Here is the ninth in the series of sermons on the Mass, preached by Fr Nicholas Edmonds-Smith on Sunday 30th October:
For most of us, the sacraments are our primary encounters with the Church, and the primary expression of our Catholic Faith – or rather, those two sacraments – the Holy Eucharist and Confession which we celebrate with varying frequency. The other 5 are more occasional: most of us will have been baptised and confirmed but a long time ago. Some of us are married. Some of us are priests or deacons. Perhaps we have been very ill, or in hospital, and have received the sacrament of the Sick. But Mass and Confession are the two that almost define us as Catholics – they are what Catholic "do".
Yet it is also true that we tend to think of the sacraments as something peripheral to our faith – peripheral not in importance, and certainly not in practice – but peripheral in that they are "add-ons", extras to one degree or another. Just look at a catechism or an instruction course – you have all the meaty theology, all the essentials of Christian faith first. Creation, Incarnation, Redemption; the Bible,the Trinity, Our Lord, Our Lady and the saints, the Church. And then you have a chapter on the sacraments. In a sense, the sacraments are separate from what we might regard as the fundamental doctrines of Christianity – which might be why there have always been Christians who have thought it possible to jettison one or more of the sacraments, or change their nature, or abolish the sacramental system altogether, and yet still be orthodox Christian believers.
The sacraments are certainly not mere additions to a system of belief. Rather, the concept of a sacrament, of sacramentality, is absolutely necessary for making sense of most of our doctrines. It is all pervasive. It is a common thread running throughout Christian teaching. For a sacrament is something that reveals and makes present.
Consider Our Lord himself – Christ, through his life and death, through his teaching and miracles, through his very person, reveals God to us. He tells us something about God. He tells us everything about God we’ll ever need to know. But he does more than just reveal Almighty God to us. Christ is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, he is God the Son himself made flesh. He brings God to us. Christ, in his humanity, reveals God and makes him present. As he himself says, "To have seen me, is to have seen the Father". And as St Paul tells us, He is "the image of the invisible God".
This is the most fundamental doctrine we have: that God became man. And he became Man so that we might know him, that we might love him and serve him. That we might enter into a relationship with him, through faith and through his death and resurrection, both now and into eternity. Christ is, in a sense, the outward sign of an inward grace, an inward spiritual reality – the love of God for mankind – who actually is himself that love. He is a sacrament. He reveals and makes present.
Or look at the Church. We believe that the Church – those billions of believers, united with their shepherds, those alive today, those in heaven, and those awaiting the end of their purification in purgatory – this mystical body is the Body of Christ. It not only teaches us about God and Christ, and rules and guides us with his authority; it is actually the living presence of Christ on earth. It is his Body. It both reveals him to the world, and makes him present. It is His Sacrament. It is the outward material expression of that Spirit of the Risen Lord who binds those who believe to each other and to himself, that we might be caught up into the life of the Trinity, the mystery of the love of the God we cannot see.
And finally, look at the seven sacraments: those outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification. It is in these seven moments that the Church most perfectly realises her nature as the Body of Christ. In these seven celebrations, something about God is revealed to us, we are told something of what God is doing, of how he loves us, of what he wants for us. But more than that, God is himself made present. Grace is actually given. They do what they say they do. So that in baptism we are told about the love of God which recreates us in the image of his Risen Son – and then we are recreated. In the sacrament of Penance, God is revealed as a Shepherd who searches out the lost sheep; a loving Father always ready to embrace and forgive us – and we are in that moment embraced and forgiven. Or in the Holy Eucharist, we see that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, who gave up his life on the cross for our redemption – and then we are given that life through Christ's actual body and blood, made present through the action of the Holy Spirit in the elements of bread and wine. It is in this Blessed Sacrament that Christ is most perfectly revealed and most really made present. And this so that we might share his life and the salvation he won for us, that we might have grace in our souls and the love of God in our hearts.
Through our participation in the sacraments, above all in the Mass, we encounter Our Lord, and his power working in us. We celebrate our redemption and our union with the Father, and we are given all the graces and blessings, all the spiritual gifts and power we need to live as sons and daughters of God.
But the sacraments are not to stop there. They do not reveal Christ and make him present for ourselves alone. They are meaningless if they do not empower us to go out and reveal him to the world. And not only reveal him, but actually make him present. Because where we gather, he is present. When we act, it is he who acts in us and through us. The sacraments make us into sacraments – the Body of Christ makes us the body of Christ, that we might share him others, that we might show the Love of God and be that Love. The Church most fully IS the body of Christ when we share the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In the sacraments, and especially in the Blessed Sacrament, we become, as the Church, what we are called to be – the visible, material, bodily revelation of Christ in the world. An outward sign to others of an inward grace.