Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"No One Can Baptize Himself": Pope Benedict on Faith and the Sacraments

I have been slowly making my way through the catecheses of Pope Benedict XVI on St. Paul, published in book form by Ignatius Press. As you might expect from such a formidable mind and holy soul, these texts are filled with many powerful and beautiful and enlightening passages. Here I've chosen a few to share with you on the connection between faith and the sacraments. First, on faith itself.
"Faith is not a product of our thought or our reflection; it is something new that we cannot invent but only receive as a gift, as a new thing produced by God."
You don't sit down and squint your eyes and furrow your brow and attempt to arrange your neurons in the correct pattern to produce faith. Faith, as in the theological virtue of faith by which we believe in God and trust what He has revealed to us, and in His Church and Her teachings, is something placed before you for your acceptance or rejection, for your cooperation or denial. It is not a product of inner effort, but a present given by God.
"Moreover, faith does not come from reading but from listening. It is not only something interior but also a relationship with Someone. It implies an encounter with the proclamation; it implies the existence of the Other, whom it proclaims, and creates communion."
Again Pope Benedict emphasizes that faith is not something we stir up in ourselves through our own activity or reflection, but comes to us from the outside from someone, or as he puts it, Someone, other than ourselves. We are confronted with it, with the opportunity for a relationship with the Other, the one who is wholly Other, God; and through God, with the community of those who have likewise encountered God and have acceptance his invitation to relationship.
"No one can baptize himself, he needs the other.... Only by another can we be made Christians, and this 'other' who makes us Christians, who gives us the gift of faith, is in the first instance the community of believers, the Church." 
Here Pope Benedict brings out the role of the community of bringing people to faith, to that relationship with God. The Church preaches God's word of redemption, and those who hear it and believe are brought into the Church to join in that communion with God and His People. We are made Christians by other Christians--not by reading the Bible in a room by ourselves and saying a private prayer, but by publicly entering into the gathering of believers and being given the Baptism of Christ by those who have themselves died and risen with Him in that sacrament. Yet, lest we fall into ecclesiolatry (worship of the Church) and put too much emphasis on the Church and its part in salvation, Pope Benedict reminds us of the Church's own source.
"Christ alone can constitute the Church. Christ is the true giver of the sacraments."
The Church brings us the sacraments, but it is Christ's Church, and Christ's sacraments. He, both the Spotless Lamb and the Eternal High Priest, consecrates His people in His Precious Blood and bestows upon them the gift of life in His sacraments. May God increase our faith and grant that we gain his sacramental grace frequently.

Friday, July 18, 2014

There's Believing, And There's Believing

"I'm not really religious, but I do believe in God."

I've heard this sort of thing from many people, but I'm not entirely sure what it means; or rather, I'm not sure what it means for them.

When someone says, "I'm not religious," they are saying that they do not hold themselves bound by any particular set of dogmas, ritual obligations, or ethical principles that are rooted in any kind of divine revelation. (I think that's a fair way to put it.) They wouldn't consider themselves Catholic or Methodist or Non-Denominational* or Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh or Hindu or anything else one could capitalize.

*(Yes, I know, "non-denominational" Christians are not exactly an organized group, but they have so multiplied and seem to share so many traits, they really have become an identifiable subset of Christianity.)

So, these folks do not believe in any set of religious beliefs or specific divine revelation. Yet they will then profess that they "believe in God." What does this mean? If this belief in God does not include any belief in anything God may have revealed about Himself, what is left for this "belief in God"? Only the barest minimum.

When people say "I believe in God" in this way, what they mean is: "I assent to the intellectual proposition that 'God exists.'"

This, to my mind, prompts all sorts of questions: who or what is this God whose existence you affirm? How did you come to know God? What do you know about God? Have you met God in some way? Or is God not a "meet-able" thing? That is: when you say "God," what are you referring to? I don't know how far simply affirming God's existence can get you in addressing these questions.

When Christians say "I believe in God" (as Catholics do every Sunday when they pray the Creed), they mean much more than "I assent to the proposition that God exists." They mean something more akin to what is meant when a wife says to her husband: "I believe in you." She isn't just saying, "I affirm that you exist." She is saying: "I trust you. I have confidence in you. I know you and I know what you're about and I know what you can do, and I know that you will do what needs to be done." There's believing, and there's believing.

I sometimes get the impression that some people have the impression that God sits upon his heavenly throne with a huge ledger in his hand, ticking off boxes for each one of us to see if we meet the bare minimum requirements to not merit being cast into the fiery pit of eternal despair, and that the barest of minimums is "Acknowledge my existence," as if God were the geeky kid at school who would let you come swim in his pool if you only would say hi to him. But God wants more from us than a passing greeting in the hallway, and God wants to give more to us than an afternoon pool party, and we need more for our fulfillment than sunshine and chlorinated water.

We were made for communion with God, loving friendship, a participation in God's own life through his gift of grace--to be "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). This participation is brought about through our union with Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, through whom we become adopted sons of God. In Baptism we die and rise with Him; through Confirmation we are sealed with His Spirit; through the Eucharist we are fed with his Body and Blood and filled with his grace as the sap of the vine fills the branches. That's what we aim for. Not just nod of the head to an acquaintance, but the embrace of a lover.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Finding the New Hidden in the Old

I had been contemplating writing that "Reflections on Married Life" post, but then our lives were surprised and blessed beyond words with the most joyous news of a baby on the way! I can hardly believe it! And I can barely comprehend it. I'll need time for further reflection on both points. So, in the mean time, check out this fantastic tidbit I heard from Fr. Mitch Pacwa on the radio today....

As St. Augustine said, the grace of God is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. We find one such example in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve have just eaten the forbidden fruit. God asks Adam why he has done this, and Adam, setting a poor precedent for many future men, blames his wife. (He blames God, too--"the woman whom you put here with me"--as in, "I wouldn't have done it if you hadn't brought her along!) God then turns to Eve, who blames the serpent for tricking her--the very first instance of the "devil made me do it" defense. God then turns to the serpent. Here's the interesting part, prophetic in a way you might not catch.

God curses the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dirt. Then God says, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers." That's the NAB translation, the one we use at Mass. But the Hebrew and Greek words there which are translated "offspring" are better translated as "seed." The Greek word for seed is "spermatos," or σπέρματος, if we want to have fun with it. This is the word usually used for what a man provides in the process of procreation. It is the only place in Scripture which speaks of the seed/σπέρματος of a woman, so it's unlikely to be some special turn of phrase that has a non-procreational meaning. What does this term "the seed of a woman" refer to?

The key is in what this seed of the woman will do. "He will strike at [the serpent's] head, and [the serpent] will strike at his heel." The serpent is Satan, as the Church has traditionally interpreted this text. Who strikes at Satan's head? Who defeats Satan? The one who was born from a woman, without the cooperation of a man; the one who can be said to be the "seed of a woman." It is Christ. Christ is the offspring of Mary, who is the New Eve (as St. Irenaeus calls her). Here, moments after the Fall of humanity into sin, God announces His plan of salvation, and hints at how it will happen. In Christ's Incarnation, we see that plan begin to come to fruition. That's the best bit of foreshadowing I've ever read.