In Mark's Gospel, Jesus relates two versions of the parable of the sower and the seed. In the second, he describes the kingdom of God as similar to someone scattering seed. "The seed would sprout and grow, (but) he does not know how" (4:27).
Jesus then goes on to compare the kingdom of God with the mustard seed, the tiny seed which gives rise to a great bush.
In both cases, this growth is a mystery. Something tiny is planted and, over time, something great emerges.
From the vantage point of 2,000 years of history, one can see the church as analogous to this seed. Empires have risen mighty and glorious and then collapsed into dust. Yet the church continues to grow and flourish.
Indeed the church endures and grows despite its members who are wretched sinners. Some of the church's leaders have been legendary rogues. Scandal has never been far from the church.
Yet the church has also given birth to people of great holiness. People who were sinners and who yet, with God's grace, became living signs of Christ's ongoing presence in our midst.
And then there are the vast majority of Christians who are somewhere in the middle -- neither saints nor rogues. In some times and places, ordinary Christians have been the light of the world. Their lives are nothing fantastic, but others look at them and see that these people, as a whole, tend to live good lives even when the bulk of society is falling into moral disarray.
Sometimes we ordinary Christians can become dismayed with the church. Yet we stay. We stay because we know the church is the source of life. Like Peter, we ask the rhetorical question, "Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
That the church continues to grow in numbers and that it gives rise to great holiness in some and everyday holiness in many is a mystery. It is like the seed. It sprouts and grows but we don't know how.
If we look closely at the church, we may conclude that this "life" is tied to the sacraments. People draw life by reading Scripture and through private prayer. But they also come together to worship as a body. And it is there that the heart of the church is found. It is there that the ongoing presence of Jesus is given to the body of believers.
The church's great thinkers have tried to understand this sacramental seed which keeps growing and growing. And in this section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find a concise summary of the church's doctrine of what is common to all seven sacraments.
One can see this doctrine as something one must believe. One can also see it as the church's best effort to put words around the "don't know how" of the seed's incredible growth.
The Catechism makes five general points about how the sacraments lead to the sprouting and growth of the seed:
1. The sacraments are all instituted by Jesus Christ. The Catechism quotes St. Leo the Great's statement: "What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries."
2. The sacraments are by the church and for the church. The sacraments are Christ at work, through the Holy Spirit, in the church. The sacraments also give the church its structure and its power.
3. The sacraments presuppose faith. They also nourish, strengthen and express that faith. The People of God are made holy and, through the sacraments, the church worships God.
4. The sacraments give grace and enable us to share in divine life. Our very salvation is made possible through Christ's ever-present action in the sacraments.
5. Through the sacraments, the church receives the guarantee of everlasting life. And through them, it also already begins to participate in that life.
Does this explain how the seed sprouts and grows? Not really. It is more a description than an explanation. The Eastern church refers to the sacraments as "the mysteries." This is apt. For the precise way that Jesus and the Holy Spirit get inside us and transform us is a mystery. We can see the fruits, but the action which makes the fruit possible is invisible.
And so, like the sower, we must walk in faith. A skeptic will always be able to challenge the power of the sacraments to his or her own satisfaction. But we are called to faith, not skepticism. And faith, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us, "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1).
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