Tag Archives: sacraments

Is This All There Is?


In his sermons on the sacraments, which he preached to some newly baptized,  St. Ambrose shows a keen appreciation of the power and weakness of signs. They signify so much, but we find them hard to accept. “Is this it?” he hears them say as they approach the waters of baptism.

Ambrose calls on stories of the Old Testament: the Israelites were saved as they flee from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, the cloud that guides them on their way–foreshadowing the Holy Spirit, the wood that makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet–the mystery of the Cross.

“You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes. What is not seen is in reality seen more clearly; for what we see with our eyes is temporal whereas what is eternal (and invisible to the eye) is discerned by the mind and spirit.” (On the mysteries)

Remember Namaan’s doubt as the Assyrian general stood before the healing waters of the Jordan, Ambrose reminds his hearers. There’s more here than you see or think.

So we’re invited into an unseen world. Still, aren’t we like those whom the saint addressed? Is this it? Maybe more so, for schooled as we are in the ways of science and fact, we look for proof from what our eyes see. We live in a world that tells us what we see is all there is.

And now it’s a world made more unknown by the Covid19 pandemic; even our sacraments seem to be taken away.

Faith is a search for what we don’t see. God doesn’t take it away. Believe, God says.

A Community of Believers

The church is a community of believers–that’s the way the Acts of the Apostles, which we’re reading after Easter, describes it. We look so often at church leaders, like Peter and Paul, and we miss the crucial part ordinary believers play. They’re more than passive spectators.

Some time ago visiting a parish, the director of religious education was getting the young people ready for confirmation and first communion. “The parents are the ones who make these things stick,” she said. “If they don’t bring the young people to church; if they don’t think it’s important, neither will they. You can have the best preparation program around, but if parents don’t back it up with their own example, the young people wont be back.”

Families and friends still turn out for First Communions, I notice. Good they do. But in some way the community– families, friends, all of us– have to communicate our belief that sacraments are important signs of the presence of the Risen Christ.

We’re a community of believers.

The Woman who touched Jesus’ Garments

Mark 5, 21-43

We read this story today at Mass. Why does Mark insert the story of the woman who touched Jesus’ garments into the story of the dead girl brought back to life? Was it simply that she happened to meet him on his way to the girl’s house? Maybe there’s another reason.

A picture of the woman touching the garments of Jesus is one of the oldest pictures  found in the catacombs of Rome, where early Christians buried their dead. Is it there  to remind them that those who died had also touched the garments of Jesus? They didn’t see him, but he met them in signs.

Those buried there believed in him and were baptized with water; they received his life through that sign and entered into the mystery of his death and resurrection. They received his body and blood in the signs of bread and wine, and so like the woman they touched his garments.  His power and life went out to them.

The Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, most scholars say. Is Mark’s arrangement of the  stories of Jesus raising the dead girl to life and the woman touching his garments a way of teaching Roman Christians about the mystery of death? Jesus was with them on their last journey.

In preparing the Catechism of the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council the Roman authorities responsible for the catechism instructed publishers to put the picture from the catacombs of the woman touching the garments of Jesus at the beginning of the section on the sacraments.

She’s an example, an image of the present church which knows Jesus through sacraments.  She helps us believe in the power of simple signs.

Bread and Wine


The German theologian Romano Guardini years ago recommended in a little book “Sacred Signs” that we let the signs and the words of the liturgy guide our prayer. He was a key figure in initiating recent liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church, which made the signs and prayers of the liturgy better able to communicate the mysteries we celebrate.

I suspect, though, that in our liturgical prayer today the words of the liturgy–the scripture readings and the homily–get more of our attention than the signs.

Maybe we need to pay more attention to signs like bread and wine. They’re sacred signs we can take for granted.

In our prayer over the bread at Mass we say: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we received the bread we offer you, fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” The bread we offer is the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. It’s a sign of all creation, of everything that the “God of all creation” gives us, of everything our hands have fashioned.

“The word bread stands for everything,” Augustine said in one of his commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer. (Epistle to Proba) Early commentators like Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen wrestled with that petition, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Does it mean just the food we eat, or does it mean the wisdom we need? Is Jesus Christ our daily bread? I like Augustine’s explanation because it’s so open-ended.

Scientists say that our universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago. About 3.5 billion years ago life began on our planet. Bread and wine represent that universe; they’re brought to the altar to tell its story.

About 200,000 years ago human life emerged on our planet. 200,000 years of human life are represented in the bread and wine, and our lives are part of the human story represented in bread and wine.

We believe that God created our world and it’s good, according to the Book of Genesis. There’s a plan for this universe, a plan conceived in God’s wisdom and love. In its opening chapters, Genesis poetically describes the beginning of our universe, but then turns quickly to the journey of the human family from its beginnings .

God’s plan, however, involves, not just the human family, but also the universe itself. All creation is waiting for the kingdom of God to be revealed. The bread and wine are signs of it.

Certainly human beings have an important role in the coming of God’s kingdom, as the incarnation of Jesus Christ makes clear. We’re not slaves, cogs in the wheel, as life grinds on. We represent God here in the universe and have to exercise a godlike care of this world. Each of us has a part to play that God’s kingdom come. We share in the promise.

We know too that the mystery of evil is at work in our world, a mystery also represented in the bread and wine. When Jesus took bread into his hands at the Last Supper, he saw a sinful world ready to put him to death, but he still took the bread in his hands. His blood would be poured out, but he still took the chalice to drink from it.

How magnificent is his response. He takes all created reality, all human existence, the goodness and evil of life in his hands, embracing them all with God’s love and care. From his hands he gives them to us, blessed by his presence.

“This is my body.” “This is my blood.” Incarnate in this great universe he gives life to it and to us.

In communion, Jesus gives himself to us in bread and wine, the signs of the world in which we live. We’re to live in that great world and have a role in it to fulfill. The Word made flesh is our bread of life, our food and drink, who gives wisdom and power to us.

Father Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who taught me long ago, had a passionate love of the universe and a concern that the universe story enrich our way of looking at life. In one of his writings he saw the universe story enriching our understanding of the sacraments. It does.

How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place, O Lord

How is God present to us? That’s a question prompted by the Old Testament readings at Mass these days about the temple in Jerusalem.

When David builds a splendid palace in Jerusalem after his conquest of the city he decides that God also needs a beautiful temple to dwell in. But God tells David through the Prophet Nathan that he doesn’t need a place to be in. ( 2 Samuel 7, 4-17) He dwells in a tent so he can move with his people wherever they are. A beautiful reminder that God goes with us wherever we go.

But then David’s son, Solomon, builds a great temple for God on the threshing floor he buys in the upper city in Jerusalem, and God makes his dwelling place there. A dark cloud fills the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple, the Book of Kings recalls; it’s so awesome that the priests can’t remain in the place. “… The priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the LORD’s glory had filled the temple of the LORD.” (1 Kings 8,22-30)

You can hear Solomon wrestling with this mystery of God who is transcendent and yet immanent. “Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!”

But the king accepts God’s presence in this place and prays to God there and asks for God’s blessing there. “Listen to the petitions of your servant and of your people Israel which they offer in this place. Listen from your heavenly dwelling and grant pardon.”

These are good readings to reflect on the presence of God in our lives. God has promised to be with us, yet God’s presence will always be mysterious, beyond our understanding. He goes with us wherever we go, but then there are also holy places where God meets us– sacraments, signs where he’s promised to be.

Jesus fulfilled these Old Testament realities. As God’s Word, he dwells among us, accompanying us on our journey of life and, as he said himself, he’s also the new temple of God who dwells in signs and sacraments. His presence is “a dark cloud,” the mystery of his death and resurrection. Awesome, mysterious, beyond our understanding. Yet we draw close and pray and ask that he listen and bring us life.

Signs of the Risen Christ

At Easter we see the Risen Christ in sacraments, especially Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. St. John Chrysostom, following the Gospel of John, says that these are signs already revealed on Calvary. Jesus is dead when the soldier pierces his side; he is still on the cross. From his wounds the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist are given to his church.

Water comes forth and then the blood, Chrysostom says, “because first comes baptism and then the mysteries (the Eucharist).” With his spear, the soldier pierced the temple wall, the saint goes on, “but I am the one who finds the treasure and gets the wealth.” (cf. John 2,19)

From the sacraments the church is formed, the saint continues. Like Adam, who was cast into a deep sleep to form Eve, Christ dies the sleep of death and from his side the church is taken. “From his side Christ formed the church just as he formed Eve from the side of Adam.” (Baptismal Homilies, 3,16-18)

In an early baptismal homily preached in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem which the Emperor Constantine constructed atop of the remains of Calvary and the newly discovered tomb of Jesus, Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (+387), says: “… you descended three times into the water and ascended, showing the symbol of the three days of Christ’s burial… How kind and loving! Christ received nails in his hands and feet, while I without pain and trials receive freely a gift of salvation because I share in his suffering.”

At Easter we recall our baptism and the Eucharist. Sacraments are real signs that bring us into the mystery of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. We meet the Risen Christ in them.

The Holy Eucharist

Easter is a time for sacraments, signs of faith that unite us to the Risen Christ. Besides baptism, many will receive the Eucharist for the first time in our churches this month. Liz’s two children are making their First Communion this weekend and many other children throughout the world will be too.

Here are some words from St. Cyril of Jerusalem on the Eucharist.
“On the night he was betrayed our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said: “Take, eat: this is my body.” He took the cup, gave thanks and said: “Take, drink: this is my blood.” Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my blood, who would dare to question it and say that it is not his blood?

Therefore, it is with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature.”

What a clear affirmation of what the Eucharist is! This is our faith. We don’t decide  ourselves what to believe.  The Risen Christ offers it to us through the witness of his apostles, the signs of the sacraments, the celebration of feasts, and the testimony of generations of believers who are his church.

Like Baptism, the Eucharist brings joy to our hearts, the Saint says:
“You have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ. David referred to this long ago when he sang: Bread gives strength to our hearts and makes our face shine with the oil of gladness. Strengthen your heart, then, by receiving this bread as spiritual bread, and bring joy to the face of your soul.”

The sacraments are signs of the Risen Christ who brings our world and us “news of great joy.”
There’s an on-line version of the Church’s office of readings at

Clean Water

Sacraments,  earthly signs of divine mystery,  also shed light on some social questions we wrestle with day by day.

For example, water is the sign of Baptism, and what is more urgent today than the world’s use of this vital element for life? Like the air we breathe, we depend on clean water for drinking, agriculture, sanitation and hygiene.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says that more than 1 billion people – about one in six people in the world – have no access to clean and safe drinking water, which then is a cause of poverty, conflict, disease and death.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates  that 1.8 million children die every year as a result of diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. Women and children, the usual providers of water, spend long hours walking to get water, often from polluted sources. The time they spend prevents them from benefiting from other work or from school.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus usually ends our celebration of the Christmas season, as it does this year.  Jesus came that we might have life, and among his great signs promising life are signs of food and drink. Can we fulfill  his promise of life by working today to eradicate hunger and the lack of clean water in so many parts of the world? Doesn’t  a cause like that follow from our own baptism? It’s part of the first of the Millenium Development Goals agreed upon by the peoples of the world at the United Nations.

It’s interesting that among the earliest directions for the rite of Baptism in early Christianity–found also in Jewish purification rituals too–is the instruction that people be baptized in “flowing water, ” clean, fresh water.

The signs of our sacraments take us beyond personal salvation; they are signs for our wider world too.


You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.

Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking,  we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.

Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.

The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.

Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.

You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan,  but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)

God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say.  God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.

The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.

Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul,  are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.

Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.

One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.

At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.

A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering  faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.

In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.

A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of  Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.

Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.