Tag Archives: Sacrament

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)

“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.

Just Another Man In The Presence Of Jesus

The History Channel’s The Bible series was watched by lots of people.  I enjoyed most of it.  There is only so much that can be covered in the time they had.  Obviously, they left a lot out.  I thought some of what they left out could have been covered.  For example, at Pentecost, the disciples spoke in other languages, but they were not shown talking that way to the public.  And it didn’t show how the public thought they were drunk.  There was nothing shown about the Roman guards at the tomb of Jesus or the angels that were there, the road to Emmaus, etc.  Despite all they left out, it was still an interesting program to watch.

I liked that the show demonstrated the humanity of the disciples pretty well.  Even with Jesus staring them in the face they still acted human.  They were in the direct presence of Jesus for three years, but they were not groveling on the ground or prostrating themselves the entire time.  Sometimes they were scared, or they fell asleep, or they had a bad attitude, or they were apathetic, etc.  This is just like we are today, even in the real presence of Christ we have good days and bad days.  Followers of Jesus are not perfect.  Jesus is perfect.

Knowing my humanity, I try my best to do this when I go to Mass:

– I listen carefully to the Scriptures and the sermon.

– I’m mindful of the fact that I am about to encounter the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ and receive Him into my whole self, body and soul.  (“This is my body, this is my blood.”)

– I remember how the disciples fell asleep after Jesus asked them to pray with Him.

– I remember how Thomas doubted until he saw the wounds on the living Christ and then said, “My Lord and my God.”

-I remember that Jesus said to Thomas, “You see me and you believe.  Blessed are those who have not seen, yet still believe.”

– I remember how Peter denied even knowing Jesus and then repented.

– I remember that all the heavenly saints and angels are also worshiping at this Mass and every Mass.

– I think about how Mass is constantly being said at some point on Earth at all hours of every day and how this links us to each other and to Heaven.

-I remember that there is faith, hope and love, and that the greatest of these is love.

-I remember that God is love, that Jesus is love in flesh and blood, and that I am there to receive that flesh and blood.

-I remember that we are what we eat, so I need to let Christ nourish me and change me into God’s love.

Love Means Sometimes Having To Say You’re Sorry Out Loud

Imagine that you were born in a primitive part of the world that had no access to technology.  Imagine that you had never seen a cell phone or a television or a radio.  Then one day, a stranger showed up in your land.  Somehow, this stranger knew your language, and he told you about the place he was from and some of the people he knew.  Intrigued, you said to the stranger, “I would like to meet some of those other people, too.”  “Of course,” said the stranger, “I will ask them to come join us.”  Then, the stranger pulled out a little, square, black object from his pocket and began to speak to it.  After putting the object back into his pocket, the stranger said, “They will be here tomorrow morning to meet you.”

Confused, and thinking this person might have a screw loose, you said to the stranger, “I thought you were going to talk to your friends about coming to visit.”  “Yes,” said the stranger, “I just spoke to them.”  “No, you didn’t, you spoke to that thing in your pocket.”  “Well, that is a phone.  It allows me to communicate with my friends.”  “You mean you don’t have to speak directly to your friends?  You can speak to that little phone and it does everything for you?”  Well, no,” explains the stranger, “I was actually speaking to my friends through the phone.  The phone is an instrument through which I speak directly to my friends.”

After a crash course in basic technology you begin to understand how the phone operates.  Once you understand about radio waves and electronic speakers, transmitters and receivers, you can see just how much sense it makes.  At first it seemed like the stranger was a confused, crazy person talking to a little black box.  Now it seems like a good idea.

In a similar way, non-Catholics (and even some Catholics) think it is unnecessary and even silly to confess one’s sins to a priest rather than going “directly to God.”  What is misunderstood is that Catholics are going “directly to God” when they confess to a priest.  The priest is merely God’s chosen instrument.  God realizes that we, being physical and spiritual creations, benefit from actually speaking our sins out loud to another and hearing the words of absolution audibly spoken back to us.

When Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago, His followers got to use their physical mouths to speak to Him and their physical ears to hear Him say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Jesus did not communicate to them strictly through telepathic or “spiritual” means.  He spoke and listened like a man to other men and women.  2000 years later, Catholics still have access to this gift through the priest.  Jesus is right there the whole time.  Jesus listens and Jesus forgives through His instrument, the Priest.  This is the system established by Christ.  It is the way Christians are to find forgiveness (especially for mortal sins) apart from “emergency” situations that I will not cover here.  Suffice it to say that the normal way to drive a two lane highway is to not cross the solid, center line.  In certain emergencies, crossing the center line might be necessary.  The normal or “ordinary” way for Christians to find forgiveness for sins (particularly mortal sins) is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  But there is no reason to avoid the Sacrament for venial sins as well (even though these can be forgiven apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation).

In a sort of reversal of the phone analogy, people today see the Sacrament of Reconciliation as “obsolete technology.”  In other words, why pick up the “phone” to call someone when you can just instantly “be” with that person (i.e. Jesus in spirit).  “We can talk directly to Jesus anywhere!  Why do we need this ancient, “go-between” priest nonsense?”  This attitude is an outgrowth of the “Jesus and me” theology that is so prevalent today.  This theology emphasizes a one-on-one relationship with Christ at the expense of the corporate, familial, sacramental reality of the Church.  This can be seen in the attitude that says, “As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, it’s ok.”  But sin is not just between the sinner and God.  Sin hurts the entire Body.  If one member of the Body is sick, the whole Body suffers.

We humans tend to deceive ourselves and justify our sins.  It’s too easy to “talk to Jesus” about things and not be truly honest with ourselves.  We can too readily fashion Jesus into who we want Him to be.  We don’t like to confront and admit sin.  The priest can help us discern if we are being too hard or too easy on ourselves.  So then, why not just talk to a trusted friend or a therapist?  We can derive some psychological benefit from doing so, but Christ did not give the authority to “bind and loose” to your friends or to therapists.  Christ did not say to your friends or your therapist, “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven and whosoever sins you retain are retained.”  Christ gave that authority to specific men in His Church and to their successors.

It is one thing to “be sorry” and another thing to “say you are sorry” (despite what the Movie Love Story might want us to believe).  I see this frequently in my counseling office.  People tend to be defensive and avoid admitting their faults.  Getting an apology from some folks is like pulling teeth.  So many marriages would be a lot happier if both partners knew how to apologize and how to graciously accept an apology.  As earlier stated, sin affects not only the sinner, but the entire Church, His Body.  Therefore, Christ wants us to make our apology and find healing through the Church, His Body.  He wants us to do the real work of humility and actually speak our sins out loud to the Church.  He wants us to make a full apology through His Church.

When Jesus healed the blind man, He made mud with spit and dirt, put it on the man’s eyes and then told him, “Go wash in the pool.”  Imagine the blind man saying, “Forget all this mud and washing nonsense, just heal me now, Jesus!”  No, the blind man did as Jesus instructed and was healed.  Jesus often gave specific instructions to those He healed.  Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever hears you hears me,” and “Whosoever sins you forgive are forgiven, whosoever sins you retain are retained.”  Yet, we often say to Jesus, “No, I don’t want to go through that process to call upon your Name, express my personal belief in You and find healing for my soul.  It’s too humiliating, too inconvenient, too old fashioned, too complicated, too messy.  I want to do it my way.  Just forgive me now, Jesus.  I don’t need Your apostles or their successors or any of Your Church getting in the way of my relationship with You.”