The wonder of the sacraments

Bishop Donald Bolen says the sacraments draw us to life – they bring us to the cross of Christ and wash us in the power of the resurrection.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Bishop Donald Bolen says the sacraments draw us to life – they bring us to the cross of Christ and wash us in the power of the resurrection.

March 5, 2012
Following is the text of Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon's presentation to the Feb. 16 session of Nothing More Beautiful.

It is very good to be with you this evening, and a great honour to be a part of this series, and to join you in prayer.

When I read the splendid quotation from Pope Benedict which inspired this series – that "There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him" – my first thought was that I was there that day in St Peter's Square when Pope Benedict XVI delivered his inaugural homily. I was then working for the Holy See, at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

What I remember most vividly was what Pope Benedict said shortly after the quotation above. Summing up the pontificate of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he told the youth, and indeed all of us, not to be afraid. Allowing Christ to enter our lives fully, opening ourselves totally to him, falling in love with God, leads not to a diminishment, not to a surrender of freedom nor a loss of the beautiful.

Life in Christ will have its share of letting go, of surrender, of diminishment; that is part of carrying the cross. But what Christ came to bring us was life and life in abundance, so the Holy Father ended his homily that day by assuring the youth, and all the rest of us, that Christ "takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return."

He urged us to "open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life."

It was a wonderful word to proclaim at the beginning of his pontificate, and perhaps it holds a key to the new evangelization which is a central concern for us today. For what the Gospel brings, what Christian discipleship gives us, is life, not the contrary. I am convinced that what human beings long for most profoundly is to drink deeply from the wellsprings of life, to live fully and richly the life we have been given.

The Gospel we are called to proclaim with our whole being does not run contrary to the deepest human yearnings; rather it is their fulfillment, and it is the challenge of each age to find faithful and creative ways to speak that Good News in such a way that people can hear it. I believe that people's ears open when they hear an invitation to life, from a person or a people who are deeply alive.

As we turn to the subject of the sacraments and the Church's sacramental life, we do so confident at the start that the sacraments are not a burden, not a restriction of our freedom, not a diminishment of what is beautiful and true, but rather, a joy-filled merciful expression of the life God wishes to bestow upon us. The Church's sacramental life is intended to deepen our relationship with God, to strengthen our communal life, and to bestow blessings on us, and – through us — on the world we live in.

Part I. The sacraments are rooted in and take their shape from the Incarnation and the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

Catholic sacramental theology is a part of the Church's larger vision of who God is; why God created the universe, the earth, and human beings in his own image and likeness to live on that earth; and how God has entered into covenantal relationship with us, spoken to us, called us into community, blessed us and sent us forth in his name.

Pope Benedict is immersed in the crowd following his April 24, 2005 inaugural Mass. Bishop Donald Bolen recalls the new pope saying that falling in love with Christ leads, not to diminishment of our lives, but to greater fullness.

CNS PHOTO | REUTERS

Pope Benedict is immersed in the crowd following his April 24, 2005 inaugural Mass. Bishop Donald Bolen recalls the new pope saying that falling in love with Christ leads, not to diminishment of our lives, but to greater fullness.

Most specifically, our understanding of Baptism, the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Church, is shaped by and needs to be understood in relation to the Incarnation, the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are connected to those events as leaves to a branch, connected to that person as branches to the vine.

INCARNATE WORD

When St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the sacraments in his Summa, it followed immediately after his treatment of the mystery of Christ the Incarnate Word. He began by noting that the sacraments "have their efficacy from the Incarnate Word himself."

I have a Jesuit friend who teaches a course on Christianity to Muslims, and he notes that when he begins reading the Gospel of John with them, they have a certain comfort with the first verses of the prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him" (John 1.1-3).

It's when we get to verse 14 – "and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory" – it's there that our Muslim (and Jewish) friends part company with us.

Christian faith stands on the claim that the God of all creation, through whom all things were created, enters into our history, comes to where we are, comes as one of us – to redeem us, to show us what it is to be human and what God's eternal designs are for us. This dramatic initiative of God – Incarnation – moves all of creation towards its goal.

Some scholars have referred to the notion that God should be revealed in Jesus at one particular time in history, in one particular place, and not in some general or universal way, as the "scandal of particularity." In Jesus, God comes at a very specific time and place to be with us, which poses a certain challenge to our thinking.

But it sets the pattern for our understanding of revelation, and of the sacramental life; for God comes to us not in generalities but in the particulars of our time and place. In the sacraments God finds us where and as we are, and draws us into something larger through grace.

The sacraments grow out of and are an extension of Christ's ministry on earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, "The mysteries of Christ's life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church." It quotes Pope Leo the Great, saying "what was visible in our Saviour has passed over into his mysteries" (n. 1115).

PASCHAL MYSTERY

The heart of God's revelation in Christ is the paschal mystery. It is here that the depth of God's love for us is shown forth in his saving death on the cross, here that the power of the resurrection shatters the bonds of death. Here we see the face of God fully revealed in the very action which saves us, and plants in us a deep hope.

Unlike other events in history which happen and then pass away, this event does not pass away, for it changes everything, in destroying death and revealing an inconceivable love at the heart of all things. The Catechism tells us that the "event of the cross and resurrection abides and draws everything toward life" (n. 1085). All sacraments have a paschal dimension at their very heart; they bring the cross of Christ to us and wash us in the power of the resurrection.

The Latin word sacramentum is a translation of Greek word mysterion – mystery. St. Paul repeatedly speaks of the mystery (mysterion, sacramentum) hidden through the ages, the hidden plan of salvation, "now revealed in the incarnate Christ: in him, the invisible is now made visible" (The Grace Given You in Christ, International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, 2006, §48).

In Ephesians, for instance, Paul speaks of "the boundless riches in Christ" which "make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (3.9; cf. Colossians 1.26; Romans 16.25).

You were probably taught, in one formulation or another, that the sacraments are an outward or visible sign of an invisible grace. I hope you can see the connection here with what St. Paul is saying about the hidden designs of God being made known in Christ. That's the mystery, the sacrament, that he is entirely preoccupied with.

In Christ, that which was hidden becomes known; the invisible and the visible come together, and the former is made known through the latter. That's why we sometimes speak of Christ himself as the sacrament of God. He makes visible that which we did not see, he allows us to touch and feel and know the mystery hidden from the creation of the universe.

In the words of 1 John 1.1: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life."

Through Baptism, we are plunged into Christ's death and resurrection.

Through Baptism, we are plunged into Christ's death and resurrection.

The Church, which is formed out of the experience of following Jesus, and most specifically out of his death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is in turn called to make visible the mystery which it has received in Christ.

GOD'S LOVE

In other words, the Church was formed to be the "sacrament" of God's love for the world. In the words of the Catechism, "the risen Christ, by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusted to them his power of sanctifying: they became sacramental signs of Christ" (n. 1087) called to "act in his name and in his person" (n. 1120). In the Church, rooted in Christ himself, the invisible and visible come together.

The International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue, which I worked with for many years, put it this way:

"What then is the Church's deepest and hidden reality, the mystery that lies at the heart of its nature and mission? It is the invisible presence of the Triune God, the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God who is holy love. As Pope Paul VI said, 'The Church is a mystery. It is a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God' (opening address to the second session of the Second Vatican Council, Sept. 29, 1963).

"The Church is a fruit of God's grace, and its nature and mission cannot be understood apart from the mystery of God's loving plan for the salvation of all humanity (The Grace Given You in Christ, §49).

By definition then, the Church's sacraments communicate this mystery of the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they make present the grace which flows from it. All sacraments are caught up in this single mystery. They make the salvation which comes from Christ present (n. 1152).

POWER OF HOLY SPIRIT

What is revealed in Christ is revealed in them. They are intrinsically linked to the Word of God, "drawing their origin and nourishment from the Word" (Presbyterorum ordinis 4). They are exercised through the power of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised to send to his disciples, empowering them to carry out his mission.

The sacraments "are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church" (CCC 1116). They are the action and work of the whole community, necessarily of a communal dimension. They always invite the transformation of those who receive the sacraments, to be ever more Christ-like.

REAL AND EFFECTIVE

The Catechism speaks of the period of time after the Ascension and Pentecost as the age of the Church, during which time the Risen Christ, through the Holy Spirit, continues to live and act in and with his Church (n. 1076). It speaks of the "sacramental economy" of the age of the Church, when the sacraments are a principal means through which the fruits of the paschal mystery are made real and effective in our day.

The Catechism calls the sacraments "the masterworks of God" in the age of the Church (n. 1116); through them, "Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies" (n. 1127).

Before turning to the specific sacraments, I want to say a word about the sacramental character of human life itself, in order to contextualize the grace of the sacraments. A very basic tenet of our faith, shared with Judaism, is that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.

There is a sacramental dimension to being human; our very being makes visible something hidden in God. God meets us in our experience, and is revealed in our humanity.

In the beautiful words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, "just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy." Pope John Paul II's theology of the body, much discussed these days in the Church, helps deepen our reflection here. He views the body as sacramental, the external manifestation of the mystery that dwells in each one of us.

Pope John Paul writes that the body "enters into the definition of the sacrament, which is 'a visible sign of an invisible reality'" (Theology of the Body, 87.5). The body, he writes, is "a witness to creation as a fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same self-giving springs" (14.4).

"The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God and thus to be a sign of it" (19.4).

Leah Perrault, a theologian from Saskatoon and thoughtful interpreter of Pope John Paul's writing on the subject, puts it this way: "Each of us is a sacrament, according to Theology of the Body," "hold(ing) the mystery of God's creation, seen and unseen; and "making a small measure of the divine visible to the world. . . .

"When God created the world, he offered us the gift of our existence, to be lived out in the beauty of creation. This is the meaning of our bodies, to offer ourselves back to God in the life we live with each other, walking on the earth."

The point I want to make here has to do with the relationship between human life and the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments are not an external imposition on human life; they speak its deepest truths, they name who God is and who God is fashioning us to be.

Life outside the sacraments is not total darkness. Life itself has a sacramental character, and we do not in any way want to minimize the holy and redemptive presence of God therein.

But life enriched by the sacraments has the possibility of becoming radiant; lived fully, it is life in abundance which is offered there, life in Christ; and as Pope Benedict has so eloquently reminded us, there is nothing more beautiful.

Part II: The Sacraments as Carriers of God's Mercy

In the Catechism, we read that "every liturgical action, especially the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments, is an encounter between Christ and the Church" (n. 1097).

I have been asked specifically to focus on the sacraments as privileged places of encounter with Christ, and as such, encounters with grace, with God's abundant mercy.

What is offered in the remaining 10 minutes is not a full overview of Catholic teaching about the sacraments. Indeed the Catechism – one valuable source among many – alone has close to 600 paragraphs dedicated to the subject.

What follows is a brief meditation on three or four of the seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church, as bearers of the mercy of God. (The written text which I believe will appear on the diocesan website, will contain a little meditation on all seven of the sacraments.)

BAPTISM

Baptism and Confirmation, along with First Eucharist, are the sacraments of initiation – we'll begin there. According to the Catechism, to baptize, from the Greek , means to plunge or immerse. Plunge into the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him as a new creature.

One who is baptized belongs to Christ. It is birth into new life in Christ. To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ is to have one's life bound in a radical way to the paschal mystery and to the grace that flows from it.

Immersion into the waters of Baptism is an immersion into the tender mercy which is embodied in the divine decision to become human – an immersion into the boundless mercy of Jesus in giving himself fully, even unto death on the cross.

In the sacrament of Reconciliation we are able to lay our sins before the Father of Mercies.

WCR FILE PHOTO

In the sacrament of Reconciliation we are able to lay our sins before the Father of Mercies.

The love revealed here leads St. Paul to say that "nothing can separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ" (Romans 8.39). To be baptized is to be plunged into the hope that bursts forth from the tomb, proclaiming the truth that love prevails against all that opposes it.

In the words of Thomas Carlyle, "Easter is the eternal reminder that the truth-crushed earth will always rise again." The saving death and resurrection of Christ makes it possible to live this human life in trust and confidence that all is ultimately held in God's merciful hands.

Baptism marks our identity as sons and daughters of God and makes us members of Christ's body, the Church. It also makes us brothers and sisters of all others who are baptized into Christ, including those who are members of other Christian communities with whom we are not yet in full communion.

The sacraments of initiation are best understood in relation to each other, even if celebrated at different times. Together they are an invitation to maturity in Christian discipleship, though a journey marked by several stages along the way in the context of a faith community.

The catechumenate is to be a formation in the whole Christian life, initiating the catechumen into the mystery of salvation, into Christian moral living and into the faith and practice of the Church.

CONFIRMATION

The sacrament of Confirmation, grounded in the event of Pentecost and the ongoing sending of the Holy Spirit, is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.

During Confirmation, the bishop holds his hands over the candidates and asks the Holy Spirit to descend upon them, calling forth the seven gifts of the Spirit and ending with "Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence." The imposition of hands during the Confirmation in a certain way perpetuates the grace of Pentecost in the Church.

As one who has been privileged to preside at Confirmations, I am mindful of the outpouring of grace in extending my unworthy hands in invoking the Holy Spirit and anointing with the words "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." I am conscious of acting in the name of Christ and on behalf of the Body of Christ, the Church. There is great mercy here for the presider as well as for the recipient of this sacrament.

Anointing with the sacred chrism is a sign of abundance and joy, one which cleanses, brings healing and, in the words of the Catechism, "makes the recipient radiant with beauty, health and strength." It gives the grace of being able to join in Christ's mission and to witness to Christ as one who totally belongs to him.

There is nothing more beautiful than to speak to others of our friendship with Christ. This experience itself is a great mercy, the wonder of being able to speak a word that one has been given to speak, and to know the power of the Holy Spirit as one seeks to do so. The grace of being invited to share in the Lord's own mission, to have our lives ennobled in this way, is untold grace.

THE EUCHARIST

Pondering the Eucharist as a place of encounter with the mercy of God is a subject that could fill volumes. It is a boundless source of reflection as the source and summit of our Christian life. Permit me to offer only a small glimpse into this richness, mindful of the refrain of the song Emmanuel by Tim Manion, "What are we that you have loved us so well?"

That before giving himself to us in his life-giving death on the cross, Jesus should have gathered his disciples together, and in the context of the Passover meal, should have taken bread and wine and said, "This is my body broken for you; this is my blood poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

That the Lord chose to give his community a sacramental means through which we might continue to receive the fruits of redemption won on the cross, would allow us to remain in such intimate relationship with that Last Supper, with his Passion – Who are we that you have loved us so well?

Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we begin with a penitential rite which requests and proclaims God's mercy.

It allows us to come, sinners though we are, to the altar of God, and that when we lift up the gifts of bread and wine and pray that "my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God," that we are able to bring our whole lives to this celebration, to lay ourselves there, to be invited to join our sacrifices to those of Christ, to bring our whole selves before God, knowing that Christ reaches us from his end and makes acceptable the little that we are able to offer – Who are we that you have loved us so well?

In the long history of human religiosity, often sacrifices have been offered to appease God, to restore a right relationship with God. But in the Christian dispensation it is God in Christ who sacrifices himself to restore that relationship.

That if we are fed as community and as individuals by the Bread of Life, nourished by the real presence of Christ, standing in awe before the intimacy of that gift of self, that we might be his body, privileged beyond words and an unimaginable mercy – Who are we that you have loved us so well?

That day in and day out, we are able to be enriched and sustained by this life-giving act of thanksgiving, which speaks and sustains our identity, that we are invited to share even now in anticipation of the kingdom of God, in the eternal banquet, dwelling in God's presence – Who are we that you have loved us so well?

RECONCILIATION

In the sacrament of Reconciliation we are able to come before God exactly as we are, to lay our sins before the Lord, to hear the words of absolution, which begin, "God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of the Son, has reconciled the world to himself."

It's a beautiful title for the first person of the Trinity, Father of Mercies, which brings to mind the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

Any of us who know what it is to have sinned, to be stuck in sin, to have gone into the foreign land ourselves, to have hurt others and alienated ourselves, and in turn who have known forgiveness, the real, rich blessing of being forgiven, know indeed that this sacrament is the mercy by which we live, and know that the obstinacy of sin is not the last word, that there is space for conversion, for turning our lives around, that the Lord overshadows us with mercy and allows us not to slip into despair or self-hate but instead to rejoice in the depths of God's mercy.

Not seven but 77 times Jesus invites his disciples to forgive. This we have known and received. That is a wonder, an undying source of hope.

SACRAMENTS OF MERCY

In conclusion, I think that Archbishop Smith invited me to talk about the mercy of the sacraments because of my episcopal motto, or at least part of my motto, which comes from a quote from Thomas Merton. Merton has God saying, "I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy. Have you not had sight of me, Jonas, my child? Mercy within mercy within mercy."

This was a beautiful name of God. Mercy within mercy within mercy.

At the time of my ordination as bishop three years ago, I received a card from a priest friend in Regina, and he told a little parable, which came to mind for him in light of my motto. The parable goes something like this:

A curious young Cree boy goes to his grandmother and says, "Kohkom, help me to understand where we come from, where the earth comes from." She says, "Well, the earth sits on the back of a giant turtle."

And he says, "But what's underneath that turtle?" She says, "Well, it's another turtle beneath that turtle."

And he says, "But what's beneath that turtle?" And she says, "It's no use, my little one, it's turtles all the way down."

Well, it's mercy all the way down. It's mercy that is at the heart of things. It's mercy that is written through the sacraments, the mercy by which we live, mercy within mercy within mercy.