Seventy years ago a new house, one lot up, was built on my street. Max Diamond, a local mattress salesman, constructed a bricked-front cottage, garage and smart landscaping. During several very hot summer days, my mother took pity on the landscapers and brought them some lemonade to ease their discomfort. When the artisans completed their work, they presented my mother with a rhododendron bush which was planted before our front porch and today has grown into a sizable tree. The blossoms are a deep magenta and present themselves every year in late May. During my seminary years, when those late spring blossoms would appear, my mother would remark to my father, “Well, John will be coming home!” These blossoms heralded the end of my academic year and my arrival home for the summer months. An announcement clearly welcomed by my mother.
Next to the magenta bush is an equally mature rhododendron plant that blooms in mid-July with brilliant white buds. This bush has a much more villainous origin that I will share with you now but please don’t let on to anyone else. The property at the former Our Lady of Providence Seminary at Warwick Neck abounds in rhododendron bushes. The edges of the campus are arrayed with these seasonal blossoms. During my deacon year as a prefect at the school, I dug up one of these bushes and put it to one side until a holiday arrived and I could take it home to Woonsocket to plant it alongside the already thriving magenta bush. Well, it, too, has grown splendidly. Every July, its unfurling white buds recall for me the solid education I received during my seminary years, especially at Warwick Neck and also at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York (alas, both of happy memories).
It is a happy concept that material objects like the blossoms on a rhododendron bush can evoke thoughts of deeper realities like the love of parents for their son or the satisfaction of a student for his teachers. But of course this notion is the very foundation of the sacramental system that is at the very heart of Roman Catholic beliefs. Material objects like poured water, smeared oil, imposed hands, spoken vows, confessed sins, and, pre-eminently, bread and wine not only symbolize lofty, spiritual realities but, when joined with hallowed words, actually realize the noble events they herald. “An outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace,” these simple catechetical phrases summarize the volumes written by theologians explaining how handy, earthly objects can convey unfathomable heavenly realities onto a believing community. St. John’s Gospel account, chapter six, reveals picturesquely what the catechism teaches dryly and the theologians ponder deeply.
The multiplication of the loaves is the only miracle reported by all four Gospel accounts. Jesus’ culinary largesse obviously made a profound impression on his eager audience. The master feeds a large gathering of families in the wilderness. (St. John makes a point of noting, “There was much grass in that place.”) This countryside generosity would certainly call to the Jewish mind the equal munificence of God the Father during their ancestors’ trek from Egypt to Israel when bountiful manna was found before their tents every morning. For these onlookers, Jesus’ welcomed bread evoked the Father’s cheered manna. Christians in later generations reflecting on the multiplication of loaves would see an anticipation of the Eucharist through which Jesus satisfied not an earthly hunger but a spiritual appetite. This later Eucharistic bread broken (along with the cup poured out) both symbolized and realized the supernatural nourishment with which God would nourish his people, not only at the altar, but in so many kindly ways during a believer’s lifetime. A most basic earthly reality like bread, through the providence and grace of God, stimulates and ensures a deep appreciation of the even more basic reality of spiritual regeneration, made available through Jesus Christ and through his Church.
At the moment of his incarnation, the Son of God became an earthly man, and, wisely and fittingly as Jesus Christ, he continues to take Divine realities and incarnate them through earthly signs. The sacraments are the Christian family’s rhododendron bushes — so to speak —which not only evoke fond memories but more significantly produce supernatural grace. The sacraments are indeed “outward signs” empowered by Christ to bestow welcomed and wanted inward grace.