Encountering Christ in the Sacraments
Martin Delaney FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015
Over 200 students gathered for the Faith Winter Session held at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire in December 2014. Inspired by the works of Pope Francis, the theme of the three-day conference was “The Joy of the Gospel: Proclaiming Christ with Courage and Compassion”. The first talk was given by a young Scottish priest, Fr Martin Delaney, who explored the joy of a life rooted in the sacraments.
We began this series of talks by considering the text of St Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:25), in which he speaks of the “revelation of a great mystery, hidden from endless ages”. Together with the opening line of the Letter to the Hebrews (“In ancient times God spoke to man through prophets and in varied ways, but now he speaks through Christ, His Son…”), as well as many other biblical texts, this passage reveals to us a startling truth. In Christ, God desires to communicate with us: He desires to enter into a relationship with us!
It can be difficult enough for us to accept this in our own life. How could God, who made the whole universe, be interested in me? When we do accept it, however, we begin to understand that it follows that God does not desire to enter into a relationship with one single human being, but with the whole of humanity. This is the meaning of the Church: she is the privileged place where God calls all of humanity together and speaks to them. She is also the place where God’s message can be interpreted authentically, allowing a genuine dialogue, a genuine relationship, to take place.
Everything that we have said so far presupposes a fundamental idea. If God desires to speak to human beings, he must do so in such a way that he can be understood. In other words, God must communicate with humanity in a way which respects how we have been created. There would otherwise be no point even attempting to communicate; it would be like speaking a different language and expecting to be understood. It is also important to note that this is not a case of human beings imposing any necessity upon God. God, after all, has created us as we are and, in doing so, has imposed the conditions upon Himself.
The question we must now ask, then, is this: how has God created us? The simple answer, of course, is that He has created us body and soul; He has given us both a material and a spiritual component. This composition, in fact, defines man and his place within the world. He is neither pure spirit, like God and the angels, nor pure matter, like the animals and plants. He is a composition of both. For this reason, all human communication takes place in a way that respects this spiritual and material composition. The physical parts of that communication between humans would be the voice, physical gestures, writing etc. The spiritual part would be the idea which is being communicated. The ultimate goal of any communication is for that idea to be transmitted from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener. For this to take place, however, the physical means is absolutely necessary.
And so it is with God. When God desires to communicate with us, He must do so in such a way as to convey the (spiritual) idea by a physical means. In this we can begin to see the meaning of the Incarnation. God takes upon Himself a human nature so that he can communicate to us “the mystery hidden from endless ages”. The Second Vatican Council tells us that, in His earthly life, Jesus “manifested his Father and himself by deeds and words” (Dei Verbum 17).
After Christ’s Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, the Church, which has its origins in the Trinity itself (cf Dominum et Vivificantem), is sanctified through the sending of the Spirit in order that she can be “Christ’s continuing presence in the world”. This means that the “revelation of the mystery hidden from endless ages” which had taken place in the Incarnation of Christ continues to occur through the “deeds and words” of the Church. In other words, as the continuing presence of Christ in the world, the Church continues to communicate the mystery of God’s love and mercy, not only to a specific group of people (in time and space), but to the whole of humanity (cf Lumen Gentium).
It stands to reason, given all that has been said already, that this communication too would require to have both a material and spiritual dimension if it is to be effective. The principal means which the Church uses to communicate this mystery to the world are her seven sacraments. It can not be repeated too often that the Church and the sacraments are not a novelty within the Christian experience. Along with the Incarnation, they have always been an essential part of God’s plan to communicate His great mystery to the whole of humanity.
Through the celebration of the sacraments, we are able to have a genuine encounter with Christ. In the classical definition, the sacraments are “outward signs of inward grace”. They have, therefore, an outward, physical part (the rite) and an inward, spiritual part (the communication of grace, the encounter with Christ Himself). These material and spiritual parts are inseparable because the “outward sign” actually causes the “inward grace” to be communicated (just as the voice causes the idea to be conveyed). These signs are not arbitrary. They are in some way related to the meaning of the specific grace communicated in the sacraments.
Washing in water, for example, is the outward sign of the sacrament of baptism. This outward sign is easily linked to the meaning of that sacrament, which brings about a cleansing from original sin and the giving of new life. The fact that the sign is often constituted by a natural substance, such as water or oil, points to the goodness of God’s creation. In total, there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, holy orders, marriage, and the sacrament of the sick.
It must be stressed that these sacraments are not arbitrary inventions on the part of the Church. Rather, each of them is, in its own way, the continuation of Christ’s presence and ministry in the world. We would not require an exhaustive knowledge of the New Testament to call to mind occasions in which we see Christ communicating the mystery through deeds and words in ways which remind us immediately of the sacraments. We can think of Jesus healing and strengthening (eg Jn 5), forgiving (Jn 8), as well as sending out and calling (Lk 5). And, of course, we think of the great Paschal Mystery itself, brought to completion through Christ’s salvific Death and Resurrection. All of these moments are represented in the seven sacraments. This allows us to appreciate clearly that the sacraments truly are the principal means by which the Church continues Christ’s own mission in the world.
“The sacraments are an essential part of God’s plan to communicate His great mystery to the whole of humanity”
In all of this talk of the Church as “Christ’s continuing presence in the world”, we cannot be blind to the many faults which we can often perceive in the Church, in her ministers and in her members. While it is certainly true that we, as members of the Church, often fail to live up to our primary vocation to be the presence of Christ in the world, we also recognise that the Church is of divine institution. In other words, the Church is first and foremost the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). In baptism, we are united to that body and become part of it. While we might fail in our calling, Christ always remains as the “head”, and so he guarantees that the Church is always his presence in the world. For that reason, the celebration of a sacrament always results in an encounter with Christ, if the recipient is well disposed, because the encounter itself does not depend on the holiness of the minister (usually the priest).
Thus far, we have attempted to justify the claim that the seven sacraments of the Church constitute an encounter between the recipient and the person of Christ. If this is so, then it should follow that the effects of the sacrament are the same as the effects of an encounter with Christ. To illustrate this point, we shall briefly consider what is surely one of the most eloquent descriptions of such an encounter: Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob (Jn 4). (Much of my own appreciation of this passage comes from reading Jean Vanier’s book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John.)
Unlike the other women, the Samaritan woman approaches the well at the hottest time of the day. She does this to avoid the other women who come in the morning, when it is cool. She is clearly an outcast within her own community and she feels ashamed. She is surprised to find Jesus at the well at the same time. Not only is he a man, but he is also a Jew, with whom Samaritans do not get along. She ignores him. He, on the other hand, is the first to speak to her. He engages her in a conversation. He begins, so to speak, a relationship with her. After what we might describe as some light-hearted banter, Jesus reveals the source of her shame. “Go,” he says, “and bring your husband”. She is forced to reply: “I have no husband.” Then we find out about her history of broken relationships. This woman has sought time and again to be loved and affirmed by a man. On each occasion she has been abandoned and rejected. Her heart is truly broken.
In Christ, however, she meets a man like no other: the perfect, sinless one. After this encounter, she is strengthened, healed, restored to her community. She runs to those whom she had been avoiding only a short time before and declares: “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Christ?” This beautiful passage reveals to us what happens in our own life when we truly have an encounter with Christ. All of us, in different ways, share in this Samaritan woman’s history of brokenness, as each of us has sought love and affirmation in human relationships. Christ is the only one who is truly able to love us unconditionally and so provide the security that we need to face the reality of our own selves and even become missionaries, proclaiming him to others.
The experience described in this Gospel passage can also be described in more technical terms by a word which we hear used frequently, but perhaps rarely stop to consider its meaning. That word is salvation (from the Latin salus), and it has two closely related meanings. The first has to do with being saved from our sin. To understand this more deeply, we must return to the book of Genesis, where the tragedy of human sin is presented to us. The serpent tells Eve that upon eating the apple, she and Adam will be “like God”. But they were created “in God’s image and likeness” – they were already like God! In their desire to overreach themselves, they disfigure that image of God which they bear within themselves. That is the real tragedy of sin. Only through a genuine encounter with God can fallen humanity rediscover that image, and so be restored to its likeness to God. Through an encounter with Christ, then, and so through the sacraments, man can be restored to the image of God and so saved from his sinfulness.
The second meaning of salvation has to do with health and well-being. Salvation in this context means the fullness of life. This can be clearly seen in the story of the Samaritan woman, as she is restored not only to a relationship with God through her encounter with Christ, but also to a relationship with her community. She comes to experience the fullness of life, and this is true also of the encounter with Christ which takes place in the sacraments. At first glance, it might seem that we are making grandiose claims for these sacramental rites. But if we follow the argument, we can see that this makes absolute sense. God desires to communicate with us so that we might experience his love and salvation. These rites are the effective means by which men and women from the furthest ends of the earth are able to experience this encounter. Rather than becoming sceptical, we should marvel that the instances we can so easily take for granted (receiving communion, for example) actually bring us to such a close relationship with God in Christ!
“It is above all because the sacraments are a personal encounter with Christ that we are able to witness authentically and credibly to the person and mission of Jesus”
Among the seven sacraments, there are those which can be received only once. These are baptism, confirmation and holy orders, and they are said to confer a character (or seal) on the recipient. This means that they cause a change in the person’s soul which, in some way, disposes them to receive a certain grace (or graces) throughout their life.
Of the four remaining sacraments, two are received regularly throughout life and are intimately connected; these are penance and the Eucharist. These two sacraments can be understood as closely linked to the two-fold meaning of salvation which we have already considered – penance leading to the forgiveness of sin committed after baptism, and the Eucharist leading to the fullness of God’s own life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the sacraments also reflect the stages of our spiritual life. Throughout our life, we need to encounter Christ in different ways at particular times. At the outset of our relationship with Christ through the Church, we receive baptism. Throughout our life we are forgiven and nourished day to day in the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. As we mature, we receive the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit in confirmation; these gifts ready us to bear witness to Christ in the world as full members of his body, the Church. As we settle upon a state in life, some of us will receive holy orders or embark upon the sacrament of marriage. As we reach the end of our earthly lives, we will be prepared for death by the anointing of the sick.
These stages of our spiritual life mirror those of our physical life, and this further reinforces the fact that we all need to experience the ministry of Christ in all of its aspects throughout our whole life. These seven sacraments allow us to genuinely encounter Christ again and again, as we require for our good and the good of the Church.
To summarise, the sacraments are genuine and personal encounters with Christ. God speaks to us that we might experience his love and mercy (his salvation!), and be strengthened to proclaim joyfully the meaning of the Gospel. It is above all because the sacraments are a personal encounter with Christ that we are able to witness authentically and credibly to the person and mission of Jesus. Finally, we must always remember that though we may turn away from Jesus, he will always be ready to welcome us into a life-giving encounter through the Church and the sacraments.
Martin Delaney is a priest of the Diocese of Motherwell.