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Dr. Aaron Henderson is a Faculty Tutor for the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture.

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Make a Resolution to Love

As the new year begins and many of us make resolutions, some concrete and realistic, others perhaps less so, the words of Jesus may be especially discouraging: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Our Lord is not addressing, of course, economic, academic, or aesthetic perfection. In other words, the Christian life does not demand that we become rich or supremely intelligent or beautiful. Instead, Jesus is speaking of moral perfection, a natural and supernatural integrity of life and action. But even if we have narrowed our focus, this command of Jesus may seem unreasonable, and an unreasonable command is no real command at all. The good news is that the heights of holiness can indeed be reached with God’s gracious help. Were Christ asking us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, the command would indeed be impossible. Enlivened and empowered by God’s grace, however, a life of holiness is within our grasp.

What does this life of holiness entail? St. John Paul II reflects on the biblical answer to this question in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. Though human life can be complicated and convoluted, the life of holiness requires, above all else, something simple: love. But this word is often distorted today, becoming very much like the squishy, vapid resolutions I mentioned above. Love is reduced to a feeling, an emotional state, and thus reduced to something turbulent and temporary. When Jesus speaks about love, on the contrary, it is something mighty, something profound, something worthy of animating one’s life.

For St. John Paul II, as for the entire Christian tradition, looking to Jesus shows us the path to love. I would like to draw out three essential elements of love. First, love (for example, the kind of love we find in virtuous friendships) involves willing the good of another person, and not for any perceived benefit but for the person’s own sake. While there is an emotional love proper to the human person, the love we are speaking about is fundamentally an act of the will. And because it is such an act, it is not subject to the turbulence and transience of emotional love. Consider a married couple that has been together for 40 years. There are bound to be days when the married persons do not feel in love with each other. Nevertheless, though emotional love when rightly ordered is a good that often accompanies voluntary love, voluntary love transcends emotional love. This distinction between love as an emotion and love as an act of the will explains at least part of the complex reality of divorce in the United States. Because couples confuse the two, often they base a relationship on emotional love and neglect the higher, more stable form of love that wills the good of the other in season and out of season, “in sickness and in health,” as the marriage rite puts it. When emotional love ceases or, God forbid, turns to hatred and resentment, the relationship itself crumbles.

Where do we see this aspect of love exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus? We see it in His entire life of obedience to the Father for our sake, but especially in His willingness to die on the Cross. In the garden, our Lord’s humanity cannot help but cry out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And yet, because His human will is perfectly conformed to the Father’s will, He can say, “Yet not my will but Thine be done” (Mt. 26:39). It is a fearful thing to approach death, and thus we see Jesus in distress and sweating blood (Lk. 22:44). But He never ceased to will the good of our salvation. We too are meant to show our love for God in acts of obedience: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). For those of us who are still imperfect, our emotions may militate against this saying of our Lord. After all, sometimes I may not feel like obeying God; it may feel better in the short term to pursue bodily pleasure and eschew higher goods. For those who have reached the heights of holiness, however, there is an emotional joy that accompanies obeying God. Love, as St. John Paul II says, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. In this life, love is inextricably tied to self-giving, to sacrifice. Here, of course, Jesus is the ultimate example. We are not called merely to a fleeting emotional love but to a love that endures all for the sake of the beloved.

The second aspect of love is that it is always founded and grounded in the truth. This is quite a controversial point today, since many people have so absolutized the human will that whatever one chooses to pursue, to love, is justified, and justified precisely because one has chosen it. On the contrary, to state the matter simply, we cannot love what we do not know. Notice the respective implications of these opposing views. For the modern view of love, founded in an understanding of the will as an unfettered power to choose anything whatsoever, might makes right. The person with the stronger will inevitably wins out. Consequently, human relationships devolve into power struggles, occasions to manipulate and dominate others. For the classical view, founded in an understanding of the will as an intellectual appetite, all human beings are beholden to the wise and good order that God has created. Our willing must be in conformity with the truth about the created order, about the human person, and about God. When we choose something contrary to the truth, we are not free persons but slaves. The truth really does set us free (Jn. 8:32), and set us free primarily so that we may love as we ought.

Jesus’s entire mission hinges on the fact that we cannot love what we do not know. That is why the Son, the only one who has seen the Father (Jn. 1:18), comes to reveal the Father to us, so that we may know and love Him. This is our Lord’s prayer: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that thy love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:25-26). It is our job, then, whether by reflecting on the order of creation or on God’s word in Holy Scripture, to know God so that we may love Him all the more.

Finally, love should be focused on God; one should love God above all else. This is true even on the natural level, though for fallen man this is impossible without God’s healing grace. It is all the truer on the supernatural level, since we are called in charity to love God firstly and others, even sinners, out of love for God. God is to be loved above all else because love is of things lovable, and God is most loveable. Indeed, He is goodness itself and the source of all that is good. “God is love,” as 1 Jn. 4:8 says. When we place God first, when we love Him above all else, our other loves become rightly ordered. We are able to love our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers better when these loves are enlivened and perfected by love of God. Jesus Himself says when asked which is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Christian life hinges on these two commandments. They are inseparable, yes, but one is higher: love of God.

As we continue in this new year, let us remember with St. John Paul II that at the heart of our moral and spiritual journey toward perfection is love, a love that wills the good of the other for his own sake, a love that is always grounded in the truth, a love that is ordered first and foremost to the God who is love. Even if our other resolutions fall through, fulfilling the commandment of love will make this year fruitful.

Humans are Religious Animals

When thinking about religion and about our experience thereof, we might contemplate most readily the feelings we have when we pray, or the love we have for God, or perhaps the knowledge we have of God that gives rise to such love. And these are all legitimate aspects of human religious experience and expression. But perhaps we are less ready to see religion as a matter of justice. Religion is a part of justice because justice is about rendering to another what is his due. And just as we owe things to our parents, to our friends, to our coworkers, and so forth, so do we owe things to the God who created us, who sustains us in every moment in being, and who bestows on us every good gift. Religion is about rendering to God what is His due, and thus we see human beings in every time and place offering sacrifices, praying, taking vows and oaths.

Of course, because we live in a fallen world, these religious expressions are inevitably imperfect and sometimes even perverse. Human sacrifice or disordered sexual practices are extreme examples, but even more mundane religious expressions are subject to superstition and sensationalism, founded as they are on incomplete notions of God and of the human person in relation to Him. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous nature of religion testifies to its deep rootedness in human nature. We are fundamentally religious animals. We have what we might call a natural inclination toward religion and its acts.

This might be jarring for many to hear, especially given that atheism is often considered to be the human default. Religion is seen as something extrinsic or foreign to human nature. Or, if it is associated in some way with the evolutionary development of human beings, it is judged to be a vestiguum, a defunct remainder of a bygone age. This understanding, though, is contrary to the evidence. It is contrary to what we know to be true of the human heart, which must always seek its treasure, whether it be in the ego or in power, whatever false god one chooses, or whether it be in the one true God.

St. Thomas Aquinas also articulates a virtue of religion, a stable disposition or habit that allows us to perform acts of devotion that direct us toward God. We ought to cultivate this virtue daily. Jesus does not undermine or contravene the truth and beauty of natural human religiosity. Instead, Christ purifies and perfects human religion. He offers Himself as the insurmountable Sacrifice; He teaches us personally how to pray; He makes holy our vows and oaths. In Christ, we can approach at last the infinite God with the most fitting gifts. In His Church, we can participate even now in the heavenly liturgy and superabundantly fulfill the desire we all possess to order our lives to the God to whom we owe life and breath and everything.

Being Conformed to Christ’s Priesthood

No discussion of the sacraments of the New Law can be complete without a consideration of sacramental character. Three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders) bestow sacramental characters, but what exactly are these characters? Answering this will serve to bolster our appreciation for them and for the sacraments which bestow them upon us. In short, the characters are bound up with receiving, or bestowing on others, things pertaining to divine worship. The sacramental characters are, first and foremost, conformations to Christ, especially to Christ’s Priesthood.

The New Testament presents Jesus as the new and perfect High Priest. Think here especially of the Letter to the Hebrews. And "High Priest" is not merely a juridical designation; it is not simply a legal title. It is a divine consecration that marks His very being (that is to say, it is ontological). Jesus is made High Priest so as to inaugurate the worship of the New Law. We need such an ontological consecration as well if we are to participate in the liturgical life of the Church.

As I said, three sacraments impart a mark of Christ, a “character” or “cultic power.” The first, of course, is Baptism, and it is on this sacrament that I would like to focus. Baptism is the first of the sacraments of initiation; it incorporates us into Christ and His Mystical Body. It also bestows a character, a consecration that makes the faithful apt to receive validly the other sacraments of the New Law. Good dispositions and intentions can only get one so far, and without this fundamental baptismal consecration, the reception of the other sacraments would remain ineffective. The baptismal character opens us up, as it were, to the whole exercise of Christian worship. It gives us the power to cooperate liturgically in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and in such a way that we are not merely spectators or assistants but “actors” and participants. This can be seen in the ancient custom of dismissing the catechumens before the offertory. Even today it is signified in the collective form of prayers that join us to the celebrant. Additionally, in virtue of Baptism and the character it bestows, a marriage entered into by baptized persons is a properly Christian and sacramental marriage.

The cultic consecration we receive in Baptism is indelible, not capable of being removed. Consequently, Baptism (as well as Confirmation and Orders) is not repeatable. Even the apostate, the one who tragically rejects his baptismal faith, cannot efface his baptismal character. The 20th century theologian and cardinal, Charles Journet, speaks beautifully of the sacramental character in the tragic figure: “[I]t remains in him as the last witness of his membership in Christ and of his Christian dignity, a secret possibility of returning to the light.” Let us recover, then, an appreciation for sacramental character and the special conformation it affords us to the Priesthood of Christ.

 

*This musing was inspired by an article I translated some time ago by Charles Cardinal Journet, The Mystery of Sacramentality.

 

The Ordered Cosmos

Humans are peculiar creatures, and deep down we all know this to be so. We are bound by time but tend in a certain manner toward eternity; we are bodily and yet possess an immaterial or spiritual principle; we are formed from the dust of the earth but are nevertheless made to the image of God. Sub-human animals do not attend to the time of day, nor do they, except by a kind of ineluctable inclination or instinct, concern themselves with seasons. At the other end of the hierarchy, angels are not worried about corruption or dissolution; they need not devote time to study or the arduous cultivation of virtue.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, the Old Testament reading for today’s Holy Mass, reflects on the rhythm of God’s material creation. There is a time and place for all things, seasons of birth and growth and maturity and decay. But for the human person in a special way there are times to be at work and at leisure, to fast and to feast, to speak and to keep silent, to weep and to laugh, and all the rest. That human life ebbs and flows is inevitable, for we are, again, beings bound by time and space. And this is precisely as God wills it to be, even if we are meant ultimately (without ceasing to be creatures) to be caught up into His own eternity and immutable perfection.

What does Ecclesiastes have to teach us? After all, we all know existence to be constituted by moments both good and bad, lovely and tragic, life-giving and death-dealing. The sacred author wants us to see that all things are ordered by God’s wisdom. The rest of creation participates in its own manner in God’s ordering wisdom, but human beings in a far higher and more perfect way. We can, in short, because we are intellectual creatures, order as God orders and guide as God guides. We can perceive the ordered pattern of creation and act in accord with it. This is nothing trivial or unremarkable, but rather something wonderful for which to thank God.

The Church’s liturgical calendar provides a much-needed structure to the Christian life. The Church is a good Mother, and just as our parents teach us how to live and act in the world in an ordered way, in accord with the times and seasons, so too does the Church. In her case, though, she is using the times and seasons, sanctified by her divine Spouse and Head, to lead us to eternal life.

As we focus this year on the sacraments, the highest expressions of the Church’s liturgical life, let us see them as wise and good gifts of God, remedies for sin appropriate for the peculiar creatures we are. As the sacred author of Ecclesiastes knew so profoundly, the God who transcends every imperfection and change orders all things well, whether in nature or in grace.

Life and Death in Christ

The last couple of years have forced us to confront the realities of suffering and death. I speak of coercion because we rarely enjoy thinking about suffering and death. They make us uncomfortable, at the very least, and at times perhaps even paranoid and fearful. In a certain respect, these reactions are understandable. Suffering and death are not desirable in themselves, involving as they do the weakening or destruction of the human body. But they are unavoidable, at least in this fallen world.

We often avoid talking about suffering and death in the spiritual life as well. We neglect to consider all the suffering that sin can bring us and those whom we love. We fail to reflect on the reality of spiritual death and the possibility of the second death of hell. And here too the neglect is somewhat understandable. Our own wickedness, or that of our loved ones, is a difficult thing to come to terms with, in part because our wickedness signifies to us that we need to convert to God, that we need to do the challenging work of changing our lives. Vices are bad habits, and habits are stable and deeply ingrained and thus hard to uproot. But again, such suffering is practically unavoidable in this vale of tears, and with the grace of God we are called to overcome sin and spiritual death. Indeed, that is why Christ came.

Because we neglect or misunderstand suffering and death, we likewise neglect or misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, which exists for the sake of strengthening those who are seriously ill or aged and in danger of death. We forget this sacrament at our peril.

God in the Old Testament is the healer of His people, a physician for all who call upon His name. Jesus Christ continues this healing ministry in the New Testament, using His sacred humanity as the instrument of His divinity. Jesus restores sight to the blind, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, but the more vital healing is always spiritual. The bodily healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, for example, is a sign of the interior healing of his sin-wounded soul. Jesus’s earthly ministry, consummated on the bloody Cross, accomplishes most proximately not freedom of the people of Israel from Roman occupation, but the liberty of all men from the slavery and dominion of sin.

Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, has His healing ministry ceased? By no means! Jesus continues to touch us through the sacramental mysteries. While all the sacraments in their own manner serve to heal and elevate human nature, there are two sacraments specially ordered to healing: Penance and Holy Anointing. If the former is primarily concerned with restoring supernatural life to the spiritually dead, the latter is concerned with strengthening the spiritually alive but sick. Because we are wounded by sin, inordinately attached to creatures even after being forgiven, we are often susceptible to doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness, and other vices when we are seriously ill or dying. Just reflect on how physical weakness, lack of sleep, and emotional distress can impact you. The first grace of Anointing of the Sick addresses precisely this reality. Here is how the Catechism puts it: “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This gift is a grace of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (1520). Notice that the primary grace of the sacrament is not one of physical healing. Yes, sometimes physical healing does result, but this is not principally why the sacrament was instituted. Even were a person to be miraculously saved from physical death, it would not be delayed forever. Instead, the sacrament is meant to save one from eternal death and prepare the soul to be with God in heaven forever.

Christ instituted the sacraments for a reason, including Extreme Unction (our “last anointing”) or Anointing of the Sick. Though we may be reluctant to contemplate for too long a sacrament bound up with the human conditions of suffering and dying, perhaps our sentiments will change when we remember what a merciful gift it is. It is a unique conformation to the passion and death of Christ, and thus a special sharing also in His victory in the Resurrection. Let this, then, be a call to rediscover the beauty and power of Holy Anointing.

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Make a Resolution to Love

As the new year begins and many of us make resolutions, some concrete and realistic, others perhaps less so, the words of Jesus may be especially discouraging: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Our Lord is not addressing, of course, economic, academic, or aesthetic perfection. In other words, the Christian life does not demand that we become rich or supremely intelligent or beautiful. Instead, Jesus is speaking of moral perfection, a natural and supernatural integrity of life and action. But even if we have narrowed our focus, this command of Jesus may seem unreasonable, and an unreasonable command is no real command at all. The good news is that the heights of holiness can indeed be reached with God’s gracious help. Were Christ asking us to pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, the command would indeed be impossible. Enlivened and empowered by God’s grace, however, a life of holiness is within our grasp.

What does this life of holiness entail? St. John Paul II reflects on the biblical answer to this question in his encyclical Veritatis splendor. Though human life can be complicated and convoluted, the life of holiness requires, above all else, something simple: love. But this word is often distorted today, becoming very much like the squishy, vapid resolutions I mentioned above. Love is reduced to a feeling, an emotional state, and thus reduced to something turbulent and temporary. When Jesus speaks about love, on the contrary, it is something mighty, something profound, something worthy of animating one’s life.

For St. John Paul II, as for the entire Christian tradition, looking to Jesus shows us the path to love. I would like to draw out three essential elements of love. First, love (for example, the kind of love we find in virtuous friendships) involves willing the good of another person, and not for any perceived benefit but for the person’s own sake. While there is an emotional love proper to the human person, the love we are speaking about is fundamentally an act of the will. And because it is such an act, it is not subject to the turbulence and transience of emotional love. Consider a married couple that has been together for 40 years. There are bound to be days when the married persons do not feel in love with each other. Nevertheless, though emotional love when rightly ordered is a good that often accompanies voluntary love, voluntary love transcends emotional love. This distinction between love as an emotion and love as an act of the will explains at least part of the complex reality of divorce in the United States. Because couples confuse the two, often they base a relationship on emotional love and neglect the higher, more stable form of love that wills the good of the other in season and out of season, “in sickness and in health,” as the marriage rite puts it. When emotional love ceases or, God forbid, turns to hatred and resentment, the relationship itself crumbles.

Where do we see this aspect of love exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus? We see it in His entire life of obedience to the Father for our sake, but especially in His willingness to die on the Cross. In the garden, our Lord’s humanity cannot help but cry out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And yet, because His human will is perfectly conformed to the Father’s will, He can say, “Yet not my will but Thine be done” (Mt. 26:39). It is a fearful thing to approach death, and thus we see Jesus in distress and sweating blood (Lk. 22:44). But He never ceased to will the good of our salvation. We too are meant to show our love for God in acts of obedience: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). For those of us who are still imperfect, our emotions may militate against this saying of our Lord. After all, sometimes I may not feel like obeying God; it may feel better in the short term to pursue bodily pleasure and eschew higher goods. For those who have reached the heights of holiness, however, there is an emotional joy that accompanies obeying God. Love, as St. John Paul II says, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges. In this life, love is inextricably tied to self-giving, to sacrifice. Here, of course, Jesus is the ultimate example. We are not called merely to a fleeting emotional love but to a love that endures all for the sake of the beloved.

The second aspect of love is that it is always founded and grounded in the truth. This is quite a controversial point today, since many people have so absolutized the human will that whatever one chooses to pursue, to love, is justified, and justified precisely because one has chosen it. On the contrary, to state the matter simply, we cannot love what we do not know. Notice the respective implications of these opposing views. For the modern view of love, founded in an understanding of the will as an unfettered power to choose anything whatsoever, might makes right. The person with the stronger will inevitably wins out. Consequently, human relationships devolve into power struggles, occasions to manipulate and dominate others. For the classical view, founded in an understanding of the will as an intellectual appetite, all human beings are beholden to the wise and good order that God has created. Our willing must be in conformity with the truth about the created order, about the human person, and about God. When we choose something contrary to the truth, we are not free persons but slaves. The truth really does set us free (Jn. 8:32), and set us free primarily so that we may love as we ought.

Jesus’s entire mission hinges on the fact that we cannot love what we do not know. That is why the Son, the only one who has seen the Father (Jn. 1:18), comes to reveal the Father to us, so that we may know and love Him. This is our Lord’s prayer: “O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that thy love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Jn. 17:25-26). It is our job, then, whether by reflecting on the order of creation or on God’s word in Holy Scripture, to know God so that we may love Him all the more.

Finally, love should be focused on God; one should love God above all else. This is true even on the natural level, though for fallen man this is impossible without God’s healing grace. It is all the truer on the supernatural level, since we are called in charity to love God firstly and others, even sinners, out of love for God. God is to be loved above all else because love is of things lovable, and God is most loveable. Indeed, He is goodness itself and the source of all that is good. “God is love,” as 1 Jn. 4:8 says. When we place God first, when we love Him above all else, our other loves become rightly ordered. We are able to love our spouses, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers better when these loves are enlivened and perfected by love of God. Jesus Himself says when asked which is the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The entire Christian life hinges on these two commandments. They are inseparable, yes, but one is higher: love of God.

As we continue in this new year, let us remember with St. John Paul II that at the heart of our moral and spiritual journey toward perfection is love, a love that wills the good of the other for his own sake, a love that is always grounded in the truth, a love that is ordered first and foremost to the God who is love. Even if our other resolutions fall through, fulfilling the commandment of love will make this year fruitful.

Humans are Religious Animals

When thinking about religion and about our experience thereof, we might contemplate most readily the feelings we have when we pray, or the love we have for God, or perhaps the knowledge we have of God that gives rise to such love. And these are all legitimate aspects of human religious experience and expression. But perhaps we are less ready to see religion as a matter of justice. Religion is a part of justice because justice is about rendering to another what is his due. And just as we owe things to our parents, to our friends, to our coworkers, and so forth, so do we owe things to the God who created us, who sustains us in every moment in being, and who bestows on us every good gift. Religion is about rendering to God what is His due, and thus we see human beings in every time and place offering sacrifices, praying, taking vows and oaths.

Of course, because we live in a fallen world, these religious expressions are inevitably imperfect and sometimes even perverse. Human sacrifice or disordered sexual practices are extreme examples, but even more mundane religious expressions are subject to superstition and sensationalism, founded as they are on incomplete notions of God and of the human person in relation to Him. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous nature of religion testifies to its deep rootedness in human nature. We are fundamentally religious animals. We have what we might call a natural inclination toward religion and its acts.

This might be jarring for many to hear, especially given that atheism is often considered to be the human default. Religion is seen as something extrinsic or foreign to human nature. Or, if it is associated in some way with the evolutionary development of human beings, it is judged to be a vestiguum, a defunct remainder of a bygone age. This understanding, though, is contrary to the evidence. It is contrary to what we know to be true of the human heart, which must always seek its treasure, whether it be in the ego or in power, whatever false god one chooses, or whether it be in the one true God.

St. Thomas Aquinas also articulates a virtue of religion, a stable disposition or habit that allows us to perform acts of devotion that direct us toward God. We ought to cultivate this virtue daily. Jesus does not undermine or contravene the truth and beauty of natural human religiosity. Instead, Christ purifies and perfects human religion. He offers Himself as the insurmountable Sacrifice; He teaches us personally how to pray; He makes holy our vows and oaths. In Christ, we can approach at last the infinite God with the most fitting gifts. In His Church, we can participate even now in the heavenly liturgy and superabundantly fulfill the desire we all possess to order our lives to the God to whom we owe life and breath and everything.

Being Conformed to Christ’s Priesthood

No discussion of the sacraments of the New Law can be complete without a consideration of sacramental character. Three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders) bestow sacramental characters, but what exactly are these characters? Answering this will serve to bolster our appreciation for them and for the sacraments which bestow them upon us. In short, the characters are bound up with receiving, or bestowing on others, things pertaining to divine worship. The sacramental characters are, first and foremost, conformations to Christ, especially to Christ’s Priesthood.

The New Testament presents Jesus as the new and perfect High Priest. Think here especially of the Letter to the Hebrews. And "High Priest" is not merely a juridical designation; it is not simply a legal title. It is a divine consecration that marks His very being (that is to say, it is ontological). Jesus is made High Priest so as to inaugurate the worship of the New Law. We need such an ontological consecration as well if we are to participate in the liturgical life of the Church.

As I said, three sacraments impart a mark of Christ, a “character” or “cultic power.” The first, of course, is Baptism, and it is on this sacrament that I would like to focus. Baptism is the first of the sacraments of initiation; it incorporates us into Christ and His Mystical Body. It also bestows a character, a consecration that makes the faithful apt to receive validly the other sacraments of the New Law. Good dispositions and intentions can only get one so far, and without this fundamental baptismal consecration, the reception of the other sacraments would remain ineffective. The baptismal character opens us up, as it were, to the whole exercise of Christian worship. It gives us the power to cooperate liturgically in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and in such a way that we are not merely spectators or assistants but “actors” and participants. This can be seen in the ancient custom of dismissing the catechumens before the offertory. Even today it is signified in the collective form of prayers that join us to the celebrant. Additionally, in virtue of Baptism and the character it bestows, a marriage entered into by baptized persons is a properly Christian and sacramental marriage.

The cultic consecration we receive in Baptism is indelible, not capable of being removed. Consequently, Baptism (as well as Confirmation and Orders) is not repeatable. Even the apostate, the one who tragically rejects his baptismal faith, cannot efface his baptismal character. The 20th century theologian and cardinal, Charles Journet, speaks beautifully of the sacramental character in the tragic figure: “[I]t remains in him as the last witness of his membership in Christ and of his Christian dignity, a secret possibility of returning to the light.” Let us recover, then, an appreciation for sacramental character and the special conformation it affords us to the Priesthood of Christ.

 

*This musing was inspired by an article I translated some time ago by Charles Cardinal Journet, The Mystery of Sacramentality.

 

The Ordered Cosmos

Humans are peculiar creatures, and deep down we all know this to be so. We are bound by time but tend in a certain manner toward eternity; we are bodily and yet possess an immaterial or spiritual principle; we are formed from the dust of the earth but are nevertheless made to the image of God. Sub-human animals do not attend to the time of day, nor do they, except by a kind of ineluctable inclination or instinct, concern themselves with seasons. At the other end of the hierarchy, angels are not worried about corruption or dissolution; they need not devote time to study or the arduous cultivation of virtue.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, the Old Testament reading for today’s Holy Mass, reflects on the rhythm of God’s material creation. There is a time and place for all things, seasons of birth and growth and maturity and decay. But for the human person in a special way there are times to be at work and at leisure, to fast and to feast, to speak and to keep silent, to weep and to laugh, and all the rest. That human life ebbs and flows is inevitable, for we are, again, beings bound by time and space. And this is precisely as God wills it to be, even if we are meant ultimately (without ceasing to be creatures) to be caught up into His own eternity and immutable perfection.

What does Ecclesiastes have to teach us? After all, we all know existence to be constituted by moments both good and bad, lovely and tragic, life-giving and death-dealing. The sacred author wants us to see that all things are ordered by God’s wisdom. The rest of creation participates in its own manner in God’s ordering wisdom, but human beings in a far higher and more perfect way. We can, in short, because we are intellectual creatures, order as God orders and guide as God guides. We can perceive the ordered pattern of creation and act in accord with it. This is nothing trivial or unremarkable, but rather something wonderful for which to thank God.

The Church’s liturgical calendar provides a much-needed structure to the Christian life. The Church is a good Mother, and just as our parents teach us how to live and act in the world in an ordered way, in accord with the times and seasons, so too does the Church. In her case, though, she is using the times and seasons, sanctified by her divine Spouse and Head, to lead us to eternal life.

As we focus this year on the sacraments, the highest expressions of the Church’s liturgical life, let us see them as wise and good gifts of God, remedies for sin appropriate for the peculiar creatures we are. As the sacred author of Ecclesiastes knew so profoundly, the God who transcends every imperfection and change orders all things well, whether in nature or in grace.

Life and Death in Christ

The last couple of years have forced us to confront the realities of suffering and death. I speak of coercion because we rarely enjoy thinking about suffering and death. They make us uncomfortable, at the very least, and at times perhaps even paranoid and fearful. In a certain respect, these reactions are understandable. Suffering and death are not desirable in themselves, involving as they do the weakening or destruction of the human body. But they are unavoidable, at least in this fallen world.

We often avoid talking about suffering and death in the spiritual life as well. We neglect to consider all the suffering that sin can bring us and those whom we love. We fail to reflect on the reality of spiritual death and the possibility of the second death of hell. And here too the neglect is somewhat understandable. Our own wickedness, or that of our loved ones, is a difficult thing to come to terms with, in part because our wickedness signifies to us that we need to convert to God, that we need to do the challenging work of changing our lives. Vices are bad habits, and habits are stable and deeply ingrained and thus hard to uproot. But again, such suffering is practically unavoidable in this vale of tears, and with the grace of God we are called to overcome sin and spiritual death. Indeed, that is why Christ came.

Because we neglect or misunderstand suffering and death, we likewise neglect or misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, which exists for the sake of strengthening those who are seriously ill or aged and in danger of death. We forget this sacrament at our peril.

God in the Old Testament is the healer of His people, a physician for all who call upon His name. Jesus Christ continues this healing ministry in the New Testament, using His sacred humanity as the instrument of His divinity. Jesus restores sight to the blind, cleanses the leper, raises the dead, but the more vital healing is always spiritual. The bodily healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, for example, is a sign of the interior healing of his sin-wounded soul. Jesus’s earthly ministry, consummated on the bloody Cross, accomplishes most proximately not freedom of the people of Israel from Roman occupation, but the liberty of all men from the slavery and dominion of sin.

Now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, has His healing ministry ceased? By no means! Jesus continues to touch us through the sacramental mysteries. While all the sacraments in their own manner serve to heal and elevate human nature, there are two sacraments specially ordered to healing: Penance and Holy Anointing. If the former is primarily concerned with restoring supernatural life to the spiritually dead, the latter is concerned with strengthening the spiritually alive but sick. Because we are wounded by sin, inordinately attached to creatures even after being forgiven, we are often susceptible to doubt, anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness, and other vices when we are seriously ill or dying. Just reflect on how physical weakness, lack of sleep, and emotional distress can impact you. The first grace of Anointing of the Sick addresses precisely this reality. Here is how the Catechism puts it: “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This gift is a grace of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (1520). Notice that the primary grace of the sacrament is not one of physical healing. Yes, sometimes physical healing does result, but this is not principally why the sacrament was instituted. Even were a person to be miraculously saved from physical death, it would not be delayed forever. Instead, the sacrament is meant to save one from eternal death and prepare the soul to be with God in heaven forever.

Christ instituted the sacraments for a reason, including Extreme Unction (our “last anointing”) or Anointing of the Sick. Though we may be reluctant to contemplate for too long a sacrament bound up with the human conditions of suffering and dying, perhaps our sentiments will change when we remember what a merciful gift it is. It is a unique conformation to the passion and death of Christ, and thus a special sharing also in His victory in the Resurrection. Let this, then, be a call to rediscover the beauty and power of Holy Anointing.