Heroes are the great individuals who stand out in our lives, in the history of our country, and in the history of our faith. We properly acknowledge these men and women for their singular actions - deeds that set them apart from the rest of us. Our parents and teachers urge us to follow the example of these individuals, and grace and perseverance may allow us, like them, to make a mark on the world that is uniquely ours.
But while we strive to exceed the common example of humanity, we must never forget we are also called to serve the common good. As cells, nerves and muscles operate for the benefit of our bodies, each of us is called to cooperate for the good of the physical society in which we live, and for the good of the spiritual body we call the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes Aristotle, who teaches "the common good takes precedence of the private good" in human society; in our spiritual lives, St. Paul reminds us, "...we who are many, are one body in Christ, and...members one of another" (Rom. 12.5).
St. Paul employs the image of the human body to help us understand the Churchís spiritual reality. The head, with its manifold capacities, directs the activity of the material bodyís limbs and physical activities. Likewise, Christ shares His goodness and power with the members of His body. This community of believers, with Christ as their head, is called the communion of saints.
In human society, material goods are transported physically from one place to another, for the benefit of the individuals who will use them. The Church has no need for commercial markets to share its goods, but the benefits of life in Christ must nonetheless be brought to the individual members of the Church. This is done through the sacraments, the physical realities Jesus chose as the means to convey the saving power of His death, for the forgiveness of our sins.
Every Catholic youngster learns that a sacrament is "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." This daunting definition means that Our Savior recognized the importance of certain "things" in our human experience - realities like food, drink, and words, as well as human relations and actions. He then endowed these realities with an additional, spiritual, value, which is the ability to touch our lives with His life, and to draw us closer to Him.
The first of the sacraments is Baptism, a spiritual birth as momentous as our physical birth. The one provides life in the flesh, the other life in grace. "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit," Jesus warns Nicodemus, "he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3.5). Baptism employs water, an element essential to physical life, the means by which material objects are cleaned, and a powerful force by which they may be moved.
The physical effects of water find their counterpart in the spiritual effects of Baptism: we are cleansed from sin, given spiritual life, and propelled on a journey that leads to everlasting life in Godís kingdom. The power of Baptism is complete: it removes every sin, as well as all the punishment due to sin. For this reason, no penance is imposed on the adult who is baptized. Such cleansing is not only infinitely powerful; it is unique. We are born only once in our human body, and we are re-born only once as members of Christís body, the Church.
Christís Passion is the source of Baptismís power, so St. Paul reminds us, "all who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in His death" (Rom 6.3). The physical actions of the baptismal liturgy bring one to life in Christ, of course, but they also remind us of the physical aspects of Christís death and resurrection. Thus, water is poured three times to recall the three days Christ spent in the tomb. When the sacrament is conferred by immersion, the individuals to be baptized are immersed three times, and their coming up out of the water is an additional reminder of Christís emerging triumphant from the grave.
Any birth, be it spiritual or physical, is a momentous step. But it is only a first step, and the newly-born person is, necessarily, weak and defenseless. The gift of an individualís birth must be fortified and strengthened if it is to achieve its full potential. Our human society is very conscious of the physical benefits of medicine and exercise; the sacrament of Confirmation plays a similarly strengthening role in the Christianís spiritual development.
Moreover, the sacrament of Confirmation equips an individual to assume and exercise the responsibilities of Christian adulthood. St. Paul remarks, "when I became a man, I put away the things of a child" (1 Cor 13.11), and St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,
After His resurrection, Jesus commanded the apostles to remain in Jerusalem, "till you be endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). For us, no less than the apostles, the "perfect action" of our adult life is the witness we offer to Christ. The modern Christian shares the Churchís early heroesí need to be fortified for the task of preaching the gospel, by word and the example of our lives; Confirmation responds to this need.
The 19th Century poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote, "earthís crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God," a reminder that we can learn deep spiritual truths by observing ourselves and the physical world around us. Once we are born, we do not have to be very old, nor very long without food, to learn the painful truth of hunger. If we acknowledge the similarities between our physical birth and the spiritual birth we experience at Baptism, we will have no trouble discerning a spiritual hunger that corresponds to the physical hunger we experience in our bodies. Our faith tells us that Christís gift of the Eucharist provides the food to satisfy this hunger.
Jesus shocked some of His contemporaries when He said, "unless you shall eat of the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink of His blood, you shall not have life within you" (Jn 6:54). If we look no further than the surface of Jesusí words we may be tempted to share his listenersí dismay. However, faith teaches that the spiritual reality of Christís Body and Blood lies far deeper than the human flesh and bone we perceive with our senses. The gift of Christís Body is no less real for being spiritual. Indeed, were it not spiritual, the gift could not satisfy our spiritual longing.
In the Lenten sermons on the Apostlesí Creed that we have been considering, St. Thomas does not develop his theology of the Eucharist; he presupposes his listenersí belief in this sacrament, and addresses their practical concerns. Because we cannot share Christís life if we do not share His Body and Blood, the Angelic Doctor teaches, we must avail ourselves of this sacrament - at least occasionally - and we must approach it worthily. The one who does not, St. Paul warns, "eateth and drinketh judgment to himself" (1 Cor 11.29).
When our body is sick we turn to medicine for assistance. The Sacrament of Reconciliation plays a similarly helpful role when our spiritual lives suffer as a result of sin. Our disposition toward Christís reconciliation, and the attitude with which we must approach His healing, are all important as we consider the effect of the sacrament in our lives. The first of these attitudes is contrition, which we understand as sorrow for sin coupled with a purpose of amendment. The unique qualities that make us human (our physical bodies and our intellect) are intimately connected with our spiritual lives, and neither thrives at the expense of the other. When we approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we must be sorry for our sins, but to receive Christís forgiveness worthily, this sorrow must be accompanied by the resolve to change our sinful behavior.
Tears are not merciful if they are shed without offering some practical relief to someone in distress. Sorrow is likewise incomplete if we are unwilling to alter sinful behavior. Here we can make another comparison between physical and spiritual health, because the doctor who attends our bodily ailments will often prescribe some change in behavior (e.g., increasing exercise, or avoiding certain foods) if a medication is to achieve its full benefit.
In addition to expressing sorrow for our sins, we must confess them (without omitting any), and we must be willing to perform some good work as a satisfaction for the wrong we have done. This latter is the penance imposed by the priest to whom we confess our sins. This may consist of nothing more than a few prayers, which seem altogether disproportionate to the sin we have committed, but here we must remember that Godís grace speaks primarily to our hearts. St. Therese of Lisieux said, "to pick up a pin for love can save a soul;" the sincerity of spirit with which we perform the penance can have a far greater impact on our spiritual life than a severe bodily mortification.
A Church that provides abundantly for the soul at the beginning of life will hardly ignore that soul when its bodily home is sick or in danger of death. The apostle James writes
In this anointing we pray for the physical health of the individual who is ill, but the sacrament is principally ordered to the health of the soul, through the forgiveness of sins. Death comes in many forms, and for many reasons. If our prayers for physical healing are not granted, we must assume that an individualís body has contributed all it can to the salvation of his soul.
For the Churchís sacramental life to continue, Our Savior had to plan for a time when neither He nor His disciples would be a direct part of the Churchís everyday activity. The Sacrament of Holy Orders provides the Church with ministers to meet the sacramental needs of the faithful, thus securing its sacramental life. Although the privilege of acting in Christís person is an immense one, we must never forget that the ministering priest. Priests are challenged daily to meet the high moral standard set by Jesus, the Eternal Priest, but their occasional failure to do so - although lamentable - does not limit the power of the sacraments they minister on Christís behalf.
The sacrament of Matrimony provides the means for married men and women to sanctify themselves, and to be sanctified by one another. Each day, married partners are called - through their love for one another - to be clearer and clearer signs of Christís love for the Church. The vowed love of marriage is not only a source of the partnersí own growth in holiness, but becomes an invitation to all Christians to draw closer to Christ, the source of all love. Marriage is subject to numerous trials and stresses; none of these may be minimized, but each must be recognized for what it is: a married couplesí particular challenge to experience the painful reality of Christís cross, and an invitation for others in the Church to minister to the suffering Christ in their midst.
Each of the sacraments conveys Christís love, which is manifest especially in His willingness to forgive our sins. The sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation offer this forgiveness directly; the sacraments of Confirmation and Matrimony indirectly, but all the sacraments exist to purify our hearts, cleanse our souls and draw us closer to spiritual perfection - the only means by which we may hope to enter Godís kingdom.
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