Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Meaningful Life: The Sacraments

A Meaningful Life Part IV 
Lenten Faith Formation Series
For St. Vincent de Paul
by Sean DeWitt

Summary of Before: We saw in first part of our search for a meaningful life where we are going: Eternal Life. With clarity, we learned that it is only life everlasting which gives true meaning to this life. In the second part, we discovered who we truly are: sons and daughters of God the Father. Our identity, as we learned, is founded upon true, certain, and immovable relationships with God and our neighbor. In the third, we listened to the advice of Christ, His Evangelical Counsels, so that we might live out such an identity, and attain that everlasting life. Now, we must embark upon the last of our enquiries. And here, we must truly dig deep, cast out into the deep dark waters of mystery and faith. Tonight, we must ask the question of means: How is this even possible? How does one live up to such a difficult task, a daunting road, an impossibly high calling, a most demanding life? Where does one get the strength or the courage? With what power, does one live such a meaningful life?

The Importance of the Question: This is a very important question, for even if all that has been seen and understood thus far does truly grant what it promises—eternal life as His children—, it is all for not if unattainable. It could easily be said:
‘Yes, you Christians can paint a high mark, but what use is a goal that cannot be achieved? These are ideals, dreams, pie in the sky kind ‘a stuff. If only the world could be this way… If only life could have such meaning… But it cannot, for such a life, while worth living, is beyond our power. It cannot be done. Even if the initial fear of getting started doesn’t deter us then, the sheer weight of guilt due to our failure to achieve this end will crush us.

The Toughest Objection: It is here that we face the toughest objection or obstacle to living a meaningful life. We have contrasted in a very stark way our faith with the culture, looking at their different claims on what gives meaning to life. And without critiquing much we have seen just how much greater the Christian claim is. We set the bar for a meaningful life way beyond that of the culture. And while this clarity causes us to want to hedge our bets towards the Christian claim, realizing that not much is really gained by going against it, the culture in this last session goes for trump card: ‘So you may be right. So you offer more. That is great. But you’ll never get there. So why try. It’s not going to work.’

The Sacraments: To this objection, our faith points to the Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation, Holy Orders, and Holy Matrimony. The means to living a meaningful life is found in the sacramental life of the Church. All the strength, courage, and power needed to preserve on this straight and narrow road to eternal life is found in the saving power of the sacraments. It will work. We will achieve that high mark because God promised that His help would be granted to us through the Sacraments.

Cultural Presupposition: Yet, to our culture this response of faith in the sacraments only adds insult to injury: ‘through bread and wine? An impossible task through water and stuff?’ One of if not the most deeply entrenched belief or presumption of our current culture is materialism: what you see is what you get. This premise combined with a sort of rationalism which considers real only that which can be perfectly seen or understood leads to a further demand: I’ll believe it when I see it. We call this empiricism: proof or knowledge requires empirical evidence. We see this most clearly in our scientific outlook on life. Until an expert does a scientific analysis and publishes a report it is only an old wives tale, urban legend, or homeopathic remedy. We cannot be truly certain until we actually know, that is why we have Myth Busters!
And while I do not want in any way to down play the importance of science—here we must tip our hats for its contribution to the true good of our society—when all aspects of life are subjected to this view, we lose something. We miss out on the fullness of life.

Fulton Sheen Insight: I think that deep down we know the limits of such a view. We know there is more to life than what science can tell us. Yet, we have trouble trusting this intuition. Servant of God Archbishop Fulton Sheen draws out this short sided vision of reality with a particular insight. He says that God created the universe with a sense of humor. No, he is not talking about the fact that He created platypus’ or hippos. Archbishop Sheen says that someone has a sense of humor when they have eye for something deeper, something beyond the material situation and circumstances. “They can see through things.”[1] As such they are able to see the levity or silliness of the situation and laugh. A person who lacks such a sense of humor we call ‘thick’ or ‘too serious’. This kind of person cannot see through things to the more important reality and so is sullen and serious, a ‘party pooper’. God, continues Sheen, created the universe with a sense of humor. He made it in such a way that we can see through it, and see Him. Here, Sheen holds up the poets as an example. They write in a way beyond the simple prose of a factual story. They see beyond and speak of this deeper reality. They see through things.

A Sacramental View:  A sacramental view of the world is one that sees through things. It says that there is more than meets the eye. We see the world around us in all its beauty and splendor and are given to wonder at what lies beyond or behind this magnificent work. It is here that God can speak or communicate to us. In this sacramental view, God speaks quite loudly and vividly through the multitude of symbols and facets in our world and cultures.

Chronicles of Narnia: Another more anecdotal way of understanding this is captured well in the book The Dawn Treader in the Chronicles of Narnia. In the beginning of the movie Edmund and Lucy move in with a cousin of theirs. This cousin is particularly irritable and serious. He represents this rationalist and materialist vision of reality. He is constantly scolding Edmund and Lucy for their reminiscing of Narnia, some silly place the product of fiction and fairy tales. These fables and dreams, he thinks, distract them from the true reality of science and knowledge. He sees them as immature and childish, needing to grow up a bit. All of this changes when one day they are magically transported to Narnia and find themselves being hoisted onto the Dawn Treader and greeted by Prince Caspian. The two ‘believers’ Edmund and Lucy do not panic. They know exactly what is happening. They are going to Narnia. And they welcome it with joy and jubilation.
Eustace, the cousin, however, freaks out. Amidst this magical transportation into what seems to be an alternate universe shakes and shatters his categories of science. “Where in the blazes am I!” Eustace screams contorting his whole body. And when he sees the Minotaur answer him, he faints. Eustace in his lack of sense of humor or sacramental view of reality closes himself off to possibilities of something beyond what he sees, and when confronted with it directly, he cannot handle it and so faints. The beautiful thing about this scene is the reaction of those ‘believers’: they laugh. Indeed, while Eustace was the one laughing at immaturity in the first part, now the tide has turned and in the context of a sacramental view he is the one who seems childish and immature causing the ‘adults’ to laugh.

Overcoming this Challenge: I draw this out because we are fed this scientific and materialistic view of the world daily. And often succumb to it ourselves. This is dangerous for as I have tried to show, such a view is hostile to faith in the sacraments. We have to work to rid ourselves of this reduction of reality to materialistic rationalism. One of the best ways to do this is to read poetry and fiction novels. We have to develop our imaginations and develop a sense of wonder. We have to train ourselves to see through things to their deeper meaning if we want to see through things and believe in the true presence of Christ in the sacraments.   

Returning to the Question: How, then, do the Sacraments give meaning to life? The life giving dynamic of the sacraments is simple yet profound. In the sacraments, God takes possession of someone or something. He looks down from His heavenly thrown upon us and what we have to offer Him and calls it His own. In the Sacraments, our own becomes God’s own.

Scriptures: From very early on in Salvation History God looked upon a people and called them His own: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”[2] What is more, as God worked to bring His own people out of slavery in Egypt, He spoke to Moses identifying this people as His own son: “And you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, Israel is my first-born son.”[3] God, then, reiterates this possession of His people as His own son to His prophets: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”[4] Finally, when He sent His only begotten Son Jesus Christ into the world, God fixed moments and times to reveal to everyone this possession. As Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, the heavens opened up and voice boomed from above: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”[5] On Mt. Tabor with three of His closest disciples, God again calls down upon His Son: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”[6] And lastly, Jesus Himself being God took what the world has to offer, bread and wine, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, and identifies it as His own very flesh and blood: “This is my body…this is my blood…which will be given up for you.”[7] In the Sacraments, God gives meaning to this world, our lives, by taking possession of them and making them His own.

The Sacraments Themselves: How does He do this? For it is not the same in each sacrament. In some sacraments, God takes possession of us by clothing us in a special character, empowering us for a deeper and new way of worshiping Him in spirit and truth. In Baptism, we are clothed in Christ and so called sons and daughters of God the Father. This new identity empowers us to worship and to praise God through the Son by the Holy Spirit and receive from the table of the Lord, His very body and blood. In Confirmation, we are marked to be witnesses to the world of our faith, receiving the Holy Spirit with His many gifts, like new divine instincts which will serve us well as we contribute to the spiritual battle for souls. And in Priestly Ordination, for those who are called, we are clothed in the priesthood of Christ, made ready to stand in His very person and celebrate the sacraments for His faithful. These special sacramental characters leave an indelible mark, which like a tattoo remains no matter what we do. We cannot rid ourselves of this mark. It forever remains on our souls. This is due to God’s fidelity to the relationship He has established. God made us so through the sacraments and will not reject us, even in we reject Him.

Yet not all sacraments bestow this sort of character. God has other ways of taking possession and making us His own. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God looks down upon our contrition and accepting it makes our penitence His own, uniting Himself with us through the Cross and leading us to salvation. Here, our penance is that of Christ on the Cross. He washes us clean, reclaims us as His own, and empowers us to retake our place in the worship of God.

In the Anointing of the Sick, God takes our sickness and pain under His possession anointing us with His Spirit which will give us the strength to bear these sufferings with Him. Through this sacrament our sufferings becomes an act of worship with Christ on the Cross.

In the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, God looks down upon this natural bond of love and elevates it by making it His own bond of love. God refashions this bond in the form of His own immovable bond of love, forming each of the spouses into a sacramental sign of His love for the other. In so doing, the couple becomes, as Pope Francis has said recently, an icon of God’s love for His people. As God takes possession of His people, so each spouse takes possession of the other, becoming one flesh. Through this new sacramental bond of love, the couple is now empowered not simply to love and to generate life, but to increase the mystical body of Christ through the birth and raising of their children.

Lastly and most perfectly, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, God takes humble gift of bread and wine representing everything we are and have to give both blessings and sufferings and takes possession of them to the point of self-identification. Here the bread and wine are not simply His, but His very person. Indeed, they cease to be bread and wine and only He remains. Here we recall the theology of St. Paul when he says that “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[8] Truly the bread and wine, which represent us, say it is no longer I, but Christ who abides here. This sacrament nourishes us and grants us the power, the grace to continue in our vocations and states in life so as to attain our hope, eternal life.

Back to the Objection: But what about that first objection: ‘So you may be right. So you offer more. That is great. But you’ll never get there. So why try. It’s not going to work.’

Ex Opere Operato: To this we respond with the guarantee of the sacraments. The sacraments function or work ex opera operato. By the very doing or working of the sacraments, the grace or power is bestowed. In other words, if performed correctly and with the proper intention, the sacraments by the merits of Christ and His sacrifice work for ever and always world without end. Amen. This teaching developed very early within the Church remains at the center of the Church’s teaching of the sacraments. What God has begun, He will bring to completion. If He calls us to do something, He will not ask us to do something we cannot do. By the merits of Christ, He will give us the help and aid necessary. He will empower us by His Spirit to do so. God does not ask to frustration.

Consequences: While this might seem like a 'no brainer' or not terribly important, it is helpful to consider the consequences of the alternative. Instead of working through the merits of Christ, the sacraments could work by the merits of the one administering them, i.e. the priest. That means they would work only in so far as the priest is close to God, holy. Thus, the power or grace necessary for us to live a life worth of eternal life, a meaningful life, given to us through the sacraments would be dependent on our parish priest’s personal life of holiness. Or more clearly, if your parish priest isn’t holy just quite, give up, and stay home! God is so good and so loving that He gives Himself in spite of those who might stand in His way, even the very ministers or instruments of His love. God’s love is unbounded; He cannot be tied up, contained, or impeded by anyone or anything. Thus, is the logic of ex opera operato in which God’s grace and power are bestowed upon us without any obstacles, but our own personal acceptance thereof.

Ultimate Meaning: But as with the evangelical counsels, the meaning given to our lives by the sacraments can be summed up with this simple statement: unity with Christ. Through the sacraments we are united with Christ. As the Second Vatican Council states: “In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified.”[9]

Conclusion: A life of eternity as a child of God lived by the counsels of Christ and empowered by the unstoppable grace given to us through the sacraments, this is a meaningful life. And there is no other.

[2] Jeremiah 31:33
[3] Exodus 4:22
[4] Hosea 11:1
[5] Matt 3:17
[6] Matt 17:5
[7] Cf. Matt 26:26
[8] Galatians 2:20
[9] Lumen Gentium, 7. 

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