In the sacraments, God is present in earthly elements

Father John A. Kiley

One Sunday last spring, St. Francis Parish in Warwick celebrated First Communion at a 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass, welcomed a newborn with the sacrament of baptism at 2 p.m. and then witnessed Bishop Robert E. Mulvee confirm 22 young people at 5 p.m.

The numbers here at St. Francis are not great, so administering these three sacraments was not as stressful as those days when I was a curate at Sts. John & Paul in Coventry, when First Communion would be on all four Sundays in May and a double confirmation ceremony would be celebrated on a Sunday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. with a 4 p.m. wedding in between. These statistics are not a plea for sympathy. (Although if someone wanted to send a lasagna to the rectory to sustain me during the rigors of my ministry, it would be appreciated.) Rather, a busy Sunday helps to focus the believer’s attention on the fundamental framework of Roman Catholicism, namely, the sacramental principle.

At First Communion, the second graders not only heard the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit, they accepted the body of Christ into their hands, tasted the sacred host and consumed their Savior into the very fabric of their being.

At baptism, again the assembled community heard the Word of God announced and the infant squealed as the chilled water flowed across his forehead. Even before he could reasonably comprehend the marvel that was taking place in his soul, this baby was able to sense the action of God. God had taken the first human, earthly steps into this child’s life.

At confirmation, the young people and their sponsors and families would see with their bodily eyes Christ present in the person of the bishop. They would again hear the Word of God with their ears. They would see the bishop’s hands raised in solemn imprecation to the Spirit and they would feel the warmth of the oil and the pressure of the bishop’s hand on their foreheads. Unmistakable human contact was the vehicle God was employing to bring these young Catholics to the fullness of church life.

In all these illustrations and in any instance that might be recounted regarding the celebration of the sacraments, the same principle is in operation. God continues to come to his people through human elements. Flowing water, baked bread, poured wine, strengthening oil, spoken vows, extended hands, even the assessment of guilt during confession are all creaturely essentials with universal and timeless significance. The same principle whereby God revealed his love to Adam and Eve through the creaturely comforts of Eden is at work here. The same principle whereby God supremely manifested his love for the human family through the human nature and human activity of Jesus Christ is wonderfully seen here. A grasp of this sacramental principle — the conferral of divine grace through earthly enterprises — is vital to the understanding of authentic Christianity and especially of Roman Catholicism, whose glory has always been to express the sublime through the mundane.

Critical to the believer’s full understanding of the sacramental principle is an appreciation of the dignity that God recognizes in human nature and in all creation. God could easily have saved mankind through exclusively divine or angelic or spiritual means. The thunderbolts that the ancients imagined emanating from Zeus’ throne on Mount Olympus reflect this tendency to assume that all mighty things come from above and that man’s native abilities count for naught.

But the Judeo-Christian God does not despise the things of earth. In fact, the God of our fathers exalts the things of this earth. His divine Son took on a human nature; he was born, lived, died and was buried. The church established by this Son has an entirely human framework. It finds God in human history, human writing, birth, marriage, sickness, death, meals and community. It takes into account even sin and sacrifice. Its administration is entirely human. Its worship mirrors the heavenly court by employing human excellence.

Christianity is clearly a resounding vote of confidence in the dignity of humankind. If God honors man with such respect, certainly man should have the same reverence for himself. Disregard for a fellow human being, abuse of nature, neglect of life on earth is not only an insult to man; it is a slap in the face to God. If God respects man, man should respect himself.