Sunday, August 1, 2021

Learning Christ through the sacraments

In my last post on today's Gospel, I mentioned in passing the close connection between the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. I thought I would offer a further word or two about that vital connection. It is important to start with the fact that it is difficult to exaggerate the centrality of the sacraments for Catholic faith and life.

In our New Testament reading for this Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B of the Sunday lectionary, we hear the Christians of ancient Ephesus being reminded that Christ came to liberate them from the futility of their minds. As I grasp it, this is something along the lines of these lyrics written by Bob Marley: "liberate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds." In strictly Christian terms, it is Christ who liberates our minds by the power of the Holy Spirit. This reminder, at least in English, takes the form of the phrase, "that is not how you learned Christ."

How do you learn Christ? Well, being mainly mystagogical, Christians learn faith by participating in the Church's liturgy. As the suffix -urgy indicates, we learn by doing not merely by being told. -Urgy comes from the Greek word meaning "work" or, perhaps more appropriate to this context, "to do." This is why active participation in the liturgy is vitally important. Christian liturgy was never intended to be a spectacle most Christian just passively observe.

Active participation in the liturgy is an act of faith. It is how you do the work of God, which is believing in the One he sent, Jesus Christ. By your participation, you acknowledge the Lord's real presence in and through the celebration. Hopefully, this allows you experience his presence in various ways.

The phrase "the Church's liturgy" refers to all her formal acts of worship, especially the sacraments. Every sacrament is administered by means of a liturgy. This includes the sacrament of penance. Being the liturgy of liturgies, at the center of the Church's worship is the Eucharistic Liturgy, or the Mass.

I understand how impersonal just going to Mass can sometimes seem, especially in parishes where community lacks. But the sacrament of penance is supremely personal. When celebrated in its usual form (one-on-one with the priest), going to confession is intensely personal. Given what happens in the sacrament, it may be the most personal thing in the world, at least for those who conscientiously participate in it. Like all the sacraments, going to confession is an encounter with Christ and an opportunity to experience Divine Mercy for yourself.

Picking up (again) the words we all say together before receiving communion, words that echo those uttered by a Roman centurion in Saint Matthew's Gospel who sought healing for his much-loved servant from Jesus, "Lord I am not worthy...only say the word and my soul shall be healed," it is in the sacrament of penance, often appropriately called "reconciliation," that we personally receive Jesus's healing word. The healing word of Jesus gives us pardon and peace. It also frees us to receive the Bread of Life.

It is customary for many Catholics to cross themselves when the priest says the prayer of absolution at the end of the penitential rite that occurs at the beginning of Mass. The main reason this is not called for in the rubrics is that it is not a major or sacramental pardon. The major pardon, the healing word, as it were, is sacramentally given and received in the sacrament of penance.

When situated properly, the confessional(s) in a church is somewhere between the baptismal font, which should be at the main entrance, and the altar. Being something of an extension of baptism, penance connects the font to the altar. Another way to think about it is that the confessional is an aid station on our journey from the font to the altar, giving us the succor we need to live according to our baptism.

As I mentioned in my last post, Jesus always says the healing word if we, like Matthew's centurion, will but ask. The Lord died and rose to say God's healing word to you. Keep in mind that you are never worthy to receive holy communion on your own merits, no one is!

Today my pastor used Preface VII of the Sundays in Ordinary Time. The heart of this preface makes the point beautifully:
For you [God] so loved the world
that in your mercy you sent us the Redeemer,
to live like us in all things but sin,
so that you might love in us what you loved in your Son,
by whose obedience we have been restored to those gifts of yours
that, by sinning, we had lost in disobedience (emboldening and italicization mine)
It is Jesus's obedience, not your own, that makes you worthy, as Eucharistic Prayer II states it, "to be in [God's] presence and minister to [him]." Never forget, what you receive is nothing other than Christ himself under the signs (yes, signs) of bread and wine.

What work needed doing, Jesus accomplished on the cross. The word "liturgy" is of Greek origin. It refers both to work done on behalf of the public and work engaged in by the public. By your active participation in the Church's liturgy, you participate in the work Christ did on your behalf, a work you are called to extend by living the new life you received in baptism, which includes making recourse as often as necessary to the sacrament of penance. This is how you learn Christ.


  1. Another good post. Thanx.

    Can a Catholic Deacon hear Confession? I have been told by an American Deacon, (I am in the UK), that he can hear confession but only if a person is dying (e.g. in hospital). If the person recovers, that confession does not count and he has to confess again to a priest. I find this confusing. I've not checked the situation in the UK.

    God bless.

  2. Deacons can hear confessions, as can anyone (see the Letter of James 5:16). Like many deacons, people confess things to me on occasion. Deacons are not able to give sacramental absolution, even in cases of death. Because it contains an absolution is the reason the Holy See ruled several years that deacons cannot sacramentally anoint the sick. This is true throughout the Catholic Church universally. It is not specific to countries or regions.


The Christian word for service is "diakonia"

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