The Ultimate Sacrament
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
5. God who "wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4), "who in many and various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets" (Heb. 1:1), when the fullness of time had come sent His Son, the Word made flesh, anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart , to be a "bodily and spiritual medicine" , the Mediator between God and man . For His humanity, united with the person of the Word, was the instrument of our salvation. Therefore in Christ "the perfect achievement of our reconciliation came forth, and the fullness of divine worship was given to us" .
The wonderful works of God among the people of the Old Testament were but a prelude to the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God. He achieved His task principally by the paschal mystery of His blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and the glorious ascension, whereby "dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life" . For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth "the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church" .
I am not treating Paragraph 4, in which the Council invites the other Catholic rites to follow the example of the Latin Roman rite in the renewal of the sacred liturgy. I am progressing to para. 5, which is the first of the “general principles” of sacramental life. Fittingly enough, the Council returns to the essence of Christianity, that God became man to redeem and glorify human life through the presence of the man we have come to know as Jesus of Nazareth. The text embodies the two pillars of belief, the Incarnation (God became man) and the Redemption (God redeemed man).
I am struck by the fact that the Church, in its first contemporary steps to liturgical/sacramental reform, is following the same course as theologians of the other Church disciplines, notably the moralists. It is no accident that moral theology was thrust into a new trajectory by Bernard Haring’s The Law of Christ in 1954. In his autobiography written the year of his death (1998) Father Haring observes that “Christocentrism is a key concern in all my efforts in reforming moral theology.” (p. 75) Vatican II, in nearly all its ventures, reflects an awakening to the centrality of the Bible and the Christ who is revealed there, hence the rich Biblical documentation of our text at hand.
Since many Café readers were not around for Vatican II, it is a very fair question to ask why the Jesus of the Bible was missing, so to speak, in the Church’s worship prior to Vatican II. In fairness, Vatican II was not resuscitating a corpse when it set about the work of sacramental renewal. Sacraments were celebrated with devotion in many cases, and Church doctrine assured their effectiveness. Perhaps a good way to describe a typical 1950’s Catholic reaction to sacraments—my own, in fact—is “verbal assurance.” With confession, for example, I could count upon the fact that I had been absolved or forgiven of a sin in the eyes of God. I was taught this by my parents, the religious of my school, my priests, and my Baltimore Catechism. The ultimate guarantor of the process was an infallible Church founded by Christ who is known to us historically in the four Gospels.
In fact, this was the operational ecclesiology of the Church in all matters of faith and morals, including sacraments. The bedrock text of Church apologetics was Jesus’ empowerment of Peter (Matthew 16:18) and his assurance that he would be with the Church for all time. (Matthew 28:20) The difficulty with this Biblical interpretation of Church structure is its dependence upon certain Scriptural texts at the expense of others. This is a classic case of “living by the sword and dying by the sword.” If the Gospels of Jesus Christ are indeed the root of who we are, then they must be taken in their totality, with the full intent of the divinely-inspired authors. Para. 5 is a good example of the Church’s theoretical and pastoral shift of emphasis in understanding Jesus, away from an “ultimate authority” and toward the cosmic event of God, fulfillment of the past and promise of the future.
In terms of sacraments, Vatican II establishes the root of their existence in God’s becoming flesh. Our text at hand cites numerous New Testament texts that provide an overview of the meaning, history, and consequences of God becoming flesh in the human Jesus. Footnote 13, from the Tridentine Holy Saturday rite prior to the Council, is a reminder that the ultimate sacrament is the Church itself. When the world beholds the Church, or any portion of it including its individual members, ideally it beholds the Christ, acting in the manner spelled out above, i.e. bringing good news to the poor, reconciling, bearing witness to God’s love by the laying down of its own life. There is something utopian about all this, which is precisely why, in the economy of God’s plan, there is a Church acting collectively to bring specificity to this love, as Jesus gave specificity to his Father’s love by his words, deeds, and sacrifice on the cross.
Jesus works among us in ways we cannot imagine, but as a church we gather to fixate upon seven concrete realities of his life among us—that he empowers us with the Holy Spirit, for example, or feeds us the bread of eternal life. The Vatican II reforms were intended to renew and restore these worship events in a fashion that their signs and symbols would enhance the possibility of understanding and partaking, not hinder them. To hear the proclamation of the Word of God in one’s own tongue is a very good example. Next week the Council turns its attention to the “what happens” in sacramental experience.
Given the content of Paragraph 5, I would be remiss if I did not note this weekend’s Feast of Christ the King. This feast marks the end of the Church year, but more importantly, it embodies the omega point of the Christ event, the fullness of his glory. It has been a staple of catechetics that with Christ’s second coming in glory, the need for sacraments shall cease, which gives us pause as to the value of what we now celebrate symbolically in Eucharist and the sacramental rites.
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