Incola ego sum, et apud te peregrinus. “Oh God, I am a stranger, and with you a wanderer.” This verse is from the end of Psalm 39, which was not our Psalm today, but it is an excellent way to begin the season of Advent.
Advent is about the coming of Christ. As we have been reading in the Scriptures for the past few weeks, he will come at the end of time in justice, when he will separate the sheep from the goats. He will gather unto himself those who love him, and those who do not love him he will cast into Gehenna. So Advent is a season to prepare ourselves for that moment at the end of time when Jesus comes in judgment.
Advent is also a season that prepares us for the coming of Christ in human form at Christmas. He came in mercy as a baby to share our human experience. Like us in every way except sin, he came as the Son of Man to take upon himself all our sins and redeem us. He, who is without sin, gave up his life so that we might die to sin.
Non-catholics traditionally only claim two sacraments: baptism and ‘the Lord’s Supper’ because they are the only two instituted by Jesus during his earthly ministry. Marriage existed before Jesus, and his miracle at Cana and his preaching on marriage only clarified and consecrated a pre-existing social institution. Something like that might be the explanation for eliminating Holy Matrimony. But, of course, baptism existed before Jesus permitted John to Baptise him. And Jesus touched many and healed them with his touch. And Jesus forgave sins, which scandalized the Jewish religious leaders. And, at the Last Supper, while he was instituting the Eucharist, Jesus was also instituting the priesthood. So, there seems plenty of Scriptural support for the seven sacraments. Perhaps this is just another thing for Catholics and Protestants to discuss as they seek to return to being the one described by Jesus in his Priestly Prayer to the Father in the Upper Room.
Holy Orders is the means that Christ uses to provide the faithful with true shepherds after His own heart; this Sacrament imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible Sign, and is received only once, but in three degrees: deacon, priest, bishop. The Pope is both a bishop and the leader of all bishops; he is the successor to Saint Peter. By ordination, a bishop becomes a true successor to the first Apostles. The Second Vatican Council teaches that the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders is conferred by episcopal consecration, the high priesthood. By virtue of the Holy Spirit, bishops are true and authentic teachers of the faith. They are Christ’s vicars, and the pastoral care of the particular Church (diocese) is entrusted to them.
Priests are ordained to be assistants to the bishops, for they are ordained to be his co-workers, especially in the administration of the sacraments to the faithful. They are pastors of their parishes, overseeing them under the direction of the bishop but acting locally in much the same manner as the bishop does in the diocese. The height of their sacred office is the sacrifice of the Mass, where they act in persona Christi to make present again the unique sacrifice of Christ on the Cross at Calvary.
Deacons assist both bishops and priests; they are appointed to serve the bishop and the priests at the altar, and they serve the faithful in works of mercy, and they are the ordinary minister who proclaims the Gospel at Mass. Ordained persons have a role in the Church that is not given to the laity. Consecrated persons (monks and nuns) are non-ordained members of the laity.
Holy Matrimony is a Sacrament established by Jesus Christ for the benefit and salvation of the husband and wife, and their children. Marriage as a Sacrament differs from ordinary marriage; it is a true source of grace for the spouses, and unites husband and wife in a holy bond before God.True marriage is only between one man and one woman, and only death can break the bond of this Sacrament. Marital relations is a fundamental part of this Sacrament: “May marriage be honorable in every way, and may the marriage bed be immaculate.” (Heb 13:4).
Whereas in most sacraments the priest is the minister of the sacrament, in Holy Matrimony the bride and groom are the ministers. The priest or deacon is there to receive their consent on behalf of the Church.
Just as Holy Orders is a vocation in which the man responds to God’s call to serve his people in a special way, and in doing so he gives up some of the good things of this life, Holy Matrimony is a vocation in which the man and the woman respond to God’s call to serve their spouses in a special way: it is exclusive, and it is permanent, it is a total partnership of life, and they choose freely to enter into that partnership. They pledge before God to be open to life, which is certainly one meaning of the term, “fruitful.” But they are called to be fruitful in other ways, too.
They are called by God, and they are given the grace to be able to respond, to a life of self-sacrifice, of dying to self to glorify God. Most days, they are dying to self in little ways that bring harmony to the marriage, but that habit – once developed – can spread to every other aspect of their lives. Once they learn how to die to self as a husband or a wife, they can do the same as a son, a brother, a co-working, or a friend. The fruit of their witness is that the spirit of the Gospel flows through their daily lives and touches the lives of others.
In this way, they are the light of Christ in the secular world. Going to the grocery store, standing on the sidelines of the soccer game, their joy — rooted in their vocation of Holy Matrimony — can be the joy of the Gospel that a person with no relationship with Jesus might notice and inquire why they have it. Then can begin a conversation and perhaps a conversion.
We read from the letter of James about how anointing was already established by the time he wrote his letter — sometime in the first century.
“Is anyone ill among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And a prayer of faith shall save the infirm, and the Lord shall alleviate him. And if he has sins, these shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15).
And we see in the healing miracles of Jesus that he used touch as part of it. That gift of healing was passed on to the Apostles, as we see Peter heal the sick in the Acts of the Apostles. In chapter 3, he is asked for alms by a lame man, and he heals him by calling on the name of Jesus. (Acts 3:6)
Anointing of the Sick anoints chronically ill, sick, injured, or dying persons, offering forgiveness from sin, abundant grace, and healing in body and soul. It came to be called Extreme Unction over the years because it was gradually reserved for those at the point of death. After the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See clarified that this sacramental rite was for those who are seriously ill.
Because there is in the sacrament a forgiveness of sins, only priests and bishops can celebrate it. Consider the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” When challenged by the Pharisees, he says, “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, pick up your mat and go.” (Mt 9:6, Mk 2:10, Lk 5:24) So, even in the sacrament of physical healing, the connection to sin, both actual sins and original sin, is inescapable. We do not contract cancer by our own actual sin, but our physical illness is a result of humanity’s spiritual illness that comes to us from Adam and Eve.
The sacrament of anointing the sick is different from the gift of miraculous healing. God gives that to individuals without regard to their status as clergy or lay, and it is just the power of the Holy Spirit working through his agents.
Viaticum is the traditional Last Rites. When someone is truly at the point of death, a priest will hear their confession, anoint them, and give them the Eucharist as preparation for the end of their natural life and their entry into the afterlife.
Confession is the way Catholics who have sinned grievously can be renewed and restored to a right relationship with God and neighbor. Grievous sins are also called mortal sins because they are serious enough to have separated us from God and his Church. They mean we are spiritually dead. We are back to the place we were before Baptism. Just as Baptism fixes original sin, Confession fixes actual sin.
It is called Confession because a necessary act in the Sacrament is the verbal, audible, confession of the sins for which the penitent is seeking absolution. It is called Reconciliation because it reconciles the penitent to God and the Church.
It involves satisfaction because every sin is a violation of justice, and justice demands recompense or satisfaction for the injury done through sin.
The story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah is a great way for us to think about these elements. What David did was at least threefold. He was not where he was supposed to be as a King for it was the time when kings go to war but he was lounging around the palace instead. He lusted after a beautiful woman he saw bathing, and he committed adultery by sleeping with her even though she was another man’s wife. Then he committed murder in an effort to cover his other crimes when he made sure Uriah was placed where the fighting was most fierce.
The second half of the story highlights elements of a good confession. When the prophet Nathan was sent by God to prick David’s conscience with a story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only sheep, David is contrite. He says “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan says that the “Lord has put away your sin.” There we see absolution. Then Nathan explains that David will spend the rest of his life on a war footing instead of enjoying peace, and the baby will become sick and die. There we see satisfaction. David knows that his sin against Uriah is ultimately a sin against God. But he did harm to not only God but also his neighbor, and so there must be satisfaction towards both God and neighbor.
The priest is the minister of the sacrament, receiving his authority from the Apostles who received it from Jesus. John recounts this in chapter 20, where not did he institute the Eucharist but also the priesthood. And Matthew includes the words Jesus spoke a week after his resurrection when he showed Thomas the wounds in hands and his side. When thinking about the minister, we should never lose sight of the sacrament. God is giving to us his sanctifying grace, and he is using the minister as mediator just as he used angels and prophets to send his word to his people throughout salvation history. When we are confessing our sins, we are confessing to God through his minister, and the minister knows he is just as much of a sinner as we are. But by the authority of his ordination, the minister (the priest) can give us what we seek: absolution of our sins and reconciliation with God and his Church.
At the end of the rite, the priest will invite the penitent to make an act of contrition. The traditional prayer is:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
In this prayer, we see the difference between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition, which is also called attrition. When we are sorry because we dread the loss of heaven or the pains of hell, we are imperfectly contrite. It is when we declare that the main offense is to have offended God that we are perfectly contrite. In Psalm 51, which David wrote after Nathan came to him about Bathsheba, it says, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight.” (Ps 51:4) David knows that he has sinned against Uriah by stealing his wife and then having him killed to cover up his other sins. But he knows the greater sin is against God. When we understand that every sin is an injustice to God, then we are already in a better state of contrition.
When the penitent goes into the confessional, he goes understanding that nothing he says will be shared by the priest. He, too, should respect the seal and reveal nothing. But the priest cannot reveal anything to any authority, and this includes hearing somebody confess to a murder. The priest might try to convince the penitent to confess to the police, but he cannot go himself and report what he heard. Any priest who breaks the seal can only receive absolution of that sin from the Holy Father.
Confession forgives any sins committed after Baptism. But if you are not repentant, then you are not forgiven. Only a Bishop or a priest can absolve sins in Confession. An actual mortal sin occurs when one does something that is seriously immoral, with full deliberation and knowledge. A Catholic who has committed a mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion until he has received absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation. To be forgiven, admit your sin in Confession, with true sorrow (regret for sin) and repentance (a turning away from sin, toward the love of God and neighbor). Confession restores the state of salvific grace lost by actual mortal sin.
Indulgences are the term we use to try and capture the mystical reality that the merits of Christ are infinite and were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin. And there is a holy exchange between the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant, as we see when we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us, and when we pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Indulgences are those occasions when the treasury of merits is opened to individual Christians for the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Since justice demands satisfaction for sins, the souls in purgatory are making satisfaction for the sins they committed even though those sins were forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we get to Purgatory, we will be happy because we know we are going to Heaven, but we will be in Purgatory until we have wiped our account clean and are ready to be with Jesus in Heaven. Indulgences are somebody paying part of our tab with some of the merits of the Saints.
You can see how this beautiful sharing could become commercialized by an unscrupulous bishop who needed money and began to permit the exchange of money for indulgences. This is what upset Martin Luther, among other things.
Baptism gets its name from the Greek verb to plunge into water, and that is one of the important things about a valid baptism – that it be natural and flowing water. We pour it over the persons’ head, or we put the baby down into the font, but there is always living water involved.
Deacons get to do a lot of baptisms, and in the rite there is a wonderful prayer to bless the water in the font, and that prayer reminds us of the many ways God gave a hint of the sacrament of baptism in stories from the Old Testament. From the creation story to Noah’s ark, and the crossing of the Red Sea and later the Jordan River, God used water as an image of life and freedom from slavery and entry into the promised land.
Baptism forgives all personal sin, takes away original sin, infuses sanctifying grace, and is necessary for salvation. Baptism imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible sign, which is why it can only be received validly once. There is no age restriction on when one can be baptized, from infant to adult. As the gateway into the Church, baptism is necessary to receive the other sacraments. The grace received by baptism may be lost by the commission of an actual mortal sin. So, baptism gives spiritual life, but grave sin leads to spiritual death. And, if we remember from our discussion about Original Sin, baptism is commonsensical: if original sin is true – how else are we to get back into right relationship if we are born outside it? Baptism is our death to sin and rising to new life in Christ, and we see that example clearly in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples to offer baptism to everyone; it was basically the last thing he said to them before ascending to his throne in heaven.
Early practice mostly involved adults but certainly infants were baptized. We hear that the house of Cornelius was baptized in the Acts of the Apostles, for example. The practice of baptism evolved after the end of persecutions toward infant baptism. Parents and godparents stand in for the child and make promises on its behalf.
Confirmation makes common sense if we believe the stories of Pentecost and personal conversion recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – Cornelius, St. Peter seeing the Holy Spirit fall on the pagans. That was one of the reasons why he understood Christianity was not just for Jews but for all people who sought to follow Christ. It imprints in the soul a character, a certain spiritual and indelible Sign, and so can only be received validly once. We have seen this with Baptism, and we will see it in other sacraments. Some, like confession and eucharist can be received more than once, but not all of them.
Confirmed persons are called to profess faith in Christ publicly, and to spread the Gospel message, in accord with the ability and circumstances of their life. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit received in Confirmation are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
To impart the sacrament of Confirmation, it is necessary to lay hands on the confirmandi. This is to impart the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And those gifts are what empowers the confirmed to live a public Christian life. It would be too much without the strengthening of the seal, and the root word for confirmation is strengthening. So, the confirmed Christian is now equipped to go out into the world and spread the love of Christ, to be one of his disciples.
There is a difference of practice between the Eastern and Western Churches in terms of how much time passes between baptism and confirmation. In the East, the priest is the ordinary minister for baptism and confirmation and those are done in a double sacrament in one rite. (And the baby receives first eucharist at the same liturgy.) In the west, the bishop is the ordinary minister of the sacrament of confirmation, and the practice of having the bishop travel around for confirmations grew out of this understanding. But he can grant the faculty to do confirmations to his priests and in Atlanta he has. That’s why you will see a bishop come to our parish for confirmation but you will also see our priests confirm adults at the Easter Vigil.
The Second Vatican Council declared the Mass to be the source and summit of our faith, and the Mass includes the liturgy of the eucharist as basically the second half of the Mass, from the Offertory through Holy Communion. So, when we talk about the sacrament of the Eucharist we are talking about two things: the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated host, and we are talking about Holy Communion when those who are in the right relationship with Jesus and his Church come and receive his body and blood into their bodies. Remember that when consecrated, the bread and wine of the holy Eucharist becomes literally the body and blood of Jesus Christ, such that all of Christ is present: His human nature and His Divine Nature, united in One Divine Person.
The liturgy of the eucharist is many-faceted, but the fundamental characteristic is it is a sacrifice. It is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at Calvary. In a mysterious, sacramental, way, that sacrifice on the Cross is made present to us. We do what we do because Jesus told his apostles to do the memorial in remembrance of Him. Part of doing what he commanded is participating in this memorial action with our community.
The Eucharist, or the Real Presence, is just common sense if we believe the words of our Lord in Holy Scripture, or those of St. Paul. Catholics are not doing things that are not biblical despite some claims to the contrary. Acts 2:42 is an excellent summary of the Way of the Apostles and of what we are supposed to do as Christians today: “And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Our Mass is “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And here we are outside of Mass devoting ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching.
There is an excellent teaching series being held here at St. Catherine’s on Monday evenings that is examining the seven cardinal virtues and looking at saints whose lives exemplify those virtues. Justice is one of those virtues, and a definition we get from St. Thomas Aquinas is: “Therefore the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own.” So, what does one render to God? Since he is God and we are not, we offer worship and adoration to God. And the Mass is one of the public, communal, acts of worship and adoration.
I mentioned that Communion is reserved to those who are in right relation with God and his church. It may only be received by baptized Catholics who are not aware of any unconfessed actual mortal sins. It doesn’t work if we are in a state of mortal sin. That is the principal issue of being in right relation with God. But, it is also true that reception of this Sacrament is a sign of unity with other Catholics and with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Faith. So it is reserved to those who believe what the Church teaches to be true. Those who obstinately doubt or deny any of the required beliefs of the Catholic faith should not receive Communion. (cf. Canon Law 751, 1364).
You are probably aware of the habit of a few leaders of the Democratic Party in the United States to announce themselves proudly as Catholics while loudly and persistently supporting wider use of abortion. Abortion is prohibited, and it has been consistently since the first century of the Church, as demonstrated in something called the Didichae (the Teachings of the Apostles) that specifically said, “Practise no magic, sorcery, abortion, or infanticide” as the second teaching in the document. So, a self-professed Catholic who publicly disagrees with a core teaching of the Catholic Church should not be receiving Communion.