So what do we believe?
1. (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
The old penny catechism begins with ‘Who made me?’ Answer, God made me. Then, ‘Why did God make me?’ Answer, to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next.
Are those answers enough? Do they explain why we should learn religion?
Or is there more? Religion is not an Ofsted thing looking to pass tests, or to memorise things. It is about getting to know each other (God and me), as he is, and through what I am, and forming a relationship. This getting to know each other is meant to be a tremendous adventure, which continues through life, and ends up in face to face vision. It’s worth looking at true human friendship and seeing how real, deep friendship goes on and on and gets better and better. Friendship between us and God can only be better still even than that.
Our friendship has different starting places. One place to begin it is in my own heart, which is restless and knows there’s more to life than just, say, the football results. Another is noticing other people, some of whom believe something strongly and this affects how they live. And this effect on some people happens everywhere and can be seen in pub conversations or among some of the best-known figures in history, though they had never heard of God, like Plato. Then there may be looking around the inside of a church and asking what all the things in it mean or stand for. A fourth place is to go to the Bible, which we understand as God revealing himself to us, and God looking for us to respond to him.
So, let’s start with the Bible.
One thing we could say about the Bible, just to begin with, is that it’s a bit like a newspaper, that is, it’s very varied. If you think about it, a newspaper has sports, City, women, comment, news, letters, adverts, health – and also that few people read every word of every section. You could have two people who say they take the same paper, but with one starting at the front and aiming for the news, and the other going to the back and starting with the sports news, and neither ever finishing their paper; they wouldn’t have much to talk about, at least on what their paper had to say.
The Bible also has great variety and it’s fair to say that few people have read every word of, say, the Book of Numbers.
Like the newspaper, the Bible has news, usually in the form of history – the long history of the growth of a people. It also has poetry, like in the Psalms. It has commentary, sometimes quite strong, as with the Prophets. It has its City page, for example, with Joseph in Egypt coping with famine and making Egypt strong enough to feed its neighbour too, which meant, for the Bible story, the rest of Joseph’s family. There’s no sports page, though; and no women’s page either.
Differences between newspapers and the Bible, though, start showing themselves quickly. With a newspaper, today’s news is quickly forgotten as tomorrow’s takes over. This Bible story, though, is a very long one which develops and grows, and reveals many secrets and uncovers many plans, and past links with present and future, and present looks back to the past as well.
And next week we will begin to look at it.
So what do we believe?
2. (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
We’re looking at the Bible since that’s the chief way God has shown himself to us. We can compare this holy book with a relay race, the pages of which describe how the baton God gives us is passed on lap after lap (though sometimes dropped), and with each lap preparing for the next.
Before this mighty relay race, though, there is setting the scene for where the race will be run. God creates everything, and the best of all that he makes is human beings. Only human beings are able to know him properly. They are represented by Adam and Eve.
God asks them to choose him, but Adam and Eve prefer their own way, do as they please and in them is the Fall. They are followed by Cain murdering Abel, the Tower of Babel, the Flood. Not a very good start, but the one, all the same, from which God wants to rescue humans.
And so the first lap of the race (God’s rescue race) begins as God chooses and tests the leader of what will be a new people, Abraham. Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael, and his grandchildren, Esau and Jacob, are not all they might be, but God in his love perseveres. This is the first lap.
The second lap sees Jacob’s family in slavery in Egypt, and God saving them in the Passover and bringing them, led by Moses, to the Promised Land. Here there is the passover lamb, the 10 Commandments, manna in the desert – all of which will be important for Jesus. Also, there is the golden calf, which is the Hebrews dropping their baton, going their own way, and needing God to let them pick it up and continue the race.
They came to the Promised Land, settle there, come to have a king, of whom David is the best known. Although big things happen, like David’s son Solomon building the Temple, kings don’t last long and soon one kingdom becomes two kingdoms, the Northern and the Southern. In the 700’s the Northern Kingdom is conquered by the Assyrians and all the Hebrews are taken away and come to mix with other races in their exile. Then, in the 500s, the Southern Kingdom goes the same way, this time at the hands of the Babylonians. That was when Psalm 137 was written,
‘By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept…’
But the king of Babylon didn’t mix them with other peoples and in due course decided to release them, and led by Ezra and Nehemiah, they came back to Jerusalem to rebuild their city.
It was during this very hard lap of the race that we could say the revolution happened. This is the time when the prophets were at work, encouraging the people, and also sharing with them God’s promises for new times. Jeremiah tells them that there are hard times ahead, but that out of them will come a new covenant that will last for ever. In this covenant, although the Law will continue there will be forgiveness from God, individual responsibility, and religion coming from the heart. This is a giant growth in the journey from the majestic God whose face the Israelites of the Exodus could not see and live, to God made man,
‘whom we have heard,…seen, …touched with our hands,’ 1Jn 1:1,
and it shows us how the history of salvation is a growing thing and how humans become more and more able to know and to be befriended by God.
The lap of the Biblical race that is Jesus is the second to last, and deserves special attention since it concerns the Lord and since all the previous laps of the race have been moving towards this one. (The last lap is the one that we are on now, and we also need to know about it. This is the lap between Jesus ascending to heaven, his saving work done, and his return in glory at the end of time to bring everything to its glorious end and fulfilment. This concerns us who live in ‘the end times’.)
So what do we believe?
3 (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
Jesus is so different from anyone else in the Bible. We believe everything was working towards him, and that when he came he would take the damage humans had done to themselves and repair it. But we can only tie him down to words to some extent because he is so much more than we can put into our speech,
One way of thinking about the very different figures of the Old Testament, like Isaiah, Ezechiel, Amos or Hosea , is to compare them with recent popes, all different characters but each faithfully carrying the baton and then passing it on. Look at Pius XII preparing the way for Vatican II; then John XXIII and Paul VI organising the same Council; John Paul I and then John Paul II and Benedict XVI carrying the Council’s work forwards, and now Francis doing the same. It was the same baton and the same race.
The Old Testament of the Bible is the long story of a people, the Jewish people, the Chosen People. We believe they were chosen in order to prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
When he came, as we learn in the New Testament of the Bible, the story is no longer that of a people; it is the story of Jesus, who he is and what he did for us.
And something very important about the New Testament, which we don’t always realise, is that the whole story is told because of Easter. The whole of the New Testament is the story of ‘he who rose from the dead’, and the story is only being told because he rose from the dead. And that’s how we should understand the New Testament. It’s as if each sentence begins, ‘He who rose from the dead… was born at Bethlehem,… fed the 5,000,… told such and such a parable,… cured such and such a sick person….
And this is because it was only when he rose from the dead, and with the Holy Spirit helping them, that the apostles realised that their friend and Master was someone so much more than they had thought before.
And this is true for us too, we Christians who believe and follow Jesus. The risen Lord (not the crucified Lord) is the centre of our faith; everything else looks towards the risen Jesus (including his teaching, ‘take up your cross and follow me’). This is hard and challenging but so worthwhile to make the effort and to explore.
Before going to what we may believe as Catholics, we want to know Jesus better – through reading, listening, praying, living his words.
And so, without repeating it too often, he who would rise from the dead, was born in utter poverty in Bethlehem – from choice, and for us to discover his, and our, priorities, what really matters and what is much less important.
So what do we believe?
4 (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
Last time, we said how we want to know Jesus better – through reading, listening, praying and living. We can add to this how Jesus is always looking to us to understand him and to respond to him. He was a Jew, he came for his people, he often behaved and spoke in a very Jewish way, and this showed him faithful to the story of which he was part. It also offers us a challenge to enter the Jewish world so as to understand him. A good example for this is the shape of the Last Supper, the richness of which comes out through picturing it as the Jewish thing it was. Or another example would be the word pictures, the parables, he told, which used life as it was in the days when he was in the world and the lessons he drew from them.
So we learn to know Jesus in the way he chose to show himself to us. We have already said how his rising from the dead is the centre of everything, and how that needs first the way of the cross to begin to appreciate it. Here in Carshalton, our church is dominated by a huge crucifix, and is named after the Cross. We also begin Mass, our daily prayers, grace before meals etc with the sign of the cross:
‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ – easy words but precious as we come to realise we only know Father, Son and Holy Spirit through what Jesus did on the cross for us.
So what did he do in his passion and death?
Taking the story of Adam and Eve as our beginning, we realise how sin is every-where in the world and how life is governed by its power – with the strongest and maybe most evil in power, with humans doing terrible things to one another all through history. We believe that Jesus broke sin’s power (for those who accept him) through the cross and that we live in a new world because of him.
One way of looking at his Passion and Death is to think of it as our traditional enemies of the world, the flesh and the devil throwing everything they had at him, torturing him, humiliating him and finally using their ultimate weapon which was to kill him; and then to see him deliberately and for our sakes rising from the dead three days later (when there was no doubt that he had died) to a new life, the Easter life, a life that he offers to share with us all. The overwhelming power of sin and death are conquered. We receive the beginning of that life in baptism and then live our lives helping it to grow.
Another way to see the Passion and Death would be more Jewish. This includes the tree of life (the cross) replacing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil eating from which Genesis 3 relates; the faithful obedience of Abraham willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, with Jesus submitting to his Father’s will; the thousands of paschal lambs which were slaughtered in the Temple at the time of the Passover being replaced by the one Lamb of God; the manna of the Old Testament being replaced by the new Manna, which is Holy Communion, at the Last Supper; the Last Supper that Paschal Meal which, as celebrated by Jesus, extended from the Upper Room through Gethsemane, the Praetorium and to Calvary and was complete when Christ said ‘It is consummated’ and died..
This is part of the Jesus who gave himself
for us, out of power, but much more out of love. Let us pray for the grace and also the realisation of what he did to love him in return. Let us pray to want to know him better and better, and thank him for the great gift of faith which enables us to believe in him.
So what do we believe?
5 (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
We finished last time speaking about ‘the great gift of faith’. It’s worth thinking what this means.
In one of his sermons, St Augustine warns us that faith does not mean recognising God for who he is (he points out that the archangel Lucifer recognised God for who he is when he was still in heaven, and Judas Iscariot recognised Jesus even as he walked with him – but neither said ‘Yes’, or gave their ways of life to God, and so this recognition was an empty and futile one).
We who have received the gift of faith, a gift freely given by a loving God, say ‘Yes’ in our hearts to him, and also, importantly, accept the truths that he reveals to us about himself, live or try to live in a particular way because we believe in him and his values, and also receive the gift of baptism, which is the first of our seven sacraments.
To baptise was the basic job that Jesus gave to his apostles, ‘Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptise them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
When we are baptised as babies, our parents say ‘Yes’ on our behalf, and then play their part in raising us as Catholic Christians so that when we are old enough we will gladly make our own ‘Yes’ to the Lord. It’s the beginning of the great Christian adventure like childbirth begins the adventure of human life.
What we see in baptism can be appreciated with Jewish eyes, and/or Western eyes.
Jewish eyes see the baptismal water as a spiritual passing through the Red Sea like the Hebrews did with Moses. They see John the Baptist symbolically cleansing his fellow Jews in the Jordan, they see the life-giving waters of this sacrament flowing from Christ’s side when he was pierced with the lance on the cross. And too there is present the Resurrection,
‘You have been buried with him when you were baptised; and by baptism too you have been raised up with him through your belief in the power of God.’ Col 2:12
Using more Western eyes we can also see the significance of water as a sign of cleansing (Christ cleansed us from the powers of sin on Calvary), and of life, as with drinking, or growing food (the Resurrection is the new life of Easter, ours through this sacrament).
But isn’t faith more than this?, because faith concerns the world of God, and this is a world which cannot be tied down to human words and human ideas – it is bigger than we are.
Consider the three basic truths of our faith: the Blessed Trinity (Three Persons in One God), the Resurrection (Christ’s rising to a new life which contains within it his great victory), and Holy Communion (the living Body and Blood of Christ). Jesus revealed these but without explanation, as if to say that if we try to under-stand them just as human ideas we will get lost. He taught ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit,’ but it took centuries for theologians to try and find words which explained up to a point the truth of the Blessed Trinity.
Then, the Resurrection. This is the centre of our faith, only because of which we believe anything else about Jesus. And yet none of the Gospels tries to say what happened (as if they can’t). All they give is the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. And we have to enter spiritually and prayerfully Christ’s world to begin to appreciate what he has done.
Then, Holy Communion – the greatest of the sacraments, the centre of the liturgy, of our worship of God, the most precious thing in any Catholic church anywhere. But Jesus didn’t explain it, he just gave it to the apostles, ‘This is my Body…’ ‘This is my Blood…’ And we try to enter into holy communion with Jesus, as he gives himself to us, with our ‘Amen!’ before receiving the host, saying ‘Yes’ in faith, but also ‘Thanks!’ for this gift greater than we can ever be.
Faith is the gift which lets us enter this world. Let us pray and read and ask questions and chat – always using that wonderful expression of ‘faith seeking understanding’. Faith comes first and is our priceless jewel.
So what do we believe?
6 (if we are to be salt of the earth and light of the world)
We finished last time with ‘faith seeking understanding’ as a good way of exploring and coming to understand our faith. We begin this time from the same place.
Actually, faith marks our lives. We began as babies and believed it was our mum who held us, our dad who was always there. Knowledge, understanding and appreciation of this followed later.
Moving on from mum and dad, who wanted me to be part of their family, we believe that God wants us in his, and that he therefore wants to share his life with us. This is the story from Genesis of Adam and Eve, of the gifts God gave to those first human beings of saying yes or no to him, and of how our loving God did not abandon his children but started the great repair story which goes through Abraham, Moses to Jesus, who came to save us.
Who is Jesus and why did he come?
The people among whom Jesus lived could see he was an extraordinary and wonderful man, but they couldn’t yet see that he was the Lord, God made man, the Word made flesh.
Jesus showed in his life how he had wonderful teachings, and also amazing powers to cure the sick and so on, but he
kept the complete revealing of himself till the Resurrection, which, coming three days after his Passion, Death and burial showed who he was through his victory even over the power of death. His apostles didn’t yet understand it, and after Christ’s ascension into heaven, needed the light of God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to begin to appreciate what Jesus had done, and how there was a whole new world because of him.
The apostles went out to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to their fellow Jews and then to people everywhere (our forbears). Their message was that through Christ’s cross and resurrection people were saved, and that they should therefore choose to be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
That was the first missionary message: Jesus the Lord has risen from the dead; be baptised.
During later centuries in the story of the Church all sorts of ideas would come in about who Jesus really is, some of them completely wrong. The teaching Church (that is, Councils, popes, bishops) stepped in and gave the correct teaching, e.g. how Jesus is true God and true man.
Also, though, the ‘teaching Church’ is us, especially if we’re parents, or teachers, catechists etc. These official Church definitions may have straightened things out but they mustn’t hide what is more important, and that is that Jesus wants our friendship, our communion with him, our lives as his adopted brothers and sisters – or, if you like, he wants that ‘Yes!’ that Adam and Eve held back in the story from The Book of Genesis. This ‘Yes’ begins in the life of a growing family for children, or in how people who are Christians are seen to live their lives.
There’s the official Church, and there’s us as members of the Church, and there is also Jesus. He didn’t leave us to get on with things but he left us his Church, not just as teacher, but you might say as the sacred vessel which contains his gifts and helps, especially the sacraments.
So what do we believe?
7 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
If anyone wonders whether Jesus did everything that was needed to save us, and then left us to live with what was now ours, look to the sacraments and see in them, as well as in other things, that Jesus really meant it when he said,
‘Behold, I am with you all days even to the end of time,’ Matthew 28:20.
The old catechism definition of a sacrament was that it is an outward sign of inward grace. This is true but there is more, because we discover when we look at all seven of them that they have been given to us for us to use through the whole of life’s journey, as they fit in to the big or important parts of it.
And so there is baptism, that goes with being born. Then, confirmation, which accompanies growing up. And Holy Communion, which is offered to us as our daily food. And Confession or Reconciliation for when we do wrong, hurting others (including God himself). Marriage makes much more holy what is already a wonderfully dignified matter. Priesthood as it were links heaven and earth and shows itself used in a particular service of others. Anointing of the sick goes with when we are sick, and also when we are dying, and too it brings Christ as our divine companion and friend into the whole of our lives.
But the sacraments remain too outward signs of inward grace, and we discover their meaning as we look at the make-up of each of them.
We have already spoken of baptism and how with non-Jewish eyes we see its waters cleansing us (as Christ cleansed us from the powers of sin through his death) and life-giving (as Christ rises to a wholly new life); and with Jewish eyes, we see its water having been prepared for in the passing through the Red Sea of Moses and the Hebrews as they escaped slavery in Egypt, or getting ready for Christ’s salvation through the repentance shown in the baptism in the Jordan of John the Baptist.
The outward sign of Confirmation is oil, which takes us back to before any knowledge of electricity to oil as the source of heat and light; and with oil in this sacrament pointing to the inspiring light of the Holy Spirit to those open to him, and also as the source of heat, that is, enthusiasm or zeal for the Christian faith.
The matter for Holy Communion is bread and wine, standing for food and drink for the soul, and because it is those foods transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and bringing in the Last Supper and the whole of Christ’s Passion, as well as momentous parts of the Old Testament story, can’t be treated here properly. It is the greatest of all the sacraments because of who it is, and it needs its own section.
Reconciliation/Confession has for its matter the hand of the priest raised in absolution. In the early centuries of the Church, the priest would lay his hand on the penitent’s head in forgiveness. Then there were the ‘Dark Ages’ when Christianity in Europe declined. Irish missionaries saved the Church on our continent, but they brought with them the priest and penitent separated by a grill. So, the priest now is expected just to raise his hand when giving absolution, whether he is visible or not. (Don’t forget, though, that Confession is about sin, sorrow and reconciliation with Christ.)
Marriage has as its sign the couple who are getting married. They give the sacrament to each other and receive it from each other – in their marriage vows. The priest is the witness, the bride and groom are the ministers. The sign of the sacrament is their self-gift and consent.
Priesthood has the holy oil at the hands of the ordaining bishop, resembling Samuel anointing David (king), the Holy Spirit anointing Jesus in the Jordan (Redeemer), and signifying a priest as a man set apart to serve God in worship and by serving man in a number of particular and special ways.
Anointing of the sick is done with its own particular oil. It makes holy the state of the sick person and designates the presence or the accompanying of Christ through the person’s condition. In its special way, it shows that Christ really wants to be with us always, and that’s in the whole process of our lives.
So what do we believe?
8 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Holy Communion is the greatest of the seven sacraments.
We believe that Holy Communion is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus: ‘the mystery of faith’ as we say in the Mass,and that it is something very wonderful and something always ‘bigger’ than we are.
In his own person (and therefore in the Eucharist too) we see Jesus wishing to fulfil the hopes of the Old Testament people. They looked for another Moses, ‘…Yahweh said to Moses, “I will raise up a prophet like yourself…”’ Deuteronomy 18:15-18; a new covenant, ‘…”I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel,”… Jeremiah, 31:31-33; a new Temple, ‘…”nations without number will come to it”…’ Micah 4:1-2; the new Promised Land, ‘…”I will plant them in their own country,”…’ Amos 9:14-15 (cf Revelation 21:5).
At the time of Christ, the Passover was celebrated no longer in people’s home but in the Temple only, where the high priests would sacrifice thousands of lambs. And too it was a memorial of the deliverance from Egypt.
If the Old Testament Passover Meal came after the Passover and Exodus itself, the New Testament exodus (from the realm of sin, death and broken relationship) would come after the Last Supper.
At the Last Supper, Jesus followed the model of the Passover Meal, including the concluding hymn. But he radically changes things as he takes to himself the blood of the lambs shed in the Temple with his, ‘This is the cup of my blood,’ the blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many. He is the new Paschal Lamb.
The Old Testament paschal lamb was sacrificed and then eaten. With Jesus the meal is a person, and in it there really is holy communion.
But this is not cannibalism, it is the gift of the divine Saviour, of the new manna, the new food for the journey. And this communion of himself also helps us understand him calling himself, ‘the Bread of Life,’ John 6:48; and how the sign of Holy Communion to come in the feeding of the 5,000, John 6:1-15. The great link between the Old Testament and the New Testament here is the that Old Testament manna was real, and the New Testament manna (Holy Communion) is real too.
We need faith here, and when some disciples couldn’t manage it, Jesus let them go, he didn’t water down his eucharistic teaching. John 6:64ff.
A further thing to remember is that Body and Blood of Christ that we receive is that of the risen Christ, that is, the Christ of after Easter, and not the body of Jesus who lived at Nazareth.
Another big connection with the Old Testament concerns the Ark of the Covenant, and how it contained the 10 Commandments, the 7-branched candlestick, and the golden table which had on it the Bread of the Presence, ‘You are to make a table… On the table, before me, [Yahweh], you must place the bread of continual offering’, Exodus 25:23-30, which recalled the meal that Moses and the elders ate in the presence of God in Exodus 24:9-11.
And the presence of God was seen in the Old Testament Bread of the Presence, which Jesus took over, ‘I am the Bread of Life’. At the Last Supper he used bread and wine and not the roasted flesh of the Passover to show God’s presence, and the presence continues for his disciples as they follow his ‘Do this in memory of me’.
And there is more. The Passover Meal included four cups of wine: the introductory cup of sanctification; the cup of proclamation as the Exodus story is proclaimed; a third cup followed by the Passover supper of lamb and unleavened bread. Then would be the singing of Psalms 115-118; and then the fourth cup.
But Jesus didn’t drink the fourth cup, Matthew 26:27-30; Mark 14:24-26, vowing not to until the coming of the kingdom of God. ‘Cup’ was the image he used for his torture and crucifixion as in Gethsemane he wished it would pass him by Jesus makes the fourth cup the cup of consummation, and the new Passover. The Last Supper is completed with the death of Jesus as he finally accepts drink just before he dies. ‘After Jesus had taken the vinegar he said, “It is accomplished”, and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.’ John 19:23-30; cf Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:36.
This means that our Mass makes present the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper and also makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.
There’s plenty more about the Eucharist. This much helps us appreciate why we genuflect to Christ in the tabernacle, the service of Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament, the 40 hours devotion, the sign of the cross as you pass a church, ‘making a visit’, etc.
So what do we believe?
9 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Why did Christ die? Did he have to die?
First, he died because the Father willed it, and we may ask, therefore, why did the Father will it? This is not an easy question to answer and it is something we need to think about and bring reasons together, always remembering we may have missed something.
Christ came into the world to repair things, to restore things to how they were meant to be when God created us and before sin reared its ugly and deadly head among us.
The first important piece in this jigsaw is in the words of Christ, ‘Greater love has no man to lay down his life for his friends’. Before anything, Christ did it because he loved us (loved us even though we were hardly his friends since still slaves to sin).
But we are talking of total love and which is part of that love that exists between Father and Son and which is more than we can ever understand fully because it is completely without limit.
When we say the Son was doing the Father’s will when he died for us, was obeying the Father, I wonder (without knowing) whether ‘obey’ means something else for the two divine Persons of Father and Son. They are in complete union with one another and when the Father ‘wants’ something, so does the Son – but in a divine way. So when Jesus shows his love for us by laying down his life, he is also showing the same love that the Father has for us.
If that is why Christ ‘obeyed’ his Father, there is still the question of why he died, and also of why he suffered in the way that he did.
It’s not a nice thing to think about, but Jesus did it to be seen. He needed that those he was doing it for should see it being done. If this wasn’t so, God could have wiped the slate of sin clean by an act of divine generosity and let bygones be bygones. But God had made us gifted beings, able to think and love and choose etc; and we (in the shape of Adam and Eve) had chosen to say no to God and had allowed what proved to be the poison of sin into our lives.
Why did Jesus suffer in the way he did? I think that on the one hand he brought in the period of the Old Testament (which we believe was preparing for his coming), and on the other that he was confronting sin and the fruits of sin. But also, importantly, to appreciate Christ’s death we must leave our way of thinking and humble ourselves to his.
Transforming the Old Testament story into that of the New Testament story, Jesus showed obedience to his Father, as Adam and Eve had shown disobedience. He went the way of Abraham in obeying and trusting God when that Patriarch was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Jesus also took the Old Testament and transformed it into the New Testament, giving the new commandment of heart-felt love for God and neighbour, and also the new Passover Meal (our Eucharist) with the new manna (Holy Communion). And after he and the Father had sent the Spirit at Pentecost the Tower of Babel was undone as the apostles were understood by all the nationalities that heard them.
Sin was shown by the sadism and injustice shown to Jesus, the political expediency of Pilate, the hate directed against Jesus, a form of death which Deuteronomy (21:22-23) found disgraceful. You might say sin threw everything it could against Jesus, and that in his suffering and death Jesus did battle with its power – and, importantly, of course, he beat sin by rising triumphant from the dead to the new life of Easter. He had beaten the power of the letter of the Law, the power of sin, and also the power of death previously seen as the end of everything.
How can we understand or appreciate Christ’s death? When St Paul spoke to the wise men of Athens, Acts 17:22-34, some of them ‘burst out laughing’, at the thought of resurrection (though some others listened). Those laughing men were thinking in the world’s terms. But Paul’s letters to Christian communities show how the language of the cross is different from the language of the world and we need to leave the world behind and let the cross take us over. See, for example, 1Cor 1:23; 2:8; Colossians 1:20; 2:15.
So what do we believe?
10 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Why did Christ have to suffer the way he did?
We are not his judges, that is, of the wisdom or not of his actions. We are the recipients of what he achieved and also we are much much less than he is.
In the Gospel the risen Christ explains to the apostles how according to the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms he had to suffer since it had been foretold. This reminds us that the OT is the revealed world of God, i.e. it is God revealing himself to his Chosen People in a way that they might understand at that point in their human development (or evolution).
We are not Jews, and it is worth remembering that because our way of thinking 2000 years after our Lord is more the way the ancient Greeks thought than the ancient Hebrews. So Christ teaches us in the Gospels, in a different way to how the Church teaches in, e.g. the new Catechism.
Anyway, humanity had turned from God. But God had not turned from humanity, and his story of how he prepares humanity for redemption and how he prepared his Chosen People for their part in it, includes the testing of the faith of Abraham and whether he was prepared to obey God and sacrifice his son, Isaac; the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob’s sons) who prefigured the 12 apostles; his completion of the Law and the prophets; the Paschal Meal which moved into the Last Supper; his total giving, illustrated in that psalm, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’; the building and central place of the Temple, which he would replace in his own person; the Assyrian Exile and the Babylonian Exile which saw the Jews dispersed and with him saying of himself how we would draw everyone to himself.
But out of consideration for humanity, in spite of our sinfulness, Christ seems to have decided that he must do everything visibly in order to draw people to him. His suffering and death were very visible for all who were there to see, and for us to visualise spiritually. And it has often seemed to me that he allowed sin to do this to him. In other words, he was fighting and then conquering the powers of sin. So he allowed sin, in the shape of sin’s agents, sinful people to treat him so unjustly and so outrageously, even to the point of apparently allowing sin to win, when he died. But, of course, he then went to show us that sin had not won, that in fact its overwhelming rule was over when he rose from the dead to a life which would never know death, and before which sin was finished for those who turn to him and embrace the new world of Easter.
In his very real suffering, Christ completed the Old Testament story, and also, importantly, marked the whole process by his love for sinful humanity. It completed the Law and the Prophets and the History and the rules, because its fuel was divine love, and we might say true Christians are those who have discovered that and who have been able to allow that love to take them over in their relations with God and with each other.
As well as seeing the connection between Christ’s suffering and some features of the Old Testament, there are also things to notice about the Resurrection. Repeating that in order to save humanity and to do so in a way that we would realise what had happened, his suffering and death had to be very visible, the same may be said of his rising. Although the Resurrection defies description and so is not narrated as such in the Gospels, nevertheless Jesus went out of his way to show himself as the risen Lord.
He did this, for example, when ‘Jesus himself stood among them’, or appearing especially for Doubting Thomas. And there is also ‘and he showed himself to them in another form as they were on their way into the country’. He’s showing himself to significant people, the apostles, but it’s small groups or individuals, as if he’s not only showing what he has done (rising triumphant) but is also very anxious to meet each of them and for them to meet him and enter communion or form a relationship with him. And that is him with us: behind the very special effort to make a church worthy of Easter, there is Christ himself wanting to meet each one of us and each one of us to meet him. And that’s our Easter prayer.
So what do we believe?
11 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
As has already been said, so much of what Jesus did he did for it to be seen (his suffering, death and rising) so that we would be able to go beyond what happened to what these things meant and what they won for us, There’s also much to be gained here from looking round a Catholic church, which could be described as one of ‘his’ churches, and learning from the different things there. A quick tour therefore.
We enter our church and there is a large crucifix on the wall containing in it the five wounds of Christ and INRI (‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’, which in Latin is Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) at its top. It takes us to Calvary and what Christ did for us there.
Below it is a representation of the Last Supper and below that the tabernacle with the sanctuary lamp burning alongside. In the tabernacle is the living Body of Christ, Holy Communion, to which we genuflect in belief and adoration. This is the Blessed Sacrament reserved for adoration and also for sick communions.
There is the altar on which the sacrifice of the Mass is offered and beside it the lectern from which the word of God is proclaimed and preached. Christ as Light of the world is seen in the big Paschal Candle standing for his resurrec-tion and continuing new life, while the candles on the altar also point to him as Light while not forgetting the times when Mass had to be celebr-ated in secret and darkness, away from the sight of persecutors.
On the sanctuary too can be seen through the year the different liturgical colours (purple, white, red and green), and flowers to give added life.
Priests and altar servers have the same name in Latin, ministri, because both are ministers or servers of the saving mysteries.
If we look at the body of the church, the kneelers and seats all direct us towards the altar where the main action takes place. People face each other for the sign of peace, but most of the time it’s ‘eyes front!’
All round the church (and emphatically not hidden away in a corner) are the Stations of the Cross, which can be ‘made’ privately any time or as a community exercise during Lent, as a consideration of the journey of Christ from his condemnation to his death and burial.
In different places around the church too are things both large and small. Large is the Lady Chapel, with attention and honour given to Mary, Mother of God. Smaller are the consecration candles in the walls, which say the church is consecrated by the bishop, and also that it no longer ‘belongs’ to the bank, i.e. the mortgage on it has been paid off, the ‘debt’ has gone. The walls also carry the different money boxes. Some of them are for money for the votive candles which are burnt at the two side altars. One of them is for Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, which are for sale and a means of exploring our faith or deepen-ing our spiritual lives. One is for the needs of the parish. Another for those who buy Catholic news-papers. And one for the Holy Souls (from which contributions are gathered and divided into £10 Mass stipends and used to offer Mass for the souls in purgatory).
At different times of the year, the Lady Chapel also serves as the site of the Christmas Crib, and later of the Easter Garden – each a representation of monumental moments in the life of Christ.
An extra that Holy Cross, Carshalton, has is the large icon from Bulgaria which is just outside the Lady Chapel.
Two important items are the baptismal font on the sanctuary where the first of the seven sacraments is administered, and then the side room in the nave which is the confessional and where Confession/Reconciliation is received.
Up above the nave is the choir gallery with organ and space for choir members, and which is used each Sunday for at least one Mass.
Missing from Carshalton, which is a shame, is the sign P with X underneath it, which are the first two letters in Greek for the name of Christ, Chi & Ro. They remind us that Christ is universal Saviour and also that the Church has long flourished in other places.
Something that isn’t missing and which matters is the parish hall. Here the eucharistic community can meet each other. Catholics in Italy might have a glass of wine in the sunshine; our climate makes a cup of tea more sensible. But it is a great way of meeting each other outside and after Mass.
As well as being the house of God, a church might also be called an ‘enabler’. It is our church so that things may happen, starting with coming closer to God but including the building of the community and coming to know each other and to welcome each other.
So what do we believe?
12 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
The previous section finished by suggesting that the parish church is also an ‘enabler’ – enabling us to worship, know and draw nearer to God; to come to know each other better; and to share what we know and believe with others through how we live, what we say (or don’t say), and what we do.
As I get to know God I discover He loves me, wants me to love Him, and also to share that love with others. A wonderful and mysterious gift is the gift of faith – the grace to recognise our loving God, to believe in Him, and to understand Him a bit – which so many people search for. Why do so many people search for God, but don’t seem to find Him? I don’t know, but at the same time pray that I do nothing to scare anyone away.
If God loves me He also wants to give me something. We believe He wants to share his life with us, and we believe that that life is there for us through Christ our Lord.
Christ, who is God, became man, told us about Himself, and how, notwithstanding our human limitations, we can know God and be transformed into his likeness. He came to be known, and personally, and that’s why we read the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and also the Old Testament which we believe prepared for Him.
It’s why we say our prayers (to Him, or through Him to the Father), do spiritual reading, ask questions, join groups be they spiritual or active, and come closer to Him.
In the Gospels we meet Christ, and ponder his self-descriptions, for example, ‘I am the gate’, and also look at those around Him, like Mary his mother, and also Joseph his committed and oh-so supportive foster father; Peter who among other things fell badly, but then came back to Christ; Judas who also fell badly, but who didn’t come back. Or people Jesus had time and attention for, like the Samaritan woman at the well, or Nicodemus who cautiously visited Him under cover of darkness, or Mary Magdalen to whom He said, ‘Don’t touch me’, or Thomas the apostle who He invited to touch Him.
It is a precious thing indeed this faith we have, and because of which we accept God’s invitation to know Him, to learn to love Him in return for his love for us, and to live as his child in this world. It is to be treasured and also to be shared with others. This is the missionary work of the Church.
On the matter of faith, it is worth remembering that God is not looking for paid-up members who toe the party line. He wants friends, genuinely human friends, who warts ‘n all use the gifts that He gives to journey in discovering and appreciating who He is. This is what the saints did. Our patron saint can help us not in just some special way: St Anthony (finding things), St Jude (apparently hopeless causes), but also to help us to come as close to God as they did.
Who is your favourite/patron saint?
So what do we believe?
13 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
We come to the sacraments. In them, we meet Christ, that is, the Christ whom we have met already through Scripture or prayer or the lives of others seen by us. They are the signs of what they stand for, because what they stand for is so much bigger than we are. (Imagine Christ not in the Eucharist but in his own person at Holy Cross
each Sunday). They also are powerful signs of how available God is in his love for us.
The most important sacrament is Holy Communion, because it is Christ. But the first and in its way equally important is baptism, through which we receive the life of Christ and a share in the fruits of his conquest of the powers of sin and death. Matthew 28:19 records Jesus telling his disciples to baptise everyone, everywhere; this was their mission.
Baptism is the sacrament that starts everything off as it gives us the new life of Easter, and also the fruits of our Lord’s suffering on Good Friday. The water of Baptism cleanses us from the power of sin (Good Friday) and is life-giving as we enter into the new world of Easter and seek to grow in it as Christians. There are Old Testament links, with the waters of the Red Sea being the escape route for the Hebrews from the pursuing Egyptians during the Exodus; there is also taking up the baptism of repentance of John the Baptist, though the sacrament has also the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is like human birth, which is the great beginning of everything else, the starting point for all our growth. We may think here of babies, and how although they are very attractive in their babyhood, it would be unnatural (and not possible) to seek to confine them to babyhood. They are meant to grow and develop. Baptism is the same – it is meant to be the beginning of our growth and development as Christians.
Something it’s a shame that our culture doesn’t do is to celebrate the anniversaries of our baptism. We celebrate human birthdays but not Christian ones. (The Ecuadorian community at Nunhead finishes every Sunday Mass with inviting anyone with a birthday during the coming week to come to the sanctuary for everyone else to sing ‘Happy Birthday!’)
And because as well as being the gift of life, it is also the beginning of something big, there are godparents. These are supporting Christians who are there with encouragement and interest and especially with babies who will move into childhood, someone they can turn to.
The sacrament with water and the calling on the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the essence of the sacrament. But there is more added so as to help us appreciate just how wonderful it is.
Thus, no sooner is a baby baptised than the minister anoints him on the head with chrism. Chrism, the oil blessed by the bishop at the Mass of Chrism in the cathedral each Holy Week, and for use just for after baptism, and also for Confirmation and Holy Orders. It emphasises the baby’s new dignity and also mentions the calling of a Christian to live what he believes in and through that to bring others to God.
The baby is clothed, then, with the white garment. This also points up how important the baptised is. In the Book of Revelation (7:9) there are around the throne of the Lamb countless hosts from all over the world all dressed in white. The newly baptised qualifies for a place there too.
On the sanctuary of the church is the Paschal Candle. This great candle with its special holder and its intricate decoration stands for Christ Risen, and was carefully prepared as part of the first Mass of Easter. Its flame proclaims Christ not only risen but living, and the newly baptised’s candle is lit from its flame because he or she has the great dignity of sharing in the life of Christ Risen.
Early Christians believed baptism was essential for salvation, and they thought about the Holy Innocents who were slaughtered by Herod at the time of the visit to Bethlehem of the the Kings. The idea of Baptism by Blood arose for these innocent victims of a tyrant’s fears.
There is also the idea of Baptism by Desire for someone preparing for baptism but who is prevented by death from receiving it.
Unanswered questions remain, though. There is a huge number of people in the world who live basically good lives but who know nothing of baptism. Are they doomed? It would be wrong to try to answer a question when one doesn’t know. We can only trust in the loving goodness and justice of God, and Christ being Universal Redeemer. The mission work of Christ’s Church might be explained here by suggesting a good life working from ignorance, and a good life working from the Gospel could be compared with living and seeing from the light of the sun, and living and seeing by the light of the moon (which is borrowed light – from the sun).
So what do we believe?
14 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
And then there is Confirmation, decidedly ‘junior’ to the other two sacraments of initiation – Baptism and the Eucharist – but needing a bishop normally to give it. A bit odd, surely.
At first sight it is a bit odd, but in fact it helps us understand this sacrament and also the Christian scheme of things if we see the place of the bishop here, and not so importantly in the other sacraments.
Part of the sacrament of Confirmation is the sending out, and a big part of the bishop’s work is to send out. When we are confirmed, we are given our share in the mission of the Church, which is to proclaim the Gospel and to bring more and more people to Christ and to their salvation. The bishop’s work is to do this too, but in a world with so many people in it needing Christ, he cannot possibly do this on his own, and so part of his job is to enable this to happen, and to see that it does.
Which brings us to the sacrament of the Confirmation from the angle of the person who is receiving it. Confirmation is the sacrament in the life of a young Christian which goes with the passage from being a child to a young person, and when you begin to move from accepting what you’re told to querying it, work things out, seeking to understand the meaning of life so as to come to take life to ourselves. This happens with our faith: we move from what we are told is true at home or at school to asking questions about it and wanting to understand our faith (for example, what’s the difference between Jesus ascending into heaven and Mary being assumed into heaven – and why is it important? Is the Roman Catholic Church as rich as some people say it is? Why is such and such judged wrong by the Church and with me being told I may not do it?)
In our human lives, there is a physical change from childhood to youth and adulthood; the same in the Christian life, and the sacrament of Confirmation (or Strengthening) is there to help us spiritually make this change and to gain a great deal from it.
Part of growing up as a human being is to grow from the 100% self-centredness of a baby to the generosity and thought for others of a parent. There are many steps on this journey, and they are part of the great human journey we are all on. An older person who is no longer a baby becomes more and more aware of other people and their needs and their similarities with him/her, and with what may be given to as well as taken from life to make the world go round that much better.
It’s the same in the Church, and for the confirmed Christian. A confirmed person doesn’t just enjoy the singing in church, he/she considers joining the choir. A confirmed person doesn’t just hear the faith being uttered; he asks questions about it (and there are plenty of question to ask and aspects to explore).
So Confirmation may be the junior of the three sacraments of initiation, but it is also an important one.
And so we can look at what happens and through that understand this sacrament a bit better.
We’ve already mentioned the bishop, coming as an apostle, but because of the size of the Church’s work needing to appoint fellow apostles to share his job.
There is also the importance of ‘signs’ in the sacraments, and how we may learn from the sign used what the sacrament means. The bishop anoints the person being confirmed with chrism, and therein is the sign. The archbishop of the diocese blessed the chrism (oil with myrrh) for use at Confirmations, (and ordinations and baptisms). It is blessed and thus set apart for a holy use. But being oil is also a great sign, because it dates back to pre-electric days, when oil was the source of heat and light for people. In Confirmation, the heat points to the zeal or enthusiasm of the strengthened Christian, and the light to the enlightenment given to us by the Holy Spirit in order to begin to understand the gifts and the promises that God makes to us.
Added to that, there is the choice and invocation of a favoured saint. This saint stands for a confirmed and sanctified person with whom the person being confirmed connects, and as a model in the attempt the strengthened Christian will make to live a reinforced Christian life.
One last item from the service is the presence of the sponsor, who from one point of view is a spiritual helper between whom and the newly confirmed there is a solidarity, and from another is a representative of the whole of the community who is showing that this sacrament touches everyone else too.
We are only confirmed once (just as we only grow up once). So each time the bishop comes to the parish to confirm is an opportunity not only to pray for the young people who will be receiving this sacrament but for ourselves as well, perhaps with an examination of conscience concerning how well we are living our Christian life or with a prayer to understand and appreciate better what is contained within it.
So what do we believe?
15 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
In the eighth of these leaflets, space was given to Holy Communion, the greatest of the sacraments, and also the third of the sacraments of initiation (after Baptism and Confirmation).
As the living Body and Blood of Christ, Communion is an inexhaustible subject: there is always more to discover.
In the previous leaflet we looked at Holy Communion from the angle of the Giver (Christ) and also the context in which he gave himself, namely, the Old Testament, the fulfilment of salvation history, elements from that story, like manna, the blood of the passover, etc,
Now, what about the receiver? Us? We are those to whom Christ offers himself in Communion. Who are we? We are a bit of a mixture.
We know we cannot be worthy to receive such a gift as Christ, but we also know that Christ knows that too. We get from this that He wants us, he is looking for communion with us, even though we are sinful, weak, imperfect, and so on.
We could say that if as human beings we all need a little affirming, or a little encouraging, to keep us going, in Christ’s invitation to us to ‘Take and eat,’ there is the ultimate, the greatest affirmation possible of ourselves.
And so we want to enter communion with Him. We take our act of faith to our ‘Amen!’ as we are presented with the Body of Christ, and then we seek to stay spiritually close to Him in what we say to Him by way of thanks, or request, or contrition, and also in how we live the rest of the day.
Hymns can also help the communion to deepen. Something like, ‘O Bread of heaven,’ is not just a eucharistic hymn, but is also a prayer spoken direct to Christ, and because it is sung the words are uttered more slowly than they might be if we spoke them. ‘Soul of my Saviour’ is a good one too.
The Gospel also comes alive through Holy Communion. The Christ who seeks communion with each of us is that same Christ who sat patiently with the woman at the well, who put up with Simon Peter blowing hot and cold so much, or with Nicodemus who discreetly only came to visit Christ by night, or with the Good Thief, who was far from good before his repentance and prayer to Jesus. This helps us see how though we will never be worthy to receive Communion, Christ wants to come to us where we are and to walk with us and accompany us and bring us ever closer to Him.
And bit by bit, we can get our balance in the amazing plan God has for us all. I have heard people say that they wouldn’t dream of becoming a Eucharistic Minister because of their personal unworthiness. But although it is a privileged task to take Holy Communion to the sick or housebound as a Special Minister, it is a much greater privilege to be invited by Christ to receive Holy Communion ourselves at Mass.
As it happens, shortly here at Holy Cross we shall have our First Holy Communion days. Although Holy Communion has enough meaning and dignity in its two words to give us plenty to think about, ‘First’ does too. First necessarily make us think of second and third and so on. To speak of someone’s Holy Communion as ‘First’ tells them, as well as all of us, that it’s an ongoing invitation and that in the plan and hope of Christ no one will make their First Communion without going to receive this Sacrament many times more.
This bring us to something to think about. In the sacraments of the sick, as well as Penance and Anointing, there is also Holy Communion, and which is known as viaticum, which is Latin and means ‘to go with you on the journey’ to heaven. We could argue, though, that every Communion is viaticum as Christ accompanies us all the way on our journey through life.
So what do we believe?
16 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Probably the least favourite of the sacraments is Confession, or as itis called these days Reconciliation.
It’s least favourite because it hurts to look at ourselves honestly and to have to acknowledge that we are not all we try to be or want to be and even that we are weak. Many of the things we turn up we wouldn’t other people to know about.
If we take the name that we use today for this sacrament, though, we can see what a marvelous gift it actually is. ‘Reconciliation’ says much more than ‘Confession’, which if taken at face value just says that we come out with everything and tell it how it is. Reconciliation, though, adds so much to this because the name tells us that we are making up with God, going back to how things were, and how we want things to be again, and how, because this sacrament is given us by Christ, it is what God wants for us.
Catholics do not believe that we live in a police state with Big Brother watching us, as if that’s what God wants to do all day, but we do believe that God knows us as we are, and that like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11ff, He is waiting in love for us to come back (and wanting to rejoice not to condemn). It’s in this spirit of God knowing us, that some people begin to examine themselves by using the prayer, ‘Thou, God, seest me‘. This puts a person in the presence of God, recognising his divinity, but also entering his presence, knowing, as it were, that we are welcome. Making this prayer also helps prevent us deceiving ourselves as we examine our consciences, and not pretending that such and such didn’t really happen.
Something else putting ourselves in the presence of God also helps us do is to try and examine ourselves on God’s terms rather than our own, using his values rather than ours, reminding ourselves of what as Christians rather than just human beings we should have been doing. And we also seek his help and enlightenment so that we really discover ourselves.
Then there is sorrow. A neutral reason for being sorry is because our sins may deserve punishment. A much loftier and more positive reason is seeing the sufferings of Christ in his Passion and Cross and remembering it was the sin of the world that did that to Him, and that He was conquering sin’s power through his suffering and rising. Even more noble is remembering the perfect goodness of God and how sin is a blot on God’s landscape – like shaking a fountain pen on a snow white bed sheet.
And now confession – ‘vocal confession’. This is hard and goes against the grain, but it matters because we are making ourselves putting into words that we can hear and understand what we have discovered about ourselves in our hearts. Things are much more comfortable if we don’t do this, but vocal confession means the vague and half-expressed has to be put into words that another person (the priest) can hear and understand. We are facing up to ourselves through doing this, and also making these words a prayer because the priest is present in the person of Christ, and speaking to him is speaking to Him.
The priest may say a word or two to the penitent, and then set a penance (which is an acknowledgement of a continuing weakness in regard to what was confessed and seeking help with that). Then there is the act of contrition (often being repeated from before making the confession), and the words of sacramental absolution, or reconciliation.
‘Absolution’ in Latin means loosen or release, be it a parcel from the string ‘stopping’ you get at what is inside, or a prisoner released from his bonds.
It’s worth remembering too the sacramental seal, which is that anything uttered in this sacrament is never divulged by the priest to anyone or at any time.
A question that many people wonder about is the repetition of the same sins every time a person goes to confession. I guess first it’s good to be concerned about this because it shows a person is not being complacent about this or that habitual weakness. It’s hard to find a complete answer, but considerations might include how the sacrament at least helps keep us at that level of weakness and no worse. And from another angle, it reminds us how life is a continuing journey in so many other respects. For example, we love our children very much, but all the same often have to remind ourselves again and again to be patient and not always jump in because we can do some chore more quickly. Or a more commonplace thing, some-time we have to make a daily effort to be patient with other people whether they are driving the car in front of us or ‘taking all day’ at the supermarket check-out: such efforts ought to get easier, but sometimes they don’t.
Penance/Reconciliation is the gift of Christ the Saviour, who has not only achieved the mighty things He did through the Resurrection, but who also is concerned ‘to be with us all days even to the end of time‘, accompanying us on life’s journey with its downs as well as ups.
So what do we believe?
17 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
There are two sacraments which may be taken together under the shared heading of ‘sacraments of service’. These are marriage and the priesthood and so called because neither makes sense without someone else or some others as very much part of the equation as well. Marriage immediately includes a partner, priesthood a role and shared part in the life of part or usually a particular part of the Christian community.
However, we are all individuals and life does not run an identical course for us. So Church teaching and understanding of both these sacraments is broad and recognises that there are individual particularities for everyone, varying from our own personalities to being unlucky and having to cope with dry rot.
The old presentation of marriage could think of contracts, while nowadays it is more a lifelong commitment to partnership with each other, and with the grace of God helping. Such partnership includes being with, for, and sensitive to each other as spouses make their lives together and build their lives from within their marriage covenant.
The priesthood is similar in that Holy Orders doesn’t just change a person’s state and give him certain particular responsibilities, but also deepens and changes his personal and spiritual relationship with the Church, and too gives him a concern and a liking for a particular section of the People of God. He celebrates Mass, preaches the Gospel, celebrates the sacrament of Reconciliation, and is also interested in people’s birthdays, new arrivals, exams, problems with that cursed dry rot and so on. He also has a personal relationship with his bishop (or religious superior) whose colleague and assistant he is.
And Christ who gave these sacraments is also at the centre of both ways of life.
The personal nature of both sacraments can be compared with friendship. Usually, friendship needs a bit of cultivation and regular attention (even if it’s only birthday cards).Both married partnership and priesthood need attention too. This happens in different ways because on the one hand husband and wife are two people who see each other every day and can affirm and remember each other easily. Priests do not normally phone the bishop every day to ask how he is. But they do bump into him from time to time and there are friendly and less friendly ways of greeting each other and being interested in each other.
Both on a human level and even more on a Christian level, ‘service’ in sacraments of service is a spiritual thing. It’s not at all a 9 to 5 activity with a salary at the end of the week. It involves our selves, and should be fully human. As well as being marked by generosity of spirit, it needs an awareness of each other, and that if possible this be a deepening thing. It is also open, especially in the sense that none of us knows what lies down the road 10 years hence, and many or most may be surprised at what turns up. Service, though, prepares us for what life may present us with.
(A huge chunk on marriage which has been left out in this leaflet simply because of its size, concerns the great gift of marriage which is children.)
So what do we believe?
18 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
The last of the sacraments is the anointing of the sick (or, in the old days, ‘extreme unction). You could say it is the sacrament that shows definitively how Christ wants to walk with us through the whole course of our lives. This is because in this sacrament He is there to work through sickness or to carry us through the gate of death to the heavenly life that awaits us all.
Without getting morbid, this is a sacrament well worth preparing for when we don’t need it, because when we’re in our prime we can be quite calm about it, and also of course reflect how whatever fulfilment we find in this life, our ultimate goal is the next world. It’s a helpful reminder that we are mortal. (How many of us recall the days of our youth when it seemed incon-ceivable that we would ever be ill, or need help – only to be pulled up short a little later in life as we discovered fragility is part of being human!)
The Christian approach is not only to recognise that we are not supermen or women, but also to find in our dependence on God a wonderful invitation to a fulfilment we couldn’t imagine on our own. Down here in this world, heaven is a dream, and something we can only imagine as we are so much out of our depth.
Returning to the sacrament of the anointing, it is commonly grouped under the heading ‘sacraments of the sick’ which comprise anointing, reconciliation and Holy Communion. They don’t always work out the way the books presents them, though, and often a priest will visit someone who is very sick, offer reconciliation before the anointing, and be unable to give Communion because the person is unable to take anything by mouth. This is a shame because Holy Communion on one’s deathbed is known as and is meant to be viaticum, ‘food for the journey’ to heaven. (It is good, therefore, for the priest to be asked to call a bit earlier in the course of an illness.)
Nowadays, there are also services of anointing, whether in a place like Lourdes or in a parish church. Apart from the anointing of the sick on these occasions, there is also a display of solidarity, and a parish is shown as a community in a different way from usual. Such services are also, of course, a further source of strength for anyone who is suffering.
It’s also worth giving a thought to the place of anointing more generally. Its special importance is seen in the person of Jesus Himself, who, anointed with God the Holy Spirit, is the Christ, ‘the anointed one’. Even as he is linked with some like King David, who was anointed by Samuel to be king, Christ raises anointing to a new and more exalted level.
And in the sacraments which He has given us, this level is shown. For example, the bishop will visit here shortly and anoint the confirmation candidates with the blessed chrism thus confirming them; or at an ordination, the priesthood is conferred through the ordaining bishop anointing the deacon who is to be raised to the priesthood; in baptism, although it is water and the invocation of the Blessed Trinity which causes baptism, the new dignity found in receiving this sacrament is shown in the newly baptised being anointed, also with chrism.
And although there’s no occasion to see it all that often, when a bishop dedicates a new altar in a church, he rolls up his vestment sleeves and absolutely smothers the altar in holy oil, thus consecrating it for its holy purpose. Such a ceremony may also remind us that the anointings we may receive in life show the holiness that God wants to grant us, and also how much we therefore matter to Him.
So what do we believe?
19 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
There’s plenty more of our faith to look at, but as we complete the sacraments, it might be worth considering what the relation is between our faith and the Christian life? You might think that it is simply that the Christian life flows from our faith, but there is also how the Christian life enriches, deepens and expands the faith, and how it is meant to.
The ‘Catholic faith’ links with ‘religion’ and ‘the truth’, and can seem dull but necessary, like learning our tables at school and only later discovering how useful they are. In fact, ‘the Faith’ is as dull as a house which we move into and bit by bit convert into our much loved home. It becomes our safe ground where we belong and which is ours.
It’s a bit like the adventurous journey from making an acquaintance which then grows into friendship and then moves on to love and marriage and lives together. With the Catholic religion it can start as ‘being bound by God’s law’ and ‘acting under God’s will instead of our own’, (to quote Cardinal Newman) and grow into the love of being thus bound and thus obeying. It can move from learning what we believe, to sharing with other believers and then maybe contributing to it. This contribution doesn’t have to be huge like St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologicae, but can be anything from chat, to Letters to the Editor, to working as catechists, to discovering how thinkers have developed ideas right from early times, and so on.
And this link of our faith with Christian living can also involve the personal discovery that it is Christ in person who is at the centre of the whole thing, and that the faith or religion is really the door to open and through it meet Christ and get to know Him as the divine friend. (We also learn to appreciate and then to love those around as we realise that what Christ thinks of me He thinks the same of them.)
When we celebrate some of the big feasts, for example, Saints Peter & Paul, the prayers of the Mass talk about our finding ‘true religion’. And we recognise and pray for the authority that Christ has given to the governing department of the Church. We realise at the same time that the official teachers in the Church are doing no more than taking care that through our religion we befriend the real Christ and not as we might imagine Him, and it is truly He who befriends us.
There’s a thing call ‘the deposit of faith’ and a reference to the time when Revelation ended, which was when the last of the Apostles died. So there’s nothing more. But are things the same? In the sense that the basic message remains the same and will do so, everything is the same, but with regard to developments there have been big new things happening.
A very good example of this, because we are living it now, is what the Second Vatican Council, 1963-65, gave to the Church, and which some people have called ‘dynamite’. What Vatican II gave to the Church (and to the world) was a whole new idea of the job of the Church and also what the Church really was. We are still the Mystical Body of Christ but Vatican II stressed how we are also the People of God, all of us, and how it is ‘our’ Church and it is our concern. It also changed course officially with regards to other Churches and communions and now aims all the time at Christian unity. It doesn’t see ‘the world’ any more as the enemy, but it sees itself as the leaven of the world seeking to draw the whole world to Christ. It involves all of us in worship, especially in our participation in the Mass, unlike the way things were. It went back to the sources, and read and referred to the Fathers of the Church much more. And it gave a new face to our Church both universal and local especially with what is called ‘the spirit of the Council’ and has made the Church so much more friendly and welcoming to everyone. The Church has stayed 100% true to its message, but has also moved with the times for the benefit of both Church and world, of both pope and people, and too for the universal Church as it moved from being a very ‘European’ one to a world-wide one.
So what do we believe?
20 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
So we believe that God is Creator, and that at the height of his creation are human beings. We, represented by Adam and Eve, thought more of ourselves than we should have done, and through choosing ourselves over God sin entered the world – this is something we’re all familiar with and well aware of today.
But we also believe in salvation history, and that there is the story of our restoration to where we were at the start, beginning with God’s choice of Abraham and from him the people God would use to prepare for us all to reach a stage in our development when we would be able to say yes properly to the repair that the Redeemer would have made for us. This is the story of the Chosen People in the Old Testament.
The Redeemer was the 2nd Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son, who joined with a human nature was Jesus. He gave us his Gospel to live by, and died for us on the cross. Our ‘yes’ is, broadly, living to love God and to love our neighbour too, and also using the great means He gave us to live by, especially his Good News, and also the sacraments. There is also the saving community which is the Church, and the living presence of God the Holy Spirit. As we think of this, there’s no question of how much God loves us, and at times we can feel shame that we’re not more actively conscious of all this. This is because there’s more.
First, look at the mother of Jesus, Mary. Jesus gave her to us to be the spiritual mother of the rest of the Church. She is our model in that her ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,’ is our target as we try to say the same ‘yes’ that she made both at the Annunciation and after. Is this why Mary seems to be God’s chosen messenger (being thereby our inspiration) at places like Lourdes or Fatima? Maybe next time we say the Hail Mary we could try and find these thought in its words.
Mary of course is in heaven, assumed there by God her earthly work done, ‘crowned’ i n heaven and showing in her person and where she is the completion of the redemption story, which is of course the hope of the rest of us.
Heaven will be the completion of our lives on earth, but with words of description suddenly having a much fuller meaning than they can here on earth: happiness becomes unending and complete happiness, joy becomes total joy, love given and love received on earth becomes something so complete it can’t be tied down by words. Heaven also, of course, tells us how God created everything out of love and how He wants us more than we want Him. Christian living here on earth can be quite hard at times, but heaven and more besides motivates us not only to live correctly but also to want to do so.
(Right now, the British Government has an arrangement with the DUP so as to be able to govern. Our press looks at some of the things the DUP believes in with something of a tone of ‘how quaint!’ – things like the DUP being pro-life, or being creationists.
It’s worth thinking about ‘creationist’. In the Creed we say,’I believe in God,… creator of heaven and earth…’, which makes us creationists. But there are different kinds. Literal creationists, which our press gives most attention to, take the words of the Bible literally in Genesis and believe God created on 6 days like it says.
(Catholics believe that the beginning of the Bible tells of people trying to make sense of how things were, and being able to form a rough outline of the beginnings, and including some of the things which aren’t meant to be (that is, sin and suffering etc). But it is a simple word picture for simple folk, before science began, before they could read, before they could do the things we take for granted. They would have gasped at Darwin’s theory of evolution, even as Catholics today can give it a place in the development of that which God first of all created out of nothing. So many of the press think God and science are in a state of total war – whereas the one (science) is discovering what the other (God) has given us. Science and religion should be friends, enriching each other.)
So what do we believe?
21 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
So what’s life all about?
As human beings, with no sense of God, we could think of life as something to get the most out of, to succeed in what we try and do, and in which we make money and can afford to retire comfortably etc. Or, again as human beings with no sense of God, we might think of ourselves as coming from a family and wanting to grow up and start our own family, giving to ours what we received from our parents’, including all the friends we made along the way.
We could say much more about human life without God. But to take the above two approaches and to include God, we could find helpful parallels.
There is first the idea of success in reaching heaven. This is the ambition of us all who believe in Him, and we aim to live a moral life, and believe in what we know about Him, and to come to live for ever with Him in heaven.
There is the other view too, which is thinking about life in terms of a family. We are all of us spiritual beings, able to laugh and cry, to love and hate, and we have been made that way by God. We may deduce from this that God would like us to use our spiritual selves and to grow a relationship with Him. (Just to make it to heaven becomes a bit like just getting a rise at work and being satisfied that we have a higher bank balance. It’s OK, but, if we can, we want to use the extra money. God wants us all in heaven, but He surely wants us to have a personal connection with Him while we’re on the way there.)
This brings us from the Creed and the true faith to prayer as well. Although we have no notion of being equal with God, all the same we believe, from Him, that there should be a growing relationship, and that it is something like human friendship. And this is the context of prayer.
Jesus said, ‘When you pray, say, “Our Father…”’. This is solid gold teaching on prayer. Jesus gives us the model of prayer in the Our Father, and by his own authority He tells us to begin it with those two words, words which teach us volumes about who we are in the sight of God, about how the New Testament fulfils the Old, about the dignity we never knew we had but which is ours as God’s children, and so on.
‘Our Father’ also says prayer should be intimate, head to head, heart to heart, not needing to be dressed up in fine words but with our-selves laid bare to God. And so we bring our needs, our weaknesses, our sins, our concerns for others, our discovery of God’s goodness, our amazement at his creation, our astonishment that Christ thought so much of us as to die for us, our appreciation that we are brothers and sisters before the Lord, our praise, our thanks, our sorrow.
We pray too for the courage and generosity of heart to receive the Good News and to want to share it with others be it through how we live, or actively join in work for the Church, or support of the missions, or through passing it on to our families. Etc.
And because prayer is our relationship with the Father, we appreciate how there are so many different ways we can be in union with God. There are the vocal prayers we say together, or our own thinking about things, or our spiritual response to life’s occurrences, or our reading, or our listening, e.g. to the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, or through entering the Mass with our hearts.
It’s good, though, to give some special time to God as well as being conscious of Him all the time. God our Father seeks our friendship, and close friends need to be in touch with each other and not just be vaguely aware of each other. We remember how even though it is unthinkable that Jesus was not in union with the Father throughout his time on earth, nevertheless He often went off on his own just to pray.
So what do we believe?
22 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Last time we thought a bit about God as Father and some of the implications of this. Since God is our Father one thing is to fix in our minds that although sometimes it looks as though we Catholics have a rule book to follow on our Christian living, what really counts is doing ‘Christian things’ because we want to, because we’re in his family.
So, for example, we want to begin and end the day with prayer; we want to lend a hand to a brother or sister in need.
And there is much more as well. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, and He came at Pentecost and the Church was born. But the Church that was born was a living thing, an organism, something alive and meant to be active, and also with all its members in communion with Him.
And it is this Spirit who enlivens the Church who also teaches us how to pray, partly through his living inspiration within each of us, and partly through his active presence in such things as Scriptures, Tradition, the liturgy, or in virtues like faith, hope and charity.
So, as we listen to the readings at Mass we are listening to the inspired word of God, the words that were written by human beings but with the Holy Spirit inspiring them..
Or when we hear of the thoughts of such as Augustine or Jerome or Cyril of Jerusalem we are hearing of and from the Fathers of the Church who wrote on the Scriptures, and who with the help of the Holy Spirit, gave us Tradition by which the Bible becomes addressed not just to the Chosen People but to all of us.
The liturgy is full of richness, where the huge things like the consecration of the bread and wine into becoming Holy Communion for us, blend in with the smaller things like the drop of water the priest puts into the chalice with the wine and by which is shown our wish to be joined to the sacrifice too.
We ask the Holy Spirit too, to help us and to teach us to pray. Perhaps He will fill us with uplifting thoughts, or provide us with an opportunity to share something Christian with someone we know, or help us to reflect on godly things, or be with us as we say the rosary.
Prayer we may come to realise is a response to what we see. We need God’s help in this, but we also need to make an effort ourselves. We recognise that we’re perhaps not so good at concentrating, or on thinking of just one thing, or are very good at being distracted. But work on these is part of the process.
There is also family prayer – which is a wonderful thing in itself, and also because it leaves a strong memory in those who knew it and who later in life move on and maybe found their own families.
The Mass is the big thing, though. Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ and that is what we do. The Second Vatican Council said holiness is the first aim of everyone (‘the universal call to holiness’), and the source of this is the Mass.
Concerning the Mass, we may think of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, of the consecration and of Holy Communion, but we could also give a thought to how the early Church was so conscious of the immensity of the gift that it constantly brought in the theme of thanks.
The word Eucharist means thanksgiving, so the name of the Mass may be said to say it all. It’s worth noticing through the course of any Mass how frequently the word ‘thanks’ comes in to the words we use, and this helps us reflect too on the size of the gift Christ gave us.
So what do we believe?
23 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
We stopped last time with prayer, the Mass and the Holy Spirit, to all of which we will return in due course.
This time, we could bring faith to prayer and look in faith at the prayer Jesus Himself gave us as the model or blueprint of prayer, the Our Father.
This is a prayer given us by Christ, Matthew 6:9, and has been said ever since, with much thought, reflection and writing flowing from this.
With all our desires, the Our Father is meant to be the foundation of what we ask for.
First of all, it’s not just being polite to address the first words to the Father Himself, with no reference to ourselves. It’s, rather stating the relationship we have to Him, reminding us how we are creatures and He is Creator, and also how in his perfection He has made everything for his own glory.
Our Father, when we think like this, has a great sense of privilege joined to it, the fact that Jesus tells us that we may and should call God ‘Father’, remembering at the same time that He is Almighty God.
Hallowed be thy name also looks away from us, the pray-ers, just to God. Hallowed be his name because of who He is. With awe we speak to God whom we call ‘Father’, and revel in the surface contradiction of it all, that is, that we can be familiar with God Himself. We bring ourselves in, though, because we have to be among those by whom his name is hallowed.
Thy kingdom come. This is the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. It is also quite likely the kingdom different from the personal prayers we plan to make to our Father. So it reminds us that not only are we being let into the plan of what the kingdom is (see Christ’s Gospel), but also we want to make our hopes for ourselves to fit in with the divine plan for that kingdom.
Thy will be done on earth. This has one foot in the divine world, and one foot in ours, in the sense that we humans are the stewards of the earth, and we are also the only creatures able to say ‘Yes’ to God. So this prayer is that we, each of us, and everyone everywhere, will do God’s will on earth. Even as we say these words, we bring in themes of justice, love, peace, neighbourliness, kindness, and a thousand other good human qualities. And we also ask, without maybe noticing it, the Spirit’s help for us as well as for the big names in the world – governments, big business and so on.
as it is in heaven. We don’t set up some other place or person whom we think is better than us as our standard, but we use the kingdom of heaven – somewhere which is beyond criticism, and being in the presence of God it must be constantly active in coming or striving to come closer to Him or to know/enjoy Him better. Quite a yardstick!
Give us this day our daily bread. This doesn’t mean our little prayers aren’t important or don’t matter, but it does mean that we place our faith and hope in God whom we have just praised – almighty and all-loving. Daily bread also reminds us of the Old Testament manna with which God fed the Jews every day, and for us the chance to receive the daily bread of Holy Communion every day. If our prayers seem to be going unanswered, we ask the same God for trust in Him, to keep us firmly joined to Him, and if He will that any waiting strengthen our union with Him. Sometimes we have to look at things ‘through the eyes of eternity’, as when we lose someone very dear to us, but by so doing believe he/she has a heavenly home waiting – one which we shall travel to in God’s good time. Faith and hope are what’s behind our prayer, ‘Eternal rest give unto…’
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We know this is the hard one – easy to say but not to do. Jesus knew this, because it’s the one bit of the Our Father that He talks further about. Mt 6:14-5. It helps to know it’s difficult for all of us, but it’s a mark of growing Christian maturity when we find we are able, with or without gritted teeth, to say it with meaning. Our model is no less than Christ Himself on the cross, Luke 23:34.
And lead us not into temptation. Jesus is hardly likely to lead us into wrong-doing, and we could read this part of the prayer as a plea for grace to be able to see when we’re walking on dangerous ground, into an occasion of sin of some sort, and for Him to help us keep away.
But deliver us from evil. It sounds unnecessarily negative to say that we live in a wicked world. But there is tremendous evil being done by some people among whom we live, and we are always in danger of being the victims of its results. We pray to be safeguarded; we also pray for the conversion of sinners – for their sake as well as for our safety.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen. This is the ending of the Anglican version of the Lord’s Prayer. I believe it is there because they translated the prayer from a different source from the Catholics, and their source had a slightly longer version. In these days of working for Christian unity, this ending is nowadays part of the Mass, when we say after the ‘Deliver us, Lord,…’ For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever.
So what do we believe?
24 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
When we looked last time at the Our Father, we looked at the model of prayer and tried to find the elements in it which should be there in the other prayers we say too. It finished with Deliver us from evil, which teaches us that to win in our continuing fight against the temptations that come our way, we need to pray.
Prayer, though, is, first, a positive and constructive thing, and through it we try to come closer to God and to know Him and be known by Him.
More complicated than the Our Father, but the richest prayer we have is Christ’s gift to us, the Holy Mass. Christ said of it, Do this in memory of me. It is the great answer too to the Church’s teaching of our universal call to holiness.
The Mass is meant to give glory to God and also to make us, his people, holy. It does this partly through signs and symbols, but also, of course, through our using them and responding to them and then applying them to ourselves. An easy sign is the shaking hands as a gesture of peace and harmony. Another is seeing how when the celebrant ‘shows’ the offerings, either he is showing them to us, or to the Almighty. After the consecration, for example the priest shows the Sacred Host and then the Precious Blood to everyone present – ‘Look at what is here!’; while at the end of the Eucharist Prayer at the ‘Through Him, and with Him, and in Him…’ he shows them to God in heaven.
We come to Mass on Sundays, not just because it is a rule of the Church but because it is our weekly celebration together of the Resurrection. The Jews had Saturday as their sabbath. The Christians moved their new sabbath to Sunday because it was ‘the first day of the week,’ which is the day Christ rose to new life, John 20:1. The Resurrection is the centre of our faith, and the only reason Christ was preached and proclaimed in the first place was that He had risen from the dead, shown thereby who He was, and shown too that his ‘good news’, his gospel, was from the mouth of God Himself. The Good News is based on the Resurrection. Every Sunday is a celebration of his resurrection. (Sundays in Lent don’t count towards the 40 days of that season because they actually celebrate what Lent is moving towards, namely, his triumphant rising after his death.)
The fruit of Mass is Holy Communion: ‘Take and eat,’ He said. And it’s communion that Christ seeks with us, and offers to us in this wonderful sacrament. Personal thanksgiving to Him should always be part of it, and so a balance has to be drawn between our private moment with Christ and our shared prayer to Him at the prayer after Communion, or the hymn that we sing together also in response to Communion.
That part of the Mass is near the end of the celebration, and we conclude with the celebrant saying something like, ‘Go, the Mass is ended’. We remember here that the Mass is not meant to be confined to church, but how we should take it out with us into our daily lives, living united to God in ourselves, or living in an active and more Christian way towards others.
To help us understand and appreciate the Mass better, here are some questions to ponder, and maybe to prompt more:
1. How many colours of vestments are there, and what does each colour mean?
2. Why do we stand for the Gospel?
3. Why is Holy Communion ‘under two kinds’?
4. Why have candles?
5. Why always pray for pope and bishop by name at Mass?
6. Why does the priest hold his arms open when he prays aloud at the altar?
7. Why is everything in church covered with purple cloths on Passion Sunday?
8. ‘The Sacrifice of the Mass’? Why and how is this so?
So what do we believe?
25 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
To enter fully into the world of the Mass (which we considered in the previous number) is one of the dividends of being baptised. (The aim in going to Mass is to share in the celebration, a big part of which is receiving Holy Communion – and this requires that we have been baptised.)
Baptism is the first of the sacraments, and may be said to be one half of the mission that Jesus gave to his apostles: to proclaim the Good News and to baptise (Matthew 28:19-20).
The rite of baptism (part of the great liturgical reform linked with Vatican II) expresses an enormous amount about this sacrament in which we become Christian, share in Christ’s conquest of the power of sin (through his sacrificial death on Calvary) and are ‘entitled’ to share in the life of the Resurrection (Easter). This is shown in the cleansing sign contained in water (cleansing from the power of sin), and the life-giving sign (shown in our daily need of water in order to live, and the need of it for agriculture etc and religiously standing for the life in Christ’s rising from the dead).
The elements either side of the baptism with the water tell us more of its richness.
The service starts with the public naming of the person (usually a baby), with the name which will be transformed into his Christian name.
The baby’s parents (or an adult speaking for him/her) states that it is baptism that is being asked for, and adds the under-taking to help the new life to stay healthy and to grow.
Then comes the sign of the cross of the forehead of the baby, since it is through Christ’s cross that it can all happen.
The liturgy of the word comes now with Biblical readings which refer to the sacrament; and the minister follows this with a short homily which expands on these words.
Then come the Bidding Prayers, which look beyond the baptism and ask God’s help for the new life which is going to start that day.
Then come three ceremonies. First, the baby is anointed with the oil of exorcism as his/her preparation for the sacrament; then the baptismal water is blessed; and finally, parents and godparents affirm their own faith and the part they will play in helping the faith of the newly baptised to grow.
Then the baptism itself ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, as the water is poured over the person’s head. So the sacrament is given in the name of each Person of the Blessed Trinity.
There follow what might be termed marks of honour for the new Christian.
He/she is anointed on the head with chrism, which was blessed by the arch-bishop of the diocese for use just at baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations. It honours the new Catholic and also mentions the Christian mission to be priest, prophet and king to the world.
The clothing with the white garment is very meaningful. It is white because it is linking the newly baptised with the countless hosts gathered round the throne of the victorious Lamb (Christ) in bright white garments (cf Revelation 7:9).
Third is the person’s baptism candle which is lit from the Easter candle, which has been burning at the side. This candle proclaims the Resurrection, and the burning baptismal candle the ‘invitation’/ ‘justification’ which the newly baptised has through belief and through the life of baptism to share in Easter.
At a baby’s baptism, the final blessing is preceded by special prayers for the child’s mother, for his/her father, and then for everyone in church.
I think it is one of the best-planned services that the Church has.
So what do we believe?
26 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Confirmation is one of the three sacraments of initiation into Christ’s Church, and it strengthen the life of baptism that someone has as the Holy Spirit comes in new ways to the person being confirmed.
Why does the baptismal life need confirming? If we link it to our own growing up, we remember that childhood is succeeded by youth, and that youth is when we discover more who we are and what we can do and what we can start to give back to life – on our road to adulthood.
To put that in a Christian context, Confirmation is when we make the Faith our own ( rather than just a gift to us from our parents and teachers), and also begin to share it with others through the way we live.
And because it’s us humans who are involved in receiving the sacraments, things are not always neat and tidy. Whereas the baptism of a baby is a clean sheet, a beginning of life as a Catholic ( as well as being the beginning of our lives as human beings), the sacrament of Holy Communion is perfect in the sense of being Christ Himself, but it is not as far as we recipients are concerned because we bring ourselves warts’n all to the sacrament, and our communion is not perfect, but is something we work at and hope it grows better each time we receive the Body of Christ.
Confirmation is the same in so far as God the Holy Spirit comes to us when the bishop anoints us, but we bring ourselves with our strengths and weaknesses to his healing and strengthening gift.
So should we think of what the bishop will do, and why it is the bishop and not the priest who confirms (because it is part of being a bishop to give other Catholics their share in Christ’s mission to share and spread the Gospel)?
Should we rather reflect on the faith that we have been taught, and which is now our own rather than something imposed on us by someone else, and so think about why we call God ‘Father’; who are Father, Son and Holy Spirit; why is the Church, Christ’s Church, unlike any other organisation of human beings (and it’s not because of its size); and so on? And thinking like this and asking questions seeing the Catholic Faith more and more as something wonderful and to be treasured?
And also, being Confirmed, we want to share this faith. This includes however we happen to be living – the particular people at school or college, the things that come out of other people’s mouths in conversation, the questions large and small that can suddenly hit us. ( How could God allow the Las Vegas killer to do what he did? Why is there such suffering in the world?Why are my studies so hard?)
The strengthening work of the Spirit in this sacrament makes us fully fledged Christians, and more open to the great adventure of Christian life.
By now, of course, this is a sacrament that we not only receive but also, importantly, that we respond to and work with. And this is where the so called gifts* of the Spirit fit in, with the so called fruits** of the Spirit being what we receive as the result of our working with Him.
- *wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.
- **charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self control, chastity.
So what do we believe?
27 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
‘I’m, just going for a quick scrape’ is an easy way of speaking about Confession, which has too, of course, the better name of ‘Reconciliation’.
‘Scrape’ points to a quick and easy forgiveness’ ‘reconciliation’ points to a new and better start to an old friendship.
Sin is loathed by God, but He can’t bring Himself to loathe a sinner, and like the father in the parable of the prodigal son He is always waiting for us, ready to take any chance we offer to reach out to us with his grace.
And it is hard to realise it, but we creatures really do need the loving God that He is, because we are such selfish creatures, and we show our self-centredness in so many ways big and small, but all of them damaging to ourselves, and constantly placing obstacles between us and the friendship that God wants with us.
But when we realise how unworthy we are,
or how selfish, there is no reason to be dispirited, to be downhearted. We could think of babies and imagine the time when we ourselves were babies, and how we looked for warmth and food and love and security, and also of how we were not yet able (that is, mature), enough to give back consciously to those who were giving so much to us. That’s what growing up was all about, and, for example, once we were mature, we became ready and able to give back for what we had received, becoming parents ourselves.
Spiritual maturity, as a child of God, is discovering how the spiritual life is a two-way street, and how even as we receive gifts the size of which we can hardly take in (think of salvation through what happened on Calvary; think of the gift of Holy Communion) we want to be able to give something back. Never mind how small it may be, it is a return for what we have received. Thus, our prayers, our Gospel reading, our active brotherhood and sisterhood towards others, our cheerfulness, our hope, etc.
Our giving back is returning to the divine Giver for what we have, and it includes our appreciation of how our sin or self-centredness is an obstacle, which makes this all more difficult for us.
And this is the context for God giving us the gift of Confession to help us become more able really to enter into communion with Him. When we come to Mass we acknowledge as a community how we are all sinful: we confess to God and ‘to you my brothers and sisters’; we say together and include each other in ‘Lamb of God… have mercy on us’.
The sacrament of confession is different, though, because it is me facing God, accusing myself in my words the extent insofar as I realise it of how far away I have let myself from God, and taking advantage of the presence of God’s priest to make me have to put into words what I would far rather leave as some vague idea of sinfulness, and then listening to anything he might have to say, and then receiving at his hands the words of the sacrament of reconciliation, and taking away with me what penance he may have set to help me for the future.
It hurts a bit to confess like this, but what I get from it is enormous, as God reconciles me to Himself, when the fault had been entirely on my side, and none on his. (I also know that notwithstanding the discomfort of putting things into words, whatever I say stays in the confessional. There has been talk in the papers recently that some sins should be divulged and handed on to the authorities. The Church says ‘No!’, not under any circumstances. It can be expressed as whatever is said in words in this sacrament is spoken through the ears of the priest to God, and if God wants some thing to be known, He will choose his own means, but it will never be via the the priest.)
Martin Luther King Jr used the wonderful phrase ‘Free at last!’ of his own people in the USA. They are words it’s difficult just to say, as they sound much better if they’re sung as a sort of anthem. Those same words and the feeling behind them belong with us as we leave the box, freed once more.
So what do we believe?
28 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
The sacraments of marriage and the priesthood can be spoken about together because they are both sometimes called ‘sacraments of service’. ‘Service’ here means that neither makes much sense unless someone else is involved too.
They are both life partnerships looking to give as well as to find, and coming to discover happiness and satisfaction in someone else or in others.
A married man happily lives his life as a husband &/or father rather than as a ‘me’. A priest, whether through celebrating Mass or mixing with people does both as part of a community and not as an individual.
Being married and being a priest both have adjustment and discovery as part of the deal. A married couple with or without children face the challenges and circumstances which come their way together, and discover the adventure they’re on. From a priest’s point of view, his daily work can learn from St Augustine. As a pagan philosopher, Augustine was writing reams and reams of rational thought, but then he became Christian and became a bishop and discovered he had to give first place to the people in his care, and to be ready to do a lot less philosophy. A priest must put things in the correct pastoral order.
Because marriage and holy orders are both life-changing things, preparation is needed. This is not just about making decisions together: putting the top back on a tube of toothpaste or planning a family, it is also through using prayer to receive God’s grace to live by the precious gift of generosity of spirit towards each other, or towards everyone in a parish. It’s worthwhile also to give time to renew one’s vows, both internally and externally in some appropriate way.
And neither state (as spouse or priest) is something for us to be self-satisfied about: that is, with no more work needed. In his great document Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis emphasises how we are all on a journey, and none of us in this world has reached the destination but that rather as priests or wives and husbands, we are all working at things so as to reach the end here and enter eternity as spiritually mature as possible, as holy, as having been ‘good and faithful servants’. And here we could remind ourselves of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968, and erroneously only associated with birth control). Paul VI carefully said that the two reasons for getting married, neither of which is more important than the other, are the living partnership between the spouses on the one hand, and the starting and raising of a family on the other.
Church and also human understanding grow and develop, and one interesting question arises if we look at the Church as the Bride of Christ. It’s a wonderful title which is both poetic and also denoting a great relationship. But does it belong to the 21st c? These days, wife and husband share equality of dignity and are just complementary to each other. The Church as Bride is always and has to be the ‘junior partner’, so has this august title outlived its usefulness? The Fathers of the Church referred to Christ as the Sun and the Church as the moon, by which it meant the Church can only live on borrowed life and light, the way the moon’s light is not in fact its own. This is offered not as taking a potshot at the Church and her teaching, but rather to stimulate thought on how things grow.
A further, very Catholic, thought is that even as we give a moment’s thought to the two sacraments of marriage and the priesthood, it is worth bringing in all the others too, because each in its own way is there to help us whoever we are, and to be there for that one person however we may be viewing her or him.
So what do we believe?
29 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
There is a jibe which periodically is used in the House of Commons which takes the form of the question, ‘Why didn’t you repair the roof while the sun was shining?’, that is, rather than wait till there’s a more expensive repair job needed now because you didn’t foresee trouble. We don’t need to know it just as a jibe because it’s good practice to look ahead while the going’s good so as to be ready for what may or will come our way.
The Catholic faith does the same. This week we look at the sacrament of anointing, aka the anointing of the sick, and without getting morbid in any way see the wonderful richness that is there inside it.
All of us know that one day we will die. We also know that it’s quite likely illness will come our way as well. We believe we have one of the 7 sacraments for just these events, known as the anointing, but it might even be better known as ‘Jesus is with us in everything’.
The sacrament of the anointing is the sacrament of the accompaniment of us by Jesus.
This means that as we are sick, He through this sacrament (and also through Reconciliation and Holy Communion which goes with it) is there as it were holding our hands and encouraging us and journeying with us in whatever way we are going.
On our deathbeds, it is the same, except this time our death, our leaving this world, becomes Him joining us as we go to the eternal life for which we were made.
It’s scary, of course, but so was the first time we jumped into the swimming pool, or played rugby at school. It’s not knowing for sure what lies ahead that frightens us. But if we have come to know Jesus, it is his presence which reassures us. We know we are one day going to die, but the Christian death has Him actively present for us all the time. What a wonderful thing our faith is!
Sickness and death, in a world that tries to say the only successful people are those who are rich, or who win a gold medal, gives a lot of other people the opportunity to be truly human as they too, (like Jesus), accompany a person, recognising his/her worth even in his weakness and showing a wonderful solidarity with someone who becomes or is a brother or sister.
Hospitals, GPs, good neighbours are evidence of the human family which we are able to form, a sort of communion of saints here on earth. Here in our own area of Carshalton we often meet people with more needs than we have, and it is a good thing to be able to defer to them, to help them, to say hallo to them. They’re part of God’s family the same as us.
There is no argument that in this life there is hardship, challenges, suffering, and finally death. Christianity doesn’t pretend what clearly happens won’t, but what Christianity does is show a way of making everything part of a our Christian journey to the next.
A famous Gospel text is worth reading often because it is Christ transforming earthly life with its downs as well as ups into a lot of experiences where He is always there:
‘Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened and I shall give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ Lk 11:28-30
He doesn’t say He will take away our burden, or that we shall suddenly become rich, or suddenly recover all our health, but He does say that if we let Him share our lives, and change them so as to give Christian meaning to everything we do, all will change, and because there is Christian meaning in anything we encounter the yoke will become easier, and the burden lighter.
That’s the context of the anointing of the sick.
So what do we believe?
30 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
We have looked at the 7 sacraments of the NT, and seen how they fit the shape of our lives on earth; and how also we learn from what happens in them or from what is used for them just what it is that they mean. (For example, in baptism water is used, which is a cleanser – baptism cleanses us from the power of sin which Christ conquered on Calvary; and it is also the source of life which we use in order to stay alive – in baptism there is also the new life of Easter, which Christ wants to share with us.)
Christ Himself, though, is bigger than his 7 sacraments, and one of the names He has is ‘Christ the Sacrament’. This means that when He became one of us, the way in which He lived, the things He taught, and most especially his relationship and attitude with the Father were the outer sign of just who He is. And the message of this is that we should all of us want to get to know Him. This is why we look for Him in the Bible, look for communion with Him in Holy Communion, speak with Him in prayer, and, of course, live by his teaching and his example.
Among the richest words in the Bible are those from the first verse of the first letter of St John: Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our own hands: the Word who is life – this is our subject.
What a privilege for the 12 apostles to have known Him like that! But also it surely makes us think that John could only write those words if it was in the plan of God the Son that He would be seen and heard and touched, or, in other words, that they, and us too, should get to know Him. And just as those we are really close to, we never fully get to know and there is always something more, so even more is this so with Jesus. He is bigger than us, and also his great characteristics, like his overflowing love, can never be contained as if we could put it into a pot and place it on a shelf somewhere.
There is more.
If Jesus is the sacrament of God, the Church is the sacrament of Jesus. In it we should find Him because that is where He is, that is the community which is filled with his life.
When we talk of the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic we are talking of how Christ wants to be to the world, all parts of which He saved on Calvary. Vatican II says how the Church is always engaged in mission work as from generation to generation, and country to country, it spreads the saving word and encourages everyone’s response to it.
Vatican II emphasised the Church’s preference for the poor, and the priority it gives to every ordinary person. This actually means also that it welcomes every person who discovers their spiritual poverty and looks for Christ in the Church. (How Christ must have secretly wept for those Pharisees who were so self-righteous that they couldn’t see how empty they were in themselves and listen to Him!)
Again, though, there is more. If Christ is the head of the Church, and the Church is the sacrament of Him, the Church is also his Mystical Body, of which He is the living head. We are its members, part of the living organism, and also the ambassadors and sacraments of both Christ and Church. Or we should be. This is our privilege and also our mission, one of which we know our own unworthiness, but which we try and do with the grace of God (and the grace of the 7 sacraments) – getting to know Him and working to let others into what he have learned.
So what do we believe?
31 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
We have spoken of the 7 sacraments, and also of Christ the Sacrament of God, and of the Church as sacrament of Christ.
Something which it wouldn’t make sense to call a sacrament even though it affects everyone of us is death and what goes with it. We all know that though we may be long-lived, death is unavoidable for us all.
But our faith, of course, gives us a different view of what happens. One priest used to speak of his own impending death as waiting ‘to go home’. Our faith says that is what Jesus is all about: saving us from the power of sin and death in this world, and opening for us the gates of heaven for life eternal with God in the next,
This is not say our lives on earth are a waste of time or a penance, and the sooner they’re over the better. Our journey through this world is meant to be a growing human and spiritual experience.
This means that just as we grew from being babies to wherever we are as we read these words giving and receiving from life, so too as Christians we grow and discover how to be loved by and how to give love to our Lord Jesus Christ, and also our brothers and sisters around us.
Heaven will be this two-way love in its totality and for ever. And here the word ineffable, which we meet sometimes in hymns and prayers comes in. Ineffable means beyond words, something which can’t be tied down to mere words, something much bigger than us and which it is impossible to express without leaving a lot out of what we would really like to say. And since the ineffable is entirely positive and wonderful, the fact that it is biggert than us and not possible to have enough of makes it all the more attractive.
We naturally live life in this world, but we need also to have an eye constantly out for heaven, since that is our true destiny, even while as God’s stewards we work to make this world a better place.
And a part of our journey and of our hope is not to forget those who have gone ahead of us. We pray for them, tend their graves, go to their funerals, tend their graves, remember their anniversaries. And this is always with our faith and our hope being made real and concrete for us because it is being directed towards particular people we knew.
One of the last prayers of the Funeral Mass begins ‘May the angels lead you into paradise’, which means may they show you your home.
So what do we believe?
32 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
We have been looking at the enormous number of gifts which have been given us by God, particularly by God-made-Man, Jesus. It’s tempting to list them just so as to be amazed at their number and their richness.
Now, we look rather at ourselves, who are worth so much to God (shown by his gifts to us), and think of who we are and also how we should respond to God.
We are human beings – obvious but it means that each one of us has a dignity which can hardly be put into words, and that there are as it were rules written into our very beings about how we should behave and also about how we should treat each other.
Where to begin? To what extent are we individuals who can always live putting ‘I’ first, and to what extent are we also social beings who have to live with each other, not only in the loving intimacy of a family, but also in our nieghbour-hoods or shared railway platforms during rush hour, and who therefore also live as being part of a ‘we’?
I think it’s both. We are individuals but we live together. We have freedom and the right to use it, but always with others in mind. (There is the well-known cry of having freedom of speech in this country but at the same time being forbidden to cry ‘Fire!’ in a crowded place when there isn’t one.
As Christians we believe that God gave us our freedom and that He wants us to use it – especially to discover what He has done and what He plans for us, and to say yes to it and live accordingly.
There are always results that come from how we have chosen and in the case of God, our choice of Him will mean life for ever. It will also mean much greater freedom because we will find ourselves released from all the forces of modern life, the things that try to persuade us that such and such matters more than it actually does, and that we can live as fully free human beings.
As we do this, we also recognise that we are on a journey through this world, a journey on which we grow, go forward and sometimes fall back, and we also recognise that others are on their own road too. Although we believe the one Saviour of the world is Jesus Christ, and that Father, Son and Holy Spirit alone are God, nevertheless we respect others in their personal quest and certainly don’t try and shoot them down or belittle them.
As we discover our freedom as children of God we also take things inside of ourselves, so that although, for example, we have the 10 Commandments, we don’t keep looking them up in the catechism, they are rather within us and we keep them because it is the natural and obvious thing to do.
This is the home of our consciences. Conscience is king, our secret core and a most precious sanctuary. We form it and allow God to speak to us through it. This is the inner freedom spoken of a few sentences ago, and it is not only a release but it also an exhilaration for us.
It’s much easier to love our neighbour in this atmosphere. It is natural to want to forgive others as we ask God for his forgiveness of our own faults and sins; it is easy to treat others as we would want to be treated, to wish them well and to rejoice when they succeed in anything, really to feel we are all part of the one family, the Head of which is God Himself.
Part of our family are the saints in heaven, and it is good to discover about them and find company with them. Different people are drawn to different saints – Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero, Therese de Lisieux, John Bosco, etc. It is wonderful not only to draw some inspiration from them but also to know that as St Paul wrote somewhere, we are all meant to be winners in this race, all meant to stand on the winners’ podium whether or not we squirt champagne all over each other.
So what do we believe?
33 (if we are to be the salt of the earth and light of the world)
Faith on its own is cold and even dead; but with charity, it come to life and grows. We want it to grow and too to dicover better and better ways to love, that is, to love God personally, and to love each other, in a hands-on way.
The virtues come in here for us to use. Virtues can be taken as qualities and ways of behaving which show good moral standards.
There may be any number of virtues and the Church wouldn’t hold back from accepting as many as we can find, but the chief ones for us are prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, from which so many of the others flow, and with them faith, hope and charity, which are gifts of God to us.
A good thing here, though, is the question of whether we can ever be tied down by a definition. Can we put any of them in a box and say ‘that’s it? That’s all we need?’
Look at hope, for example. The dictionary says it is a feeling of expectation and desire. That sounds OK, but aren’t there also questions we need to ask about hope?
What about hope as the desire things will work out? ‘I hope he gets better soon.’
I believe that some general belief (God loves us) applies to me in my particular possibly even embarrassing situation, and it is more than a vague and general thing?
An optimistic view of life – hanging on, looking forward to tomorrow, ‘I hope things will get better’.
I believe that things will become clear – it is a good God in whom I believe, and answers to the big questions I have will be forthcoming in God’s good time, even the other side of the grave.
my desire is that Arsenal win the match next Saturday. I hope so.
I hope because however strange the words, I believe in the person who is saying them. He says,
‘Ask and you shall receive…’, and because of who He is, never mind the apparent delay in my prayer being answered, I have faith and hope that it will be heard
that there is a better and more lasting world than this one, even though I have never seen it, and that this eternal and happy world is for me as well as for everyone else.
I don’t forget ‘hope’ also includes me doing things and not just waiting for them to happen. ‘I hope my action will sort things.’
One could go on and on finding further meaning in such a rich word
Faith is another word to explore. Youcat (The Youth Catechism) calls it the power by which we assent to God, acknowledge his truth and commit ourselves personally to Him. But is this enough?
How about faith is the ability to say to God Himself in our hearts, ‘You, God, I believe in You, and thank you for the grace by which I can be your child, and also know you personally’? That sort of faith lets us say ‘Our Father, who art in heaven,…’ and realise that we are speaking direct to God, and also something of what it means to use the second word of this prayer, ‘Father’, to God Himself.
Charity, in the Church sense of the word, means love of God along with love of neighbour. It doesn’t just point to the nearest collecting box for however good a cause. Charity is the most difficult to tie down because it just ripples outwards – as we come to know God and we come to know and appreciate everything around us, as it were, through his eyes.
Alongside faith, hope and charity, there are the four ‘hinge’ virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
Prudence discovers what is essential and what non-essential. This is an ongoing discovery through life as priorities change for us. It also looks ahead to our own futures both in this life and the next. We don’t become obsessive about things, but we realise that there are many days beyond just today, and we should live sensibly so as to enjoy them too.
Justice is a form of charity because it recognises that what is due to ourselves is also due to others, and also that certain things are due to God, not as a favour from us but because of who we are and because of who He is. If you think about it, its opposite is selfishness – just me and no one else; or pure individualism – just me etc. Life couldn’t go on without justice, especially as it is part of being human to live with each other.
Fortitude is a good virtue. It refers to strength of character, having certain principles to live by, having courage when it is needed to stand up for what matters, and being ready to pay a price for our beliefs when we really have to.
Temperance, or moderation, is keeping a balance. Sometimes the law makes us do so, like stopping us driving under the influence, sometimes forgetting that what we want is only permissible if others are agreeable (though fortitude might also step in here to hold us back), even recognising that if someone’s loud and non-stop voice irritates me almost to madness, I had better not allow myself to do the same thing to others.
It’s fair to say these virtues, and the many which flow from them, help bring us nearer to God and also to each other.