Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Creation & outward signs of encounter

We are physical beings who live in the physical world, and we communicate invisible realities such as love, trust, friendship, forgiveness and gratitude with each other in physical ways. 

When parents hug their children, they express in a warm and reassuring way the love they have for them. Friends shake hands after a fight or an argument in order to conveys a sense of goodwill and reconciliation. Embracing one another communicates friendship. Sex in marriage communicates and deepens the love husband and wife have for each other. We all use a range of tangible and physical ways of expressing the inner reality of ourselves in our relationships with others - at home, at work and among our friends.


In the Gospels we see that Jesus, “God in human Flesh”, reached out in love to all kinds of people in order to heal them, to reconcile them, to pour his love into their lives. He used tangible and physical actions to reassure them that something real was happening. He touched them in blessing and prayer. He laid his hands on the sick. He sent his disciples out to anoint the sick with oil. And he told the apostles to continue his ministry by using water in Baptism, and bread and wine in Holy Communion. Through the physical presence of Jesus, his actions and the created things used by him, men and women received God’s blessing, love and power. They were made whole.

The earthly, physical body of Jesus, then, was an “outward sign” of God’s saving, healing, reconciling presence among his people. 

That’s exactly what a SACRAMENT is. 


Jesus no longer reaches out and touches people in his historical body, because, since his ascension, he is no longer present in that way. But, as we have already seen, he is present in a tangible way through his new Spirit-filled community of love, the Church, which is also called his “body.” We read in the New Testament:

“[Jesus] is . . . the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” 
- Ephesians 1:22-23

“[Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead . . .”
- Colossians 1:17-18
“. . . just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . the body does not consist of one member but of many . . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27

Taking up this theme, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men”
- Catechism 444 

This is what Abu Daoud writes about the connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the Church:

“Christianity is built on the conviction that out of the most radical and disastrous despair, God turned the tables on the Empire and the Temple that killed his Son, and his resurrection was nothing less than the victory of God. The power of life in that resurrection flowed out into a community called out by God, the Church. That community was called to be a sacrament of secret life and an imperfect but real embassy of God’s reign, which, like yeast in dough, spreads and leavens.”
- Abu Daoud  in St Francis Magazine Vol 8, No 2 April 2012

Through the physical presence in the world of his many membered body, as well as in the sacred actions of that body, Jesus continues to touch people’s lives today. These “actions” are called sacraments.


A sacrament is “a tangible encounter with the risen Jesus.”

We use the word tangible in these notes because it means “involving the senses.” The word encounter is used to describe a meeting with the risen Jesus in which he shares with us personally his life and his love - just as he did with people in Gospel times.

Of course, his greatest act of self giving love was his death on the cross, and that is why we often say that the sacraments make the victory of the cross effective in our lives.

While the whole of life is  sacramental, there are special moments when the risen Jesus acts through his many-membered body, his new community of love, to share his life with us. These are the seven Sacraments, channels of his love and power, through which he forgives us, renews us, equips us, deepens our union with him, and pours his risen life into our waiting hearts. 

An older definition of  “sacrament” is: 

“. . . an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

While this definition may seem a bit more “static” than the way we have been speaking, it is quite useful because it emphasises that each sacrament has two parts: the outward sign which relates to our senses, and the inward grace, the special blessing we receive from God through that particular sacrament.  

The sacraments assure us that Jesus really is touching our lives.

In more technical language, a theologian wrote:

“Upon the Cross the God-Man intended his act of redemption for all without exception. The sacrifice of the Cross, in all its eternal-actuality in mystery, is still intended for all people, for each one personally. Now it is this personal intention of Christ’s act of redemption for a particular human being that is brought out in the sacraments . . .

“As the personal redemptive act of Christ in his Church, a sacrament is therefore the personal approach of Christ to a particular human being. In the fullest sense of the word, a sacrament is the pledge of Christ’s availability to a particular individual; the tangible pledge of his willing readiness to enter upon an encounter.”
- Edward Schillebeeckx, in Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God, p 80


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