St. Paul on the Role of the Sacraments
Weekly General Audience, Dec. 10, 2008
BY The Editors
January 4-10, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/12/09 at 3:11 PM
Dear brothers and sisters,
When we were examining St. Paul during our catechesis [Dec. 3], we observed two things. First of all, the abuse of freedom, which aims to separate man from God’s will, corrupted human history from the very beginning. Thus, man does not find true freedom but stands in opposition to the truth and, as a result of this, human reality is distorted.
Above all, basic relationships are distorted — our relationship with God and the relationship between men and women and between man and the earth. We said that this corruption has spread throughout the entire fabric of history and that this inherited defect continues to grow and is now visible everywhere.
Secondly, St. Paul teaches us that through Jesus Christ, who is God and man, a new beginning exists within history and for history. Through Jesus, who was sent by God, a new page in history begins, based on his Yes to the Father — on love and truth — and not on the arrogance of some false freedom.
New Birth and New Freedom
The question now is: How can we enter into this new beginning and into this new page in history? How is this new history passed down to me?
Because of that first corrupted history, we are inevitably linked together by our biological roots, since we all belong to that unique body that is mankind.
However, how does communion with Jesus, that new birth that enables us to enter into and become part of the new mankind, take place? How does Jesus come into my life and into my being?
St. Paul’s fundamental response — and the response of the entire New Testament — is this: It happens through the work of the Holy Spirit. If that first history has its roots, so to speak, in biology, our second history is rooted in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ.
At Pentecost, this Spirit created the beginning of a new mankind and of a new community, the Church that is the body of Christ.
Yet, we need to be even more concrete. How can this Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, become my Spirit?
This happens in three ways that are intimately connected to each other.
First, the Spirit of Christ knocks at the door of my heart and touches my inner being. However, in order for this new mankind to truly be a body, and in order for the Spirit to unite us and truly create a community, and since a characteristic of this new beginning is overcoming divisions and bringing together those who are separated from each other, the Spirit of Christ uses two elements of visible unity: the word that is proclaimed and the sacraments, particularly baptism and the Eucharist.
The Sacrament of Baptism
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9); that is, you will enter into a new history — one of life and not death.
St. Paul then goes on to say: “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15).
In another text, he also says, “Faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17). Faith is not a product of our imagination or of our reflection. Moreover, it is not something we can invent. It is something that we can only receive as a gift — something new that God has made.
Faith does not come from reading but from hearing. It is not something that is merely interior, but a relationship with someone. It is based on an encounter with its proclamation; it is based on the existence of the other, who proclaims and who creates communion.
Finally, the one who is proclaiming does not speak in his own name.
He has been sent. He has entered into a mission structure that began with Jesus, who was sent by the Father and that was handed down to the apostles — the word “apostle” means “one who is sent” — and he now continues in this ministry that was handed down by the apostles.
The new fabric of history appears within this mission structure, where we ultimately hear God himself speaking — his own Word, the Son, speaking with us and coming down to us. The Word became flesh in Jesus to create mankind anew.
For this reason, the word of proclamation becomes a sacrament in baptism, which is a rebirth through water and through the Spirit, as St. John says.
In Chapter 6 of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks in a very profound way about baptism. We have heard this text, but perhaps it is worthwhile to repeat it. “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
Of course, I cannot go into a detailed interpretation of this rather difficult text. But I would like to briefly note three points.
First, the verb in the phrase “we who were baptized” is passive. No one can baptize himself; he needs somebody else.
No one can become a Christian all by himself. Becoming a Christian is a passive process. We become Christians only through others. Those “others” who make us Christians, who give us the gift of faith, are primarily the community of believers, the Church. We receive our faith, our baptism, from the Church. We do not become Christians if we do not allow ourselves to be formed by that community.
An autonomous, self-made Christianity is a contradiction in itself. These others are the community of believers, the Church, but this community does not act on its own power according to its own ideas and desires. The community itself lives in this passive process. Only Christ can constitute the Church.
Christ is truly the one who gives us the sacraments. This is the first point. No one baptizes himself; no one makes himself a Christian. We become Christians.
Secondly, baptism is more than just a cleansing. It is both death and resurrection.
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul himself describes the turning point in his life as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ with the words, “I died.” At that point, a new life truly began for him.
Becoming a Christian is more than cosmetic surgery that adds an element of beauty to a life that is already more or less complete. It is a new beginning and a rebirth. It is death and resurrection. Obviously, everything that was good in the preceding life reemerges in this resurrection.
Thirdly, matter is part and parcel of a sacrament. Christianity is not merely a spiritual reality. It involves the body. It involves the cosmos. It extends to the new earth and new heavens.
Let us go back to St. Paul’s last words in that passage. He tells us that we can “live in the newness of life.” This is one element of an examination of conscience for all of us: living in the newness of life. So much for baptism!
We now come to the sacrament of the Eucharist. I have shown in other catecheses the deep respect with which St. Paul verbally transmits the tradition regarding the Eucharist, which he received from those who were witnesses of that last night. He passed on these words like a precious treasure that has been entrusted to his faithfulness.
Therefore, we really hear in these words testimonies from that last night: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
This text is inexhaustible. Once again, allow me to make two short observations in this catechesis. Paul transmits Our Lord’s words over the chalice in this way: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”
References to two fundamental texts of the Old Testament are hidden in these words. The first reference is to the promise of a new covenant in the book of the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Jesus tells the apostles — and tells us — the following: Now, at this hour, through me and through my death, the new covenant is being fulfilled. By my blood this new history of mankind will begin in this world.
However, there is a reference in these words to the covenant on Sinai, where Moses said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his” (Exodus 24:8).
In this case, it was the blood of animals. The blood of animals could only be the expression of a desire that awaits the true sacrifice and the true worship. With the gift of the chalice, the Lord gives us the true sacrifice.
The only true sacrifice is the love of the Son. With his gift of this love — eternal love — the world enters into the new covenant. Celebrating the Eucharist means that Christ gives himself to us, his love, so we may be conformed to him, thereby creating a new world.
The second important aspect of the teaching on the Eucharist also appears in the First Letter to the Corinthians, where St. Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
The personal as well as the social character of the sacrament of the Eucharist appears in these words. Christ unites himself personally with each one of us, but he also unites himself with the men and women around me.
The bread is both for me and for others. Thus, Christ unites us all with himself and all of us with each other. We receive Christ in Communion. Yet, Christ unites himself at the same time with my neighbor: Christ and my neighbor are inseparable in the Eucharist.
In this way, we are all one bread, and we are all one body. A Eucharist without solidarity with others is a Eucharist abused. Here we are at the root and, at the same time, the center of the teaching on the Church as the body of Christ, of the risen Christ.
We can also see the realism of this doctrine. Christ gives us his body in the Eucharist. He gives himself in his body, and thereby, makes us his body. He unites us to his risen body.
If man eats ordinary bread, the bread becomes part of his body through digestion, having been transformed into sustenance for human life. However, in holy Communion, the reverse happens. Christ, the Lord, assimilates us to himself and makes us part of his glorious body so that all of us together become his body.
A person reading only Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians and Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans might think that the words on the body of Christ as a living organism of charisms is only some kind of sociological and theological parable.
Actually, within the political system of Rome, this symbol of the body with different members that form an entity was used by the state itself in order to say that the state is an organism in which everyone has his role and that the multiplicity and diversity of these roles make up a body in which everyone has his place.
By only reading Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, a person might think that Paul was merely transferring this symbol to the Church and that here, too, he was only speaking about a sociology of the Church.
But if we keep Chapter 10 in mind, we see that the realism of the Church is much more profound and authentic than that of a nation-state as an organism because Christ truly gives us his body and makes us his body.
We become truly united with Christ’s risen body, and thereby, we are united with one another. The Church is not merely a corporation like a state. It is a body. It is not an organization but truly a living organism.
The Sacrament of Matrimony
Finally, let us speak briefly about the sacrament of matrimony. There are only a few references to it in the Letter to the Corinthians, whereas the Letter to the Ephesians truly develops a profound theology of matrimony. Here, Paul describes matrimony as “a great mystery.” He speaks in reference to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).
A reciprocity that is described in a vertical dimension is highlighted in this passage. Mutual submission should adopt a language of love that has the love of Christ for the Church as its model. This relationship between Christ and the Church makes the theological aspect of married love primary. It exalts the affective relationship between spouses.
People will enjoy a rewarding experience of true marriage if they always remain united to the effectiveness of the word and to the significance of baptism in their ongoing human and affective development. Christ has sanctified the Church, purifying it through a washing with water accompanied by the word.
Participating in the body and blood of the Lord consolidates this union and makes it visible — a union that grace then makes indissoluble.
Finally, let us heed St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5). It seems to me that we have understood — through the word and through the sacraments — that the Lord is near throughout our entire life.
Let us pray that this nearness may always touch us in the depths of our being, thereby giving birth to the joy that is generated when Jesus is truly near.
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