Category Archives: Sacraments

Speak And Hear In The Flesh

First, imagine that you live in the time of Jesus.  Next, imagine that you have come to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be, namely, God.  Then, you begin to ponder the state of your soul.  You realize that in many ways you have sinned against God and the humanity God created.  It suddenly occurs to you that the very God you have sinned against is in town, right now, in the flesh.  What would you do?

Hopefully, you would go into town and find Jesus.  You would seize the opportunity that awaits you.  It might require some effort on your part, however.  You would probably need to make the journey on foot.  When you finally arrived in town, you would need to figure out where to find Jesus.  Is he walking the streets?  Is he staying in someone’s home?  Is he preaching at the Temple or outside of town?  After some searching and polling of the locals you finally figure out where he is.

Once you get to his location you see that he is surrounded by many obstacles.  There are people all around him.  You must find a way to get through.  After squeezing and prying your way through the crowd you at last find yourself face to face with Jesus.  He looks at you as if he has been expecting you.  He seems to know the effort it took for you to be there before him.  Then he waits.

Jesus knows that “out of the mouth flows the intents of the heart,” so he waits.  He waits for you to open your mouth.  He already knows what is in your heart, but he wants you to say it.  Jesus, the “Word made flesh” wants you to use your fleshy mouth to form the words of your heart and convey them to his ears of flesh.  He wants to hear you say, in your own words, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

As you speak the words, you sense that every syllable, every inhale and exhale of breath is releasing something you have been holding in.  Even your body language, the nonverbal expression of your message, reveals the depth of your heart as it pours out to Jesus, seeking new life and restoration.  At last, you have come to Jesus with all of your physical and spiritual being.

Finally, you raise your fleshy eyes to his.  Your ears of flesh hear his mouth of flesh declare with God’s authority, “Be at peace.  Your sins are forgiven!”

Transport to present day.  We still live in the time of Jesus.  Jesus said, “I am with you always.”  He still wants us to share our hearts with him through fleshy means.  So, he gave his own authority to fleshy men.  “As the Father sent me, so I send you.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.  Whose sins you retain are retained.”  We still get to speak the words and hear his forgiveness.  And it still requires a degree of physical effort.  We have to find a time and a place to meet with a priest who stands in for Christ as we confess to God.  We still have to push through the obstacles.  We still need to feel the humility that can only come from speaking out loud to another.

Of course, we can pray to God anywhere anytime.  God is everywhere.  But, Jesus wants our relationship with him to be more than a spiritual, “telepathic” sort of communication on a golf course, at home or even in a church.  Jesus became a human being.  He wants us to be in full relationship with him, body and spirit.  When we hurt someone, we should apologize to them in person whenever possible.  Jesus makes it possible through the Sacrament of Confession.  Jesus is still in town.  Go meet with him and tell him what’s on your heart, in the flesh.  That’s how he made you.  That’s how he wants to meet with you.

Matter Matters

I used to think that being Christian was all about leaving this world to be with God “up there” somewhere.  In my mind, I had a vision of my soul leaving my dead body and floating up to Heaven to be with billions of other souls.  There we would have an eternal, spiritual party worshiping God.  At some point, my dead body would be all fixed up and reunited with my soul, but I didn’t really know why that mattered.  The point of this present life was to leave this world behind and “get to Heaven.”  Everything about the Christian life was “spiritual.”  Matter didn’t really matter.  In fact, matter was an obstacle that interfered with the spiritual.  “Material” people were not “spiritual” people.  I didn’t really see how the material and the spiritual were intimately connected by God’s design.

As a Catholic Christian, I now see things differently.  Rather than focusing on me rising up to a spiritual Heaven, I see that Heaven has already descended and merged with the material world (including me).  The incarnation is about God becoming a Jewish carpenter with a material, human body and human nature.  Redemption is about all of material creation being made new.  This transformation of creation is already happening.  For example, it happens every time a person is baptized.  The water (matter) is used by God to transform the person into a “new creature.”  Baptism, like all the Sacraments, uses matter to affect God’s grace.

The connection of matter and spirit is also evident in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist in the Catholic Mass.  Baptized Christians look the same as other humans even though they are new creatures.  In a similar way, bread and wine appear to be bread and wine even though they have been transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  This is Heaven descending into the world of matter to transform it and heal it.  We are material and spiritual beings.  It only makes sense that we need to be fed by food that is both material and spiritual.  Why do people accept God being physically present in the form of a Jewish carpenter but balk at God being physically present in the form of bread and wine?  A look at Jesus under a microscope would reveal human flesh, but he is God.  Under the microscope we see bread and wine, but it is his glorified flesh and blood.  He is here!

I no longer focus on “getting to Heaven.”  I focus on Heaven coming into this material world to transform it and me.  This is what the incarnation is all about.  This is what the Holy Eucharist is all about.  After God created everything He said it was good.  It is still good, but it needs healing.  Jesus came to heal all of creation, including you and me.

The incarnation did not suddenly stop after Jesus ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.  He promised to send the Holy Spirit as a teacher and a guide, but he also promised he would not leave us orphaned.  He promised he would always be with us.  He would never leave us or forsake us.  If he is only here “in spirit” then his physical body is missing.  The physical presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist means that Jesus is still the Word become flesh and he is still “God with us.”

During my many years in non-Catholic churches I often felt like something was missing.  I realize now what it was.  Most everything was spiritualized and subjective.  There was less sense of how connected matter and spirit actually are.  For example, The Lord’s Supper seemed like a very reverent Memorial Day ceremony.  It was a time of remembering what Christ did 2000 years ago.  Remembering is not a bad thing.  Folks are typically quite moved during such services, as I was.  Remembering is not the same as participating, however.  Holy Communion is not ONLY for remembering what Jesus did, regardless of how moving it is to remember.  Communion is for physical as well as spiritual communing with God and with each other.

The Mass is where Heaven descends to this material world and allows us to merge with it, not merely remember it.  “…Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven…Give us this day our daily bread…”  It is the will of God that we on Earth be physically and spiritually connected to Heaven through the incarnate Christ, the Bread of Life.  This happens DAILY all around the world in the Catholic Mass.  This connection between Heaven and Earth is an objective one.  That is, it happens whether or not the believers “feel” it happening.  It is not a subjective experience that flows from how moved or inspired the participants are.  Christ makes it effective, not the feelings of the believers.  A vaccine “works” by virtue of its objective, physical connection to the patient.  Similarly, the Holy Eucharist “works” by virtue of its objective, physical and spiritual connection to the recipient (not our subjective feelings, strong as they may be).  Jesus saying, “Take and eat, take and drink” is like a doctor saying, “Take this medicine.”

So, these days, I think less about us going to Heaven and more about Heaven coming to heal us daily.  One day, all things will be made new.  Right now, the process is underway.  We simply need to accept it and participate in it.  Going to the doctor includes following the doctor’s orders to take your medicine.  Accepting Christ includes following his command to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  That’s how the spiritual merges with the material every day.  That’s the incarnation, “God with us.”  Christianity is as much about the material as it is the spiritual, because we are material and spiritual creations.  That’s why all seven Sacraments matter, and that’s why matter matters to the Christian.

The Real Transformers

I never had a Transformer toy when I was a kid.  I spent some time playing with the ones my nephews had, though.  Some of them were easier to “transform” than others.  I remember watching some of the cartoons.  I liked the Transformers movies pretty well.  The mechanically inclined part of me always thought is was cool the way all those parts shifted around to create new machines with different appearances.  Appearance is generally what we think about when we hear the word “transformation,” like a magician changing a rabbit into a dove or something.  It’s different because it looks different.

A friend of mine shared with me how happy she was that her son had recently accepted Christ and was going to be baptized.  I rejoiced with her.  There is nothing better than eternal life.  After all, finding eternal life is what this present life is all about.  The next time I laid eyes on her son I saw a Christian where previously there was no Christian.  But, he looked like the same person.  He may have had a different expression on his face.  Maybe he got a haircut.  He may have been making better choices in his life.  He may have shown more joy than he used to, but I still recognized him as being my friend’s son, even though he had been “transformed.”

2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “Therefore, if any man be in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”  He is a “new creature?”  Some translations use the words “new creation.”  Wow!  That is a major transformation!  In other words, what he “is” is not what he “was.”  But, to the human eye he still looks like the same person.  In fact, I would bet that, if looked at under an electron microscope, his skin, blood and bone cells would look like regular human cells.  He would still smell the same after a hard day’s work.  He would still taste like a man to any dog that bit him.  His vocal chords would still produce the same voice that his friends and family recognize.  And yet, he is “a new creature?”  That’s a more impressive transformation than Optimus Prime!  This must be some kind of supernatural process that changes the substance of something without changing the appearance of it.

I have yet to meet a Christian (Catholic or non-Catholic) that has a problem accepting Paul’s words “he is a new creature/creation.”  However, I have met numerous Christians that have a problem accepting the words of Jesus, “this is my body, this is my blood.”  Why do we take Paul at his word but dismiss the words of Christ?  Why can we so easily accept that we are transformed when we are saved but hardly accept that God transforms bread and wine?  Does Paul’s “is” have more power than Christ’s “is?”

We are transformed by Christ and made into new creatures, even though our outward appearance remains the same.  Bread and wine are transformed by Christ into himself, even though their outward appearance remains the same.  Both require faith in Christ to believe.  That which “is” is not what it “was,” even though it still looks the same.  This is the stuff of miracle, not metaphor.  The Spirit gives real, eternal life through faith, not symbols that we can only regard with “the flesh” of our mind and our senses (See John 6:63, 8:15).  Contrast what Jesus calls “the flesh” with what he calls “my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)

There is nothing better than eternal life.  Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)  At the Catholic Mass, the bread and wine looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes just like bread and wine, but it is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.  Jesus instituted the Catholic Mass at The Last Supper (Mark 14:22-24).  Christ’s transforming words still have the same power today.

Do we believe we are transformed into new creatures?  Why not believe the bread and wine are transformed into our Lord?  Lord, I believe; help my unbelief (Mark 9:23-24).

 

(This reflection was inspired by this post by Stacy Trasancos)

Doing Church A Whole New Way

How do you like to worship God?  That question gets many different answers.  Some might say, “I like to worship God through music.”  Others might prefer to sit on the beach or hike through the woods observing the majesty of God’s creation.  Still others will relate how being at church or reading the Bible is their favorite way to worship God.  All of these are good.  God is certainly pleased by our desire to focus on Him in some way.  Now, let’s ask a different question.  How does God want us to worship Him?

We don’t have to read very far in the Bible before realizing that our worship preferences often depart from what God asks of us.  Cain killed Abel out of jealousy because God accepted Abele’s offering.  The Israelites made a golden calf as a form of worship.  Moses wasn’t allowed into the Promised Land because he departed from God’s instructions.  Saul got in trouble because he didn’t honor God the way the prophet said he should.  There are plenty of examples.  The point is that there is God’s way and there is our way.  We tend to do things our way.  Worship is no exception.

The other day I saw a yard sign that had been placed near a public park.  The sign was an advertisement for a church.  The sign said, “Doing church a whole new way.”  I understand completely the reason for the sign.  They are trying to attract people to their church through creative marketing and new methodologies.  I have been a board member and a minister in churches that were faced with the same challenge of how to increase attendance.  Many churches have tried creative things to draw people in.  While it is not bad to use creativity, it creates problems when God’s preferred method of worship is neglected, abused or even eliminated.

One problem is that we have become a society of spectators.  We like to sit in front of screens or stages and be entertained too much.  Hence, many churches are akin to attending a concert or going to a movie or a sporting event.  Get your coffee or other refreshment, take it with you into the venue, sit down and observe and listen.  Church has become primarily a spectator event.  Participation in such church events might consist of singing a song (if you feel like it) or maybe giving an occasional shout of approval.  But that is something one can also do at a baseball game.  One can sing the national anthem at the start of the game, sing Take Me Out To The Ball Game at the seventh inning and give a shout when one’s team scores.  And, of course, one can have a drink and a hot dog while enjoying the event.  This is what many churches have become modeled after: a venue for spectators to enjoy.

Worship is not for spectators.  Worship is for participants.  True worship also cannot be invented by us because it has already been instituted by God.  Jesus Christ Himself instituted Christian worship at The Last Supper.  He took bread and wine, turned it into Himself and instructed His disciples to eat and drink of His Body and His Blood (“this is my body, this is my blood”).  The Last Supper was the first Mass.

The Mass is not for spectators.  The believing Christian participates in every aspect of the Mass through his/her universal priesthood (not to be confused with the ordained priesthood).  Many Catholics don’t even realize that they are members of the priesthood of believers by virtue of their baptism.  We are not supposed to be merely observing the Mass and the actions of the ordained priest, but joining with the priest and every aspect of the supreme sacrifice of Christ (“through Him, with Him and in Him”).  The Mass unites us with Christ and with each other.  This is the worship that God wants from us.  He wants us to be conformed to Christ by partaking of the entire Christ (body, blood, soul and divinity).

People that are bored with the Mass do not understand the Mass.  The Mass does not depend upon the quality of the music or the dynamism of the preacher.  The Mass does not depend upon how well or how loudly the congregants sing.  The Mass does not depend upon how socially outgoing or how shy the people may be.  The Mass does not depend upon how entertained or inspired people may or may not “feel.”  The Mass is no place for coffee or other refreshments because the food that is offered is The Word of God made flesh, The Living Bread, Jesus Christ Himself.  You don’t need to bring your own food to a banquet supplied by God!

“The Mass” is the answer to the question, “How does God want the Christian to worship?”  The answer has been the same for 2000 years, ever since Jesus Christ instituted the first Mass in the Upper Room with His newly ordained priests.  Jesus showed them how He wanted them to worship, and they passed it down through the centuries.  No other form of worship needs to be “invented” by us.  Whatever we may come up with is less than what God asks of us.  Any other form of worship ultimately becomes more about us than about God.  We may even fall into idolatry as we seek our own worship “preferences.”

If we are in any way unsatisfied with God’s method of worship, the problem is with us, not with the worship method.  We don’t need to “do church in a whole new way.”  We need to be converted and see God’s true form of worship the way He wants us to see it.  Our creativity should be focused not on changing God’s method of Christian worship, but on finding ways to help people understand and love the worship that Christ instituted.

Help people understand and love Christ’s Holy Mass!  It will change their lives!

Becoming One Flesh: Eucharist And Marriage

Dr. Scott Hahn recently posted an excellent Facebook response to a question about the Eucharist being closed to non-Catholics.  His answer reflected on his own spiritual journey from Evangelical Christian to Presbyterian minister to Catholic.  Each step in his journey brought him closer to understanding the sacramental aspect of both marriage and the Eucharist.  Each relationship is a “one flesh” union requiring fidelity and integrity.

As I reflected on Dr. Hahn’s answer, it occurred to me that perhaps a lack of understanding about the Eucharist and marriage contributes to the wide acceptance of contraception.  For example, if marriage is not viewed as a sacrament, it becomes only a symbol and loses integrity.  It can be manipulated according to the will of anyone desiring to make use of its symbolism.  If Holy Communion is only a symbol, it loses any need for fidelity.  Anyone can “join in.”  There is no need for full union between participants.  The Eucharist becomes merely a symbol of common feelings rather than a reality of a “one flesh” union.  Since everyone “feels good” about Jesus, they should all be allowed to partake of the Eucharist, right?

Ironically, few married people would be comfortable becoming one flesh with someone they were not fully united to in marriage.  That’s called infidelity and it is rightfully frowned upon by most married people.  We don’t let everyone “join in.”  So, why should we be ok letting people “join in” the one flesh union of the Eucharist if those people are not fully united with Christ’s Church?

And why should we let people partake of the Eucharist if they don’t even believe that what they are participating in is an actual, “one flesh” union?  That’s like being in a contraception marriage.  There are lots of “good feelings” that feel like bonding, but there is not a one flesh union taking place in the marriage.  It is a lack of integrity.  The marriage is only symbolic of the feelings they have about each other.  They do not take the marriage to its full realization of a one flesh, life giving union.

One of the best ways for the devil to mess up our relationship with Christ is to promote the following errors:

–          The Holy Communion is only symbolic.  The bread and wine are not transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.  We don’t need to become one flesh with Christ at Communion.  All we need is our good feelings about Jesus and the Bible.

–          Contraception is fine and even preferable.  Sex and marriage are mostly about bonding and “good feelings,” not primarily about becoming one flesh and creating new life.

–          Anyone that believes in Jesus should be allowed to participate in Holy Communion.  No fidelity to the Church or her Christ-given authority is necessary.

The two Sacraments of Eucharist and Marriage are intimately connected in such a way that an attack on one serves as an attack on the other.  A deeper understanding of one leads to a deeper understanding of the other.  “Becoming one flesh” is a critical theme that connects the two Sacraments in a unique way.

Catholics are not mean, snobbish “elitists” that refuse to let other Christians “join in.”  We simply hold to the understanding of Jesus and the Church Fathers who saw the need for covenantal integrity and marital fidelity within marriage and within the Church.

“I Love You, But I’m Not In Love With You.” (Marriage and Eucharist)

“I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”  I can’t count the number of times I have heard that phrase in my counseling office.  When someone says this to a spouse it typically means, “I no longer have those honeymoon feelings I used to have.”  There are occasions when a person is experiencing a genuine state of clinical depression and has lost the ability to experience feelings of happiness and appreciation.  However, more often these individuals are idolizing the god of subjectivity and have allowed feelings to become their master.  They have reduced the objective reality of their marriage to a subjective state.  They may not “feel” married, but they are still married.

The Church is the Bride of Christ and, as such, is married to the Bridegroom, Jesus.  The Eucharist is the marriage supper.  Hence, receiving Holy Communion is a joining together of Bride and Groom in an objective way.  It is a very real union that is not dependant on subjective feelings.  The fact that two people might “feel” married to each other does not make them objectively married.  Conversely, marriage is an objective reality regardless of the subjective feelings.  The Eucharist is not real because it “feels” real.  It is real.

Dr. Peter Kreeft points out that to regard the Lord’s Supper as merely symbolic is to reduce the relationship of a marriage to the level of a friendship.  Although a healthy marriage will include friendship between spouses (Jesus called His disciples friends), it is not the friendship that makes the relationship a marriage.  The marriage is created by the unique union of the body and soul of the bride and the groom.  That is the objective reality.  When the Eucharist is reduced to only the symbolic, all that remains is the subjective feeling.  In other words, when people receive the Lord’s Supper in non-Catholic churches, they may experience feelings about their relationship with Jesus, but there is no actual union taking place between Bride and Groom.  The relationship is subjective.  Communion becomes all about remembering what Jesus did and how believers “feel” about what He did.  The Catholic Eucharist includes the subjective remembering as well as the objective uniting of married partners.  Jesus is in our hearts, but He is also really united with our bodies and souls, like a bride and groom.

Think about how a vaccine works.  It is not a placebo.  It is not dependant on how the patient feels about receiving it, although the patient may be very happy and grateful.  The vaccine works by a very real process of interacting with the body of the patient.  It is an objective reality, not a subjective reality.  The Eucharist is not a placebo (nor are the other Sacraments).  It “works” by the power of Christ interacting with spirit and matter, not by the feelings of those receiving it.

The union of the Bride and the Groom is not dependant on “honeymoon” feelings, although such feelings may certainly be present.  Any experienced married couple will testify to the fact that honeymoon feelings do not sustain a healthy marriage.  Unless the honeymoon feelings grow into something much deeper, the marriage will suffer.  In counseling, the goal is not to take a couple back to their honeymoon days.  The goal is to bring the honeymoon forward to a deeper place.  Similarly, Dr. Kreeft says, “God does not want us to have a spiritual sweet tooth.”  God wants us objectively united with Him in the Eucharist, not just going by our feelings.  Feelings can become an idol of worship.  Feelings often become the cake instead of the icing on the cake (especially in America).

Moses did not feel good about God calling him to lead Israel.  Jonah did not feel good about preaching to Nineveh.  Jesus did not feel good about going to the cross.  Children do not feel good about getting the Polio vaccine or eating vegetables.  Married people do not always feel good about their spouses.  Catholics do not always feel their hearts “strangely warmed” or a “burning in the bosom” when receiving the Eucharist.  When it comes to love and obedience, feelings are not important.  Feelings come and go.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, and He invites us to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  Will we come and dine out of love and obedience, or will we let our feelings be our god?  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:57)  “This is my body…this is my blood…” (Matt 26:26-28)  Jesus never asked the “therapist” question, “How does that make you feel?”  He simply said, “Take and eat.”

The Church Of The Unsatisfied

God gave the Israelites manna in the desert.  Without that miraculous food, they would have starved to death.  It literally kept them alive.  But, human nature kicked in.  They grew tired of the manna and began to complain.  “We want more options.  We want more variety.”  Manna, no matter how miraculous, was no longer good enough.

Jesus took a few fish and some loaves of bread and miraculously fed thousands of hungry people.  They followed him around wanting even more.  “God gave our ancestors manna in the desert.  What sign can you give us?  What can you do?”  They had just been miraculously fed, but they wanted more.  The miracle of the fish and loaves wasn’t good enough for them.

Jesus told them He would provide the true food and true drink of His flesh and blood to sustain their eternal life.  They lacked understanding.  Many then turned away from Him, and the betrayal of Judas took root at this point.  For many of Christ’s disciples, His flesh and blood were not good enough.  They wanted more.  At the Last Supper, Jesus pointed out Judas as the betrayer, and showed the apostles the miracle of the Eucharist.  He had told them earlier that they would need to eat His flesh and blood, and now He showed them how to do it in a miraculous manner.

Manna was not good enough for the Israelites.  The miracle of the fish and the loaves was not good enough for the multitudes following Jesus around.  His flesh and blood were not good enough for many of His disciples.  Human nature has not changed much.  His flesh and blood are still not good enough for many Christians today.  They want more.  More programs, more coffee, more doughnuts, more music, more excitement, more Bible studies, more interesting preaching, more miracles, etc.

What more can Jesus give than His very flesh and blood poured out and crucified for our forgiveness and salvation?  What is more miraculous than the God of the universe humbling Himself in the form of bread and wine in order to spiritually and physically unite with His own, spiritual/physical creations?  Add the other six sacraments and we not only have life, but life more abundantly.  Why do we grumble?  Don’t we have enough?  We don’t even deserve what we do have.  Do we really believe?  God help our unbelief.