Ineffable Beauty: Sacrament, Liturgy, and Gift Part I

Pope Washing FeetLiving in the Eternal City for a semester of studies has been and continues to be an incredible opportunity. Particularly, experiencing Holy Week here will always be a memory. While every event of the week—especially within Easter Triduum—is worth reflecting over in words, Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday touched me in a special way: to be precise, I was touched anew by, in the first place, Pope Benedict XVI’s love and wisdom, and secondly, by the reverence, simplicity, and power of the Catholic Liturgy.

This will be the first of a two-part post. Both posts will incorporate parts of the Mass, but their overall focus will be on the theology of Benedict XVI, in his Chrism Mass homily. Thus, the content of this post is a synthesis of reflection and theological analysis.

As I sat in my seat in the grand basilica of Saint Peter’s, I awaited the entrance of the Supreme Pontiff and the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. The music began, the choir of–what sounded like–angels filled the cosmic space of the temple with heavenly sound. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI began to walk down the nave of the basilica to approach the sacred altar, the place of the feast of feasts. Before him were seminarians, some priests, and the initial object that began the procession: Christ on the Cross, the center of the Mass. As he walked down the aisle, the whole congregation experienced a sort of joyful anticipation, as they were about to experience the synthesis of the local church and the universal church headed by the Bishop of Rome.

About half way down the aisle, the Pope stopped, looked to his right to see a father holding his young, smiling daughter. He stopped walking forward, and went over to the beautiful baby smiling in the arms of her daddy: to greet, cherish, and bless the young child. How beautiful it is to see Love, compassion, appreciation, and joy personified in the lives of others. An arrow of admiration touched my heart as a little daughter of the Most High was cherished in not only the arms of her father, but cherished, too, in the deep love of the Holy Father. Always will I be touched by the smile of a child. Always will I encounter in their faith and in their joy the bliss of Heaven.

It would be worth it to look briefly at Pope Benedict’s understanding of the family. In his 2008 Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, the Holy Father explained that the “family is the foundation of society… [and] the language of the family is a language of peace”. It is no wonder why, so often in the Liturgy, for I saw this again on Good Friday and Easter Vigil, he blesses and is even awakened by the Love and affection between parents and their children. As “the first and indispensable teacher of peace”, the family is the cornerstone of society, and, when oriented toward Christ, makes authentic peace, which is desperately lacking in today’s society, not only possible, but present.

Let us now return to the Mass. Approaching the High Altar, the Bishop kissed the altar, expressing the beginning of a celebration that, though present, enters into the eternal. The Holy Mass began: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sanci“.

After the Liturgy of the Word, His Holiness proceeded to preach.

The Pontiff begins with a theology of sacrament. His analysis is excellent: “At the centre of the Church’s worship is the notion of ‘sacrament’. This means that it is not primarily we who act, but God comes first to meet us through his action, he looks upon us and he leads us to himself. Another striking feature is this: God touches us through material things, through gifts of creation that he takes up into his service, making them instruments of the encounter between us and himself.” Such a theology is rooted in the thought of the great medieval Doctor, Saint Bonaventure. Benedict is teaching that the God of Creation saves through creation. The four elements of the sacraments, throughout Church history and within the Bible, are water, oil, bread, and wine. After explaining the significance of water—“as the basic element and fundamental condition of all life”—he illustrates that “the other three elements belong to the culture of the Mediterranean region…They point towards the concrete historical environment in which Christianity emerged. God acted in a clearly defined place on the earth, he truly made history with men. On the one hand, these three elements are gifts of creation, and on the other, they also indicate the locality of the history of God with us. They are a synthesis between creation and history”. Thus the very revelation of God is history: He reveals Himself by acting within history, in which he uses creation. Revelation is the act of which God reveals himself; this presupposes a receiving subject. Hence, revelation cannot be limited to just the Bible—for though it is deposited in Scripture, it precedes it—but in fact must be received. Revelation is to be understood within the whole drama of history, and, too, within creation: the instruments that God, recapitulated in full by Jesus Christ, uses to orient his objects of love toward salvation. This is why in the history of the Church, we hear so often the phrase: “salvation history”. It is because history is the story of salvation, and God’s coming to man.

Moreover, if revelations is an act, then God acts within history. Thus, history is not infinite; it has a beginning and an end: it has meaning and is oriented toward the Logos. Consequently, true redemption must be recapitualtion:  Jesus Christ “must recapitulate the whole of history from its beginnings…in order to transform it” (Jesus of Nazareth, 26). Such recapitulation and transformation is clear in Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, as Benedict writes: “Jesus, we read, ‘was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him’ (Mk 1:13). The desert—the oppostie image of the garden—becomes the place of reconciliation and healing. Wild beasts are the most concrete threat that the rebellion of creation and the power of death posed to man. But there they become man’s friends, as they once were in paradise…Once sin has been overcome and man’s harmony with God restored, creation is reconciled, too.” Benedict continues to quote the Great Apostle when he speaks of “the groaning of creation, which ‘waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God’ (Rom 8:19)” (p. 27).

While we have taken a step back from the Pope’s homily, such a brief look at the theological understanding behind sacrament, history, and creation was necessary to better grasp the whole of the Holy Father’s homily. To a certain degree, his homily uses the elements of the sacraments, primarily oil, to teach us about Jesus Christ, and what it means to follow Him.

4 thoughts on “Ineffable Beauty: Sacrament, Liturgy, and Gift Part I”

  1. Tommy,
    Thanks for sharing. Lots of great observations here. I particularly appreciate the high view of the creation that comes through. This, I think, is a much needed corrective. The church has often been hijacked by an insidious form of Greek dualism that says that the material world is intrinsically bad, the body is evil etc. (It’s one thing to say that these can serve as an arena for evil, and quite another to say that they are essentially evil.)

    Of course, this error has borne a terrific amount of bad fruit historically. We’ve seen lots of well-meaning people commit their entire lives to projects of self-sanctification that are rooted in this kind of misguided perspective. And I would guess that many Christians think they will spend eternity as some kind of disembodied spirit rather than setting their hope on the New Heavens and Earth. I mean, how often do we really think about the fact that even now Christ lives in a glorified body as the God-man?

    If we take events like the incarnation and bodily resurrection of Christ seriously, tracing out their many implications, I think we will begin to grasp something of the beauty and scope of the great project of the redemption of creation. And, as you note, even the more subtle and simple things (like God’s use of physical elements like wine, bread and water in the drama of salvation) speak of this.

    There is something powerful about the idea that God is not going to just scrap creation, but will transform, redeem and glorify it. Think about that the next time you’re sipping a cappucino in front of the Pantheon. Enjoy Rome!

  2. Josh,

    Thanks for the comment! I certainly enjoy theology and cappuccino, so I will take you up on the advice.

    Unfortunately, like you said, even today gnosticism leaks its way into Christian minds at times. But I agree with you that with a proper understanding of the Incarnation and Resurrection, such heresy can be easily overcome. And I also do agree with you that we need a renewal of theological understanding in regards to history and creation. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend “Jesus of Nazareth”. While obviously you will probably disagree with some of Benedict’s conclusions, I think you would really enjoy the book. Some parts are especially touching, as in his theology of the symbolisms in John’s Gospel (his description of the “vine” is awesome).

    Hope you had a joyful Easter. Pax et bonum tecum!

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