THE SACRAMENTS AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
by Father Thomas Wilson, OCD
In describing the daily life of the Secular Discalced Carmelite, the Rule stated that the Seculars, "will therefore make it their constant care to foster a spirit of prayer - and to practice prayer itself - in an atmosphere of interior silence and solitude. They will be careful, too, to let the hearing of God's Word, especially in the Church's liturgy, increase in them that surpassing knowledge of Christ's love(1) that flows from the true sources of Christian and Carmelite spirituality. Each Secular will devote at least half an hour each day to mental prayer."(2)
"Their liturgical life will express itself chiefly through participation in the Eucharist and in the celebration of the Church's Divine Office. They will, as far as possible, join in the celebration of daily Mass, and each day recite Morning and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers) from the Breviary; if possible they will recite Night Prayer (Compline) before retiring."(3)
Religious depth, if it is to take place in our lives, must find its focus in the sacramental life or the liturgical life of the Church. We say "sacramental life" purposely and not simply sacraments, because there can be a tendency to consider the Christian sacraments as isolated actions of religion rather than as acts linked with one another and with everything else a Christian does, so as to form an integrated and total way of life.
II. CHRIST: THE ICON OF DIVINITY
Christ is the primordial sacrament or mystery of God, presiding over the whole work of the people of God - the liturgy. He came upon earth to sanctify man and thereby glorify God, the two-fold objective of any sacrament. Christ was in his humanity a sacrament to be seen, heard, and touched, and only then did holy power go out from him. Christ remains "the image of God,"(4) sacramentalized in the Church. The motive for his remaining in the Church is that he "also loved the Church, and delivered himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory. . ."(5)
If Christ were not revealing to us the true human figure of God, he would not free men from idolatry. His divinity alone eludes every means of representation, and his humanity alone, apart from the divine, signifies nothing more than a human being. The Second Council of Nicea proclaimed his very humanity to be the icon of the divinity in confirmation of Christ's words: "He who sees me sees also the Father." The visible sacrament is, in turn, the image of the invisible, risen Christ. The biblical basis for the imaging of God in Christ, and of Christ in the liturgy, is the creation of man in the image of God. This type of creation demonstrates a certain compatibility between the divine and the human and explains, at least remotely, the union of the two natures in Christ. God can be regarded in the human Christ, reflected there as in a mirror, for the man Christ is made in his image. Christ has a human figure and speaks a human language. Certainly the best icon of God is the man Christ. We see, therefore, that everything liturgical is incarnational or sacramental, everything depends upon the Saviour as upon a splendid liturgy and the holy synthesis of all existence.
Christ the Sacrament contains "all the fullness of the Godhead bodily"(6) and in him "the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour has appeared"(7) and when perfected, he became to all who obey him the cause of eternal salvation, called by God a high priest according to the order of Melchisedek."(8) According to the grace given to us, we must lay down the foundation sacrament of our liturgical life, "for the foundation no one can lay, but that which has been laid, which is Christ Jesus."(9) Christ the foundation sacrament is everlasting in that He, "Because He continued forever, has an everlasting priesthood. Therefore, He is able at all times to save those who come to God through Him, since He lives always to make intercession for them."(10)
III. LITURGY: UNITING US WITH CHRIST
The liturgy taking place in the Church nowadays not only presents by its words and action the oral and visual Gospel; it is by its enactment a pictorial gloss upon the Christ of the Gospel. The Constitution on the Liturgy is emphatic about the presiding role of the priest representative of Christ. Christ, it says, "is present in the sacrifice of the Mass . . . in the person of his minister, the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross."(11) The priest, however, prays in the name of the entire people of God and of all present. Priest and people are gathered together into a priestly community and engaged in the priestly office of Jesus Christ. Every liturgical celebration brings into play the action of Christ the priest and of his Mystical Body the Church.(12)
The liturgy in its totality is the icon of the economy of salvation, the foremost way Christ has in saving mankind, generation after generation. While Christ celebrates a heavenly liturgy with the angels and saints, we on earth celebrate in unison with them a liturgy modeled after theirs. Liturgical prayer is primarily a gift, the voice of God in Christ calling to us and we responding with faith, hope, and love. The gift of communal worship is both the summit towards which we direct all our activity and the fount from which we draw all our power.(13)
Prayer, St. Teresa says is a "simple heart to heart conversation." If prayer, as every act of religion, is an I-Thou relationship, that is, an encounter between God and man, or if held communally, a We-relationship, then liturgical prayer enters into a dramatic dialogue directed by the priest and joined in by the community of the faithful. It is impossible, according to the Gospel spirit, to abstract oneself from the other. The liturgical pronoun is never the first person singular "I." Priest and people compose a single liturgical group, each member having his own proper function.
The liturgy is a mystery, a sacrament unraveling before eyes of faith the sacred scene of the Church, the mysteries of God's life among men. The Church is a liturgical theology in wood, glass, metal, and music if it is purposefully, wisely planned. Every part of it bespeaks the consecrated space and time where God takes up his presence and acts. We can point to it as the dramatic scene where the secular and sacred spheres fuse, where heaven and earth meet. Every bit of creation is swept into the liturgical movement leading up to God. The liturgy integrates the most elementary human actions - drinking, eating, washing, speaking, acting, living - and direct them to their destiny. We who live in cosmic space and time must reverberate the sacred. The rhythm of our liturgical life must set the tempo for family and community life.
More especially, within the church, we enact the liturgy because it is the scenic representation of the biblical events and the historical existence of Christ. Here the faithful gain the full, active and conscious participation in the life of Christ. How otherwise can we learn to know and love Christ? Here we obtain an insight into his most secret life - his thoughts, desires, sentiments, attitudes, and actions. A loving familiarity with Christ develops here. During the liturgical year, Christ sacramentally re-lives and re-actualizes in each Christian the principal events of his earthly existence. The event in question, be it his birth or death or resurrection, is re-presented by and with and in us as a faith-response to a mystery of salvation, one of the wonderful works of God. Since the events themselves are historically unrepeatable, the liturgy is not historical repetition, not a souvenir, not a memorial; it is the mystery of Christ personally and actually presenting to us salvific power, here and now. Christ is liturgically present in person as head of his Body, the Church.
IV. SACRAMENTS: CHRIST'S SIGNS AND ACTIONS
The pivotal point to be understood is that Christ acts on us in the sacraments. By these material rites, these signs, the power of his resurrection is brought to the world. A sign is a way of expressing something; it is an outward visible mark of some spiritual state or action. Gifts express friendship, tears are the marks of grief, a kiss is a sacred symbol of love. A world such as ours is filled with symbols for this reason; we are humans, a peculiar composite of body and spiritual soul, the meeting point of the worlds of matter and spirit. The implication of that is far reaching: what is in our soul, in our heart, our mind, our will, find expression through the body and material things. The words before you on this page, for example, tell you what is in my mind; we are communicating through matter.
Consider how this enters into God's plan of salvation. We could hardly expect the Lord to have a design for men and then proceed to treat them as angels. A plan of salvation for men will treat them for what they are: creatures composed of body and soul. And so the whole world of symbol, of sign, of human expression, of cult will be involved. That magnificent phrase of St. John sums it up: "The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory as it were of the Only Begotten full of grace and truth."(14) When God intervened to save men he became man: it is difficult, but precise. By this tremendous fact the whole world of human and material things was radically elevated and transformed. Through its contact with the body of the God-Man, the world of matter is given a new polarity. For that (among other things) is what the phrase "the Word was made flesh" means. Christ has assumed solidarity with our race, has entered in the deepest possible way into the world of humans and into the universe of matter as well. As a consequence, the final term of human things will be completely renewed and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit coming to matter by its contact with the resurrected body of a man who is God.
God's sign-system for man unfolds in these four stages:
1. The Prophetic State. In the Old Testament God used events, happenings, and persons to reveal himself to humanity. In the passage of the Israelites of Egypt, for example, God used the migration of a race as a sign to reveal himself as a God-Who-intervenes-to save. The whole history of Israel with all its vicissitudes (and even with its sins) was a long "sign" of God's care for his people.
2. The Historic Stage. Jesus was the great Sign of God to humanity. Everything he did (all his words, gestures, and acts) conveyed a definite meaning: they were facets of the One Sign of Christ. What is more, Our Lord took the signs of the Old Testament which already had a meaning to the Israelites and gave them a new and higher power to convey his redeeming action in the world. So, for example, he spoke of the Eucharist as the New Manna.
3. The Era of the Church. In the time of the Church between Pentecost and the Parousia, Christ makes use of more signs that reach back to the signs he himself had used and even further back to the sign-events of the Old Testament. There is, however, this essential difference: in the sign-language of the liturgy Christ used words and rites not merely to remind and signify but to accomplish in us now, in this present time, what he began to do in Palestine.
4. The Final Stage of Glory. After the Last Judgement the glory of the new transfigured world of the resurrection will be a glorious sign of God's eternal love for men: the whole of creation will be radiant with the splendor of a universe fully reconciled with God. The future consummation of the Parousia is contained in symbol and in figure.
The Church teaches that there are seven sacraments. Really, they are seven ways in which the One Sacrament, Christ, becomes present to us. Our passage out of Satan's realm is a life-long pilgrim's journey, and we need help all along the way. Just as God intervened in the long journey of the Hebrews to their promised Land, so the important steps of our life are marked by a special meeting with Christ who comes to bring strength and power and grace needed then.
Baptism is the sacrament of the new birth to the life of grace . . . we are now children of God, not creatures merely . . . we are members of his people.
Confirmation is the sacrament of growth and maturity. We are assigned our share of bearing witness to Christ, of bringing the power of the resurrection to bear on the world of our time.
Penance, or Reconciliation, is the sacrament of healing wherein Christ unites us with him and with the other members of the family of God wounded by our sin.
In the Eucharist, Christ, the New Manna, comes to be the Food for souls. We are nourished in the new life of grace. In the assembly of the Mass we show forth our union with Christ; and one another - the Eucharist is the sacrament of union. In every Mass we have anticipated "sign" of the final gathering of God's people in the world to come. Their (Secular) liturgical life will express itself chiefly through participation in the Eucharist.(15)
Anointing of the Sick assimilates our suffering and ultimately our passage out of this world with the suffering and passion of Christ and finally with His passage to the Father.
Matrimony mirrors and makes present the union of Christ with his people. He comes to seal the love of husband and wife and he confers on them the grace to raise their children fittingly as members of God's people in this world and future citizens of the world to come.
Holy Orders makes Christ the Priest present in every age to the end of time. Christ consecrates the humanity of men in such a profound way that he acts directly through them.
Christ's action in the world has always been likened, or, better still, actually called, a passage which fulfilled all that was pre-figured and symbolized in the Exodus - the Passage of the Chosen People from Egypt through the water of the Red Sea to Sinai and on to the Promised Land. Christ is the new Moses leading us out of the empire of Satan and this "passage" must be made through Calvary and so must ours be. This is the heart of the Christian life. We "pass" with Christ by close union with him in his passion and death to the new life of the resurrection.
It is a slow and tedious lifelong affair. Each day we have to turn from the allurements of the Egypt of our fallen nature. We have to make daily efforts to let the power of the resurrection penetrate us more and more. We have to take our pains both great and small and unite them with the pain of Christ. Christian mysticism is nothing other that a deep "experience" of this long passage of Christ through his passion to the Father. It is through the sacraments that Christ comes to us; and it is by these signs, these material things, that this closeness of near identity with Our Lord is forged. The mystical life is only the higher development of that life-in-Christ that is given to us all in Baptism and it was this that St. Paul was speaking of when he wrote: "I live. . . it is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me."
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 4 and 5.
2. Hellwig, Monika. The Meaning of the Sacraments. Dayton, Ohio. Pflaum Standard, 1972.
3. McCauley, George. Sacraments for Secular Man. Denville, N.J., Dimension Books, 1969.
4. Rahner, Karl. Leading a Christian Life. Denville, NJ, Dimension Books, 1970.
5. Sloyan, S. Gerard. Worship in a New Key. New York, Herder and Herder, 1965.
6. Cooke, Bernard. Christian Sacraments and Christian Personality. New York, Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 1965.
7. Roquet, A.M., O.P. Christ Acts Through the Sacraments. Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 1954.
8. Haring, Bernard. A Sacramental Spirituality. New York, Sheed and Ward, 965.
9. Bernard Bro. O.P. The Spirituality of the Sacraments. New York, Sheed & Ward 1968.
10. Bouyer, Louis. Liturgical Piety. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, '56.
11. Rite and Man, Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1956.
12. Dalmais, I.H. Introduction to the Liturgy. Baltimore: Helicon, 1961.
13. Danielou, Jean. The Bible and the Liturgy. Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1956
14. Powers, Joseph. Eucharistic Theology. New York: Herder and Herder, 1967.
15. Rainier, Karl. The Church and the Sacraments. New York: Herder and Herder, 1963.
16. Schillebeeckx, Edward. Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.
1. cf. Phil. 3, 8.
2. OCDS Rule of Life, Article 4.
3. OCDS Rule of Life, Article 5.
4. 2 Cor. 4:4.
5. Eph. 5:25-27.
6. Col. 2:9.
7. Tit. 3:4.
8. Heb. 5:9-10.
9. 1 Cor. 3:11.
10. Heb. 7: 24-25.
11. The Constitution on the Liturgy, Art. 7.
13. Ibid, Art. 10.
14. Jn. 1-14
15. OCDS Rule of Life, Article 5.
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