Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Our Catholic hook
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 22, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
For a good number of us Catholics, the seemingly ancient Baltimore Catechism definition of a sacrament remains etched in our memories: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Time has shown that this definition calls for more flesh, yet of all the Questions-and-Answers drilled into us during our childhood catechetical formation, this one offers a lasting hook on which we hang so many other aspects of our faith.
Growing up in the Catholic Faith, this definition made sense out of those many activities which so regularly occupied our time at church. It gave purpose to those actions and happenings we engaged weekly, if not daily, as Catholics. The pouring of water, the breaking of bread, the sharing of wine, the imposition of hands, the smearing of oil: all these things we knew and recognized as sacraments of the Church. They were the source of our Catholic identity.
The danger in all this, of course, was (and still is) that we fall into the presumption that because the action was performed (or attended) the full reality had been captured or experienced. The ultimate danger was to engage these things and actions as if they were magic – their very performance assuring some collection of grace. Too little focus was given to the faith of the recipient, and to the community (if there was one) gathered for the celebration.
There is much talk these days about reclaiming our Catholic tradition or identity. It is tempting to discover them in the mere outward element of sacramental signs. But there is more here than meets the eye.
Although sight, sound and touch are primary ways in which we encounter the world around us, they are not the full reality. The sacraments are far more than measurable blueprints for salvation given to us by the master teacher, Jesus.
Even a cursory view of Judeo-Christian history clarifies that he did not invent sacramental actions from scratch. Likewise, there is little justification to the notion that his divine mind concocted seven actions for his followers to have something to perform in his memory. The institution of the sacraments is rooted in human consciousness, where things like water, fire, oil, bread and wine have universal, rich symbolic meaning. The institution of the sacraments even more specifically is rooted in the life, death and Resurrection of the historical Jesus. They find meaning in his person far more than they do in his particular actions or instructions.
There was far more to Jesus of Nazareth than met the eye. He was far more than the son of Mary, the man in the carpenter shop, or the itinerant rabbi. Seen with the deeper eyes of faith, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God – the very presence of God in human history. To encounter Jesus, then, required more than hearing his words, or following his instructions. Even in his own day, to capture the full reality of Jesus required an openness of the heart the gift of faith. This gift of faith not only altered a way of seeing things; it changed reality. It altered a way of seeing, believing and even acting.
The sacraments of the Church celebrate the continuing presence and ministry of the Risen Lord in our midst. They are not just things we do because we are Catholics. They are not just activities we engage in because the Church so instructs or because somehow we have a sociological need to gather and engage in religious ritual. In the sacraments we encounter the Risen Lord Jesus and the gift of God’s life He brings. The sacraments are celebrations of our full life in Christ.
To see the sacraments for what they are requires the gift of faith. They are the hook of our faith and they, therefore, should “hook” us, inviting us into increasingly deeper personal relationship with the One who saves us. To encounter Jesus in the sacraments requires more than going through pharisaic motions or performing actions with self-justifying liturgical accuracy. In fact, Jesus himself cautioned that doing so leads to a death-dealing kind of stubborn blindness.
To “see” Jesus requires more than following instructions or just performing an action correctly. The fundamental purpose of liturgical law is not enslavement to common form, but the clarification of action which enriches and fosters encounter with the celebrated Mystery. To encounter or to “see” Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church requires an openness of heart – the gift of faith. This gift, which comes only from God, changes our way of seeing things. Faith is the recognition that life in Christ is far more than meets the eyes or satisfies any thirst for liturgical propriety.
Our Catholic identity and spirituality are anchored in the sacramental life of the Church. Our very lives are sacrament, living signs of Christ’s presence in the world. The seven sacraments of the Church are celebrations of who we are in Christ. The more our lives are open to his presence in our midst, the more authentic our sacramental celebrations become. The Church communicates that life in the language of the sacraments and nourishes our faith. Our lives and our Church come alive to the extent that we learn and speak that language.
Sometimes the media – both secular and religious – give us the impression of a Church overly concerned about practices and regulations. And sometimes we believe and live that impression. These trappings of religion, necessary as they might be, are not the full reality of the Church. The sacraments of the Church are constant reminders to us that there is more here than meets the eye. There is more here to hook us and draw us to God, if we would let encounter happen instead of make it so.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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