The Seven Sacraments and the Dwelling of Christ Within Us
Jesus made a big promise immediately after giving the apostles the Great Commission: “Go out to all the nations and baptize… and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20) This ending of Matthew’s gospel repeats at the end of the Bible as well. In the new heaven and the new earth, St. John hears a loud voice proclaiming: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3).
God drawing close to us has a tender feeling to it. We usually affix a sense of tenderness to the New Testament, but this sentiment actually appears often in the Old Testament. Starting with Abraham (Gen 17:1-8) and Moses (Ex 6:7, Lev 26:11-12), God began the revelation of a special kind of communion with the human race that He progressively revealed over the centuries. Those covenants had the people of Israel belonging to the Lord, and He, in turn, being their God. To Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the promise progressed from kinship to the level of their inmost being. Jeremiah related that the Lord would write His law “upon their hearts” (31:33). God expanded to Ezekiel: “a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (31:26-28). The Lord didn’t say exactly how He would accomplish this dwelling in our hearts. It wasn’t until the Incarnation of Jesus that the Old Testament promises were fulfilled.
Sanctifying and Actual Grace
To achieve a greater, indwelling presence in the hearts of humanity, Jesus needed to rejuvenate the fractured relationship between men and God. He paved the way to heaven by laying down His life on our behalf. And, Jesus not only paid the price for our sin: He opened up new channels of grace to us, to enable us to share in the very life of the Holy Trinity. First, the sanctifying grace that we get through the seven sacraments enables “the soul to live with God, to act by His love.” The second channel is through actual grace, which “gives us the help to conform our lives to His will” (CCC Glossary, pg. 881). In this twofold gift of grace, God gives us the capacity to live with Him (sanctifying) and the daily help to put that into action (actual).
Knowing what we need and our weakness, God provided many means of receiving sanctifying and actual grace. I think it’s one of the great comforts of Catholicism: yes, Jesus asked us to be perfect as the Father is (see Matt 5:8), but the assistance of grace is readily available.
The Seven Sacraments
Every sacrament was instituted by Jesus and given to the Church. They’re meant to draw us to Christ and invite Christ deeper into our hearts. All sacraments use signs, but they aren’t mere symbolism. The waters of baptism, for example, are a sign of cleansing from sin and do in fact cleanse us from sin. In this way, divine life is dispensed to us thanks to the Holy Spirit. Now, a brief list of the sacraments:
Baptism: through water and anointing, a person becomes a new creation and part of the Mystical Body of Christ. It happens just once in a Catholic’s life.
Confirmation: the sealing with the Holy Spirit, completing baptism. This also happens just once.
Eucharist: the Real Presence of Jesus under the forms of bread and wine, which happens at Mass. This can be received every day!
Confession/Reconciliation/Penance: wherein we confess our sins to a priest, who hears them and forgives them in the person of Christ. That is, our priest doesn’t forgive us by his own power; it is Christ who forgives us. We can receive this as often as we need.
Anointing of the Sick: for those dealing with a serious medical issue, and also for those who are close to death. This isn’t just for the latter, although that was common practice in recent memory (“last rites”). This can be received more than once.
Matrimony: a man and a woman are united into one flesh. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s received once.
Holy Orders: the ordination of clergy. Laymen can be ordained deacons and/or priests.
For more extensive descriptions, check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Eucharist and Confession
I’d like to focus on the two sacraments Catholics receive most frequently: the Eucharist and confession.
Going back to the Great Commission, remember that Jesus promised to be with us always. In the Eucharist, He makes good on that promise! In addition to being with us on a spiritual, non-corporeal level, Jesus is really, truly, physically present in every tabernacle in the world. Nearly all urban parishes offer daily Mass and weekly confession–a living out of Jesus’ own words, “come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). St. John Bosco repeatedly exhorted his students of the importance of the Eucharist in their spiritual lives. “Listen: there are two things the devil is deadly afraid of: fervent Communions and frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament” (Forty Dreams of St. John Bosco, pg. 126). Bogged down by sin in your life? Having difficulty living out your daily spiritual life? Head to daily Mass or to an adoration to commune with Jesus the way, the truth, and the life (cf. John 14:6).
I love looking at the sacraments in light of salvation history, especially the Eucharist. Jesus the Lamb of God (cf. John 1:29) shed His blood to deliver us from slavery to sin, just as the Passover lamb’s blood was shed for the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. And just as the Hebrews had to eat the Passover lamb to complete the sacrifice (cf. Ex 12), we too consume the Lamb and participate in the sacrifice. Take a listen to the conversion story of Mother Miriam of the Lamb of God for a deeper appreciation of this. Also, Jesus’ death on Calvary is a ray of eternity shining in human history that is re-presented to us at every Mass. The implications are amazing: we, in our time, are drawn into this moment... but so is the past and future, along with heaven and earth. We’re united with all those that have worshipped before us and all that will come after us. The preface that precedes the “Holy, Holy, Holy” concludes with the assembly joining their voices to those of the angels and the saints. We’re singing and worshipping with everyone in heaven: our departed family and friends, the saints we admire, the saints we’ve never heard of, our guardian angel, Our Blessed Mother, all the choirs of angels, our ancestors, and even our future children and grandchildren.
If the Eucharist is medicine for the soul, the sacrament of confession is a visit to the Divine Physician. Although God promised to dwell with us, we’re not always so great at dwelling with God. For me, confession has been an incredible source of healing ever since high school. I remember the first time I had to confess something that was a great source of shame. I dreaded the confessional. Once it was over, the amount of fear I had paled in comparison to the amount of grace I felt afterward. Jesus related to St. Faustina a message for anyone like me who dreaded the sacrament: “your heart is My constant dwelling place, despite the misery that you are. I unite Myself with you, take away your misery and give you My mercy... the greater the sinner, the greater right he has to my mercy” (Diary of St. Faustina, #723).
Having been given a gift so precious as grace, we need to receive it properly. It’s a common mistake to think that God will meet us where we’re at, and that no further effort is required of us. Really, if God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8) and if true love is self sacrificing in nature, we must put ourselves in that sacrificial mode to fully receive the sacraments. God always has the capacity to break through whatever obstacle that’s between us and Him, but our preparation is vital. The more we invest ourselves, the more we’ll be open to the grace of the sacraments. Let’s return to the two most frequented sacraments, confession and the Eucharist.
In preparation for confession, we need a good examination of conscience and adequate time for self-reflection. If there’s a recurring sin, we should confess it; however, confession shouldn’t be reduced to the “greatest hits.” Having a spiritual director or a regular confessor helps considerably. I’ve had the privilege to know many priests on a personal level; going to confession to my good friends deepens the effect of the sacrament on me. I’d encourage the practice of having a regular confessor—he gets to know you and you get to know him. The more the doctor knows the patient, the better he’s able to give the best medicine.
Confession is a wonderful healing sacrament, but more than our heart needs to be involved. We have to develop at least a basic knowledge of the difference between mortal and venial sin (cf. 1 John 5:16-17). To receive the Eucharist worthily, our hearts need to be free from mortal sin: “whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). These words are only harsh because of the sacred character of the Eucharist—if it was not the Real Presence of Jesus, would St. Paul have been so forceful? As before, God doesn’t set unreachable expectations for us. Anytime we fall, Jesus’ sanctifying grace is there to pick us back up.
Regular confession is one of the best ways to prepare to receive the Eucharist. Other ways involve extending the celebration of Mass past Sunday. Understanding what goes on at Mass is key for entering into the mystery: learning the meaning of the assembly’s responses rather than parroting them, how the Eucharistic prayer is structured, and in general, why we do what we do. Catholics should orient their spiritual devotions throughout the week toward preparing for Sunday Mass. Reading the scripture readings ahead of time (daily readings here on the USCCB website), listening to homily podcasts (Fr. Robert Barron is one of my favorites), or studying the scriptures (great studies from Scott Hahn & friends here) are small things that anyone can do.
Despite humanity straying from Him, God ultimately succeeded in His plan to draw us back to Him. Although we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation once a year, it forms the foundation of all the sacraments. They are the answer to God’s promise to be with us, to write His law on our hearts, and to give us new hearts. That our Creator would choose to dwell with us and in us is a great mystery, and it seems foolish on His part. The outpouring of grace is similarly foolish, since He gives an infinite gift to imperfect men. All this because of love! All this, because God so loved the world that He made His dwelling among us. God created us out of love; in the inner sanctum of our hearts, He constantly calls us to Himself. Out of love, Jesus died for our sake and founded the Church to deliver us to our final goal, Love Itself.