Tag Archives: Eucharist

Making Supermen

A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt.  It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.”  This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think.  For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind.  What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men.  It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications.  It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.

The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption.  He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense.  But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us.  This is how He saved the world.  But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient.  There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed.  In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?

How You and I Are Saved

The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith.  Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means.  Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe.  According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth.  That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will.  One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.

Faith is not complete until it has an object.  It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in.  To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.

So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree.  Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient.  Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance.  This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).  Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se.  In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.

To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further.  As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6).  The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.

Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own.  That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it.  Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons.  First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite.  Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body.  Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal.  Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).

The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation

These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men.  As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs.  The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation.  Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given.  They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace.   A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.

This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth.  Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen.  Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.


Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

Keeping Your Hands to Yourself

The irony is not lost on me that very often the Sign of Peace invokes a chaotic scene during the Mass.  A virtual love-fest breaks out as each member of the congregation must shake hands or hug anyone else within their immediate vicinity.  Adding to the chaos, the priest often leaves Jesus alone on the altar to shake hands with those in the congregation.  Because of its disruptive nature, there are those traditionalists who would want to do away with it altogether.  But the problem is not so much with the Sign of Peace itself.  Instead, it is with the gross misunderstanding of what is actually going on.

By way of reminder, the purpose of the Mass is to re-present the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross so that we can each actively participate in it.  And because it is a Sacrament or sign of that Sacrifice, we need to wrap it in liturgical form that makes it clear as to what is happening before us.  Each part of the liturgy then must be carefully constructed so that these signs within the Sign act as beacons, pointing to the Reality.

In this regard the Sign of Peace is no different.  It is no mere practical greeting but instead a ritual exchange.  As members of His Body, we are turning to those around us in order not to wish them well, but as a sign of the peace and unity that Christ promised to the Church.  It is therefore meant to convey the truth that when the Body is united under the Head there is communion among the individual members.  There is order within the Body and peace, the tranquility of order, follows.  There may be strife between the members (“look not on our sins”), but the handshake of peace shows that reconciliation has happened.

The people sitting around us are not so much our nuclear family or friends, but representatives of the Body of Christ.  The Sign of Peace conveys the love that the members have for each other as members of Christ’s Body—a love that has its root in the Sacrifice that we have all offered to the Father and that we are preparing to receive.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons (although certainly not the only) we should not hold hands during the Our Father.  It detracts away from the meaning of the Sign of Peace.

Despite becoming a tradition in many churches, the habit of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is a rather recent innovation.  Although it is uncertain as to how it started (some say it is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous or the charismatic renewal) and whether it is licit (in my own Diocese of Raleigh it is “strongly discouraged”), it detracts from the Liturgy itself.  Although we begin the Prayer with the words “Our Father” it is not primarily the unity of being “sons in the Son” that places the prayer here in the Mass.  Instead it is the eschatological nature of the Lord’s Prayer that bears emphasis.  Dr. Brant Pitre has an excellent and accessible article on how the disciples would have viewed the prayer itself as a prayer for the definitive coming of the New Kingdom.  You can read all the details here, but the point is that the Our Father is primarily a prayer we say as “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Chaotic Sign of Peace

Once we have held hands praying the family prayer, the Sign of Peace seems superfluous and loses its nature as a sign.  We now are only able to see it as something practical.  Once we treat it as a practical greeting it loses its effectiveness as a sign and therefore so too does everything else leading up to the reception of the Sign.  It is the Eucharist in which the unity that is expressed in the Sign of Peace becomes a reality on the basis of the biblical principle that:  “Those who eat the sacrifices are partners in the altar” (1Cor 10: 18).  If however we have roamed around the Church for 3 minutes greeting everyone we can get near, we forget this.  The Sign of Peace becomes the basis of the Communion rather than something pointing to its real source.

There is one further practical problem that bears mentioning.  The chaotic nature of the Sign of Peace has gone on long enough that most people act out of ignorance.  Bearing in mind the sensitivity of those around us and not wanting to appear in any way unwelcoming, how can we turn this around?

It begins with a catechetical solution.  We should instruct our children as to its true meaning.  Priests and Deacons can also mention it during their homily.  A quick mention with a brief explanation for several weeks can change the culture within the Parish.  They can also help by staying on the altar and not roaming about, even to offer peace to the altar servers.

For those in the pews, the process of changing the chaos into true Peace means only turning to those directly beside us.  Obviously if someone else offers their hand we should take it.  Some may think you unfriendly, but that can easily be remedied by making it a point after Mass to speak to those around you (and no, not about why you didn’t shake their hand).  Catholic churches are notoriously unfriendly and cliquish places and this habit of making sure we talk to those around us after Mass can kill two birds with one stone.  Having a conversation with them will certainly dispel any whisperings in their mind that you are somehow unfriendly and they might even begin to wonder why (and even ask) you do what you do during the Sign of Peace.

As a kid, and anyone who has young boys has probably said this too, I was told to “keep your hands to yourself” by my Mom.  It seems Holy Mother Church needs to tell her children the same thing during Mass, especially during the Our Father and the Sign of Peace.