn’t have told you why, and I know I didn’t fully understand, but I did desire it. I desired Him.

Nowadays, the Eucharist and its sister sacrament, Reconciliation, are key to my daily life. At first my thinking was, “If I botch it in life, or just need a spiritual checkup, I’ll go to Reconciliation, to make sure that I am tight with Jesus.” As time goes on now, even when I don’t have any egregious sins, I want to go to the sacrament of Reconciliation to make sure that there’s nothing between us. It’s maybe a little like a husband and wife touching bases just to make sure that nobody’s got some unvented frustration or anger. As time goes on, I find myself going more and more often. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, also called Confession, I bare my soul to the priest, and thereby give it away to the One he represents.

It’s a very small thing to give away the soul. At least, the degree to which I turn it over to Jesus is very small. I am trying, don’t get me wrong. Time after time, it seems, I confess the same sins. At any given confession I seem to confess five or six from the same pool of ten or fifteen sins. But something else deeper is happening – over years of regular confession, certain sins have dropped out, others that have been long-ingrained habits become somewhat dislodged, and still others previously undetected come to light. Each confession removes an obstacle in my relationship with Jesus, each confession uproots a rock in the soil of my soul that otherwise stunts the growth of the gospel there. Each confession confesses, in more specific language, “Jesus, I tried to do it my own way, but you’ve got a better grasp of reality than I have, and my way didn’t work, so I want to go back to your way; I tried to be like God, but you are Lord.” Every confession of sin is a confession of the humility of our condition and of the exalted Lordship of Jesus Christ. Every sincere confession of sin to one authorized to forgive on behalf of Jesus puts us back into right relationship with Him, and thus with all of creation that He is bringing, slowly but surely, into His authority. Every confession of sin unloads a burden and a weight to great for a mere mortal to bear. I along with hundreds of millions of other Catholics can attest to the relief and lifting, the ease of conscience and lightness of heart that follows a confession soaked in the genuine intention to go and sin no more, to be right with God and neighbor.

In return for kinda partly trying to give my little self to Jesus, He, the Lord and God of Heaven and Earth, fully and entirely gives Himself to me in the sacrament of the Eucharist, throwing in the beginnings of the life of heaven and a renewal of His promise to bequeath to me the whole world. It’s amazing and crazy, really. The Church fathers called it the commercium admirabilis – the wonderful exchange. In giving Himself to me, Jesus makes it possible not only for me to give myself to Him, but to discover myself, my who-I-am, in the process. In giving Himself to me, Jesus shows me in a tactile way His great love for me. He literally takes the self-sacrificial and unbounded love that led Him to Calvary, to death on a cross, and puts it into me, the way pretty much everything else is put into me: as food. Read John 6 for the most beautiful account of this reality that has ever been written.

Self-doubt riddles the fabric of my soul on so many levels, and the Eucharist, Jesus hidden behind the appearances of bread and wine, eager to dwell in my heart – so eager that He is willing to pass through my stomach – this Eucharist tells me that He loves me, that my doubts of my own worth and purpose can be set aside, because He does not doubt my worth, and for me, He has a purpose.

I am never so at piece during the day as when, after a time of hearing God’s word spoken to me, and prayerfully, quietly preparing myself, that Love that never ends makes His home in me again, unworthy tabernacle though I am. A day without the Eucharist is a waste. I plan my vacations, days off, and even hiking trips around it. This devotion to the Eucharist is not because I am a good man, but because I am a needy man. I need more Jesus in my life.

Each of the seven sacraments could have a volume written about it, but there’s no time for that. For now, I wish to make the point that the community of believers draws people into itself, and at the heart of the community of believers lay the seven sacraments, which institute the community, constitute it, and give it its shape and meaning. The sacraments bear the life of Christ using material, sensible signs to creatures made matter and endowed with senses to receive that matter. That life of Christ permeates us and, if we succeed well enough in our contest against sin – those things that oppose the life of Christ – that life will begin to radiate out from us and draw others into our company as well.

Subsequent installments of this series will address the sacred scriptures and prayer, by which Christ forms our minds and hearts more fully into the likeness of His own; and suffering, the process by which our transformative purification, started in the sacraments and guided by prayer and the scriptures, is made perfect.

...Click here for an addendum subsequently added to this post.

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