Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah."

In Matthew chapter sixteen, the Pharisees and the Sadducees ask Jesus for a sign, just as Satan did in the desert in chapter four, because they want to "confirm Jesus's status without a sign requiring their lives to be changed" (Matthew 147). This reminds me of exchanges that, especially in this age of communication, occur among Catholics and between Catholics and non-Catholics, be they Christians or not, about sacramental signs.

I was made privy to a conversation recently in which one, no doubt well-meaning, participant was trying to argue for something the Church has always rejected, namely, that with the words of consecration the bread and wine undergo a physical change. The level at which this change occurs, according to this person, is the molecular level. Such an empirical claim can certainly be verified by subjecting consecrated hosts and wine to scientific analysis. Indeed, such an analysis would not constitute sacrilege if the Church actually made such an absurd claim. Sacraments are signs. As signs they do not merely point to what they signify, but effect it. In other words, sacraments are signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae, that is, a sacrosanct sign effecting grace. Hence, the only way to empirically verify that, say, the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of sacraments, is Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, soul, and divinity, is what fruit it bears in our lives, individually and collectively. To seek any other proof is to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, seeking to confirm Jesus' status without the necessity of changing our lives. Understanding this necessity constitutes faith, which is a form of knowledge, a way of experiencing reality, not an irrational leap into the void, though it does involve taking a risk that will cost us our lives as we follow Jesus to the Cross.

"We believe," writes Stanley Hauerwas, "that the truth of the gospel cannot be separated from the kind of lives required for the recognition of that truth" (Matthew 147). So, the belief in the real presence is not how we convince another of the truth about Jesus Christ, that he is "the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16,16). Rather, the Eucharist serves as a destination, but not a terminal destination. Jesus himself is our food for the journey to the Kingdom, giving us strength along our pilgrim path, accompanying us as our pillar of cloud and our pillar of fire (Exo. 13,21). Eucharist is not an end itself, it points us beyond, but our path is through this world. We are not saved despite our humanity, but through it. The Chalcedonian insight is that Jesus' humanity is his divinity, the two cannot be neatly separated out, just as we are our bodies, not souls trapped in bodies, which is a gnostic understanding that leads to disastrous conclusions about how to live.

Therefore, we must resist the temptation "to separate the truth of what we believe from the way we live" (Matthew 147-8). The Lord, as his rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees shows, "refuses to allow us to abstract our knowing from our living. The gospel is not information; it is a way of life" (Matthew 148). May this Holy Week serve to help us further incarnate what we know because, like Peter, it has been revealed to us, namely, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

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