Friday, May 27, 2016

The Eucharistic Faith of the Early Christians

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Every year on the Sunday following the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, the Church celebrates another solemnity, that of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, popularly called Corpus Christi (Latin for "Body of Christ").  Even though every Mass by its very nature is supremely Eucharistic, on this feast we pay special attention to the great gift of the Eucharist; that continuation in time of the Incarnation of Christ, God's gift of His very self to us so that we may become partakers of that Divine Triune nature that we celebrated last week.

The Second Vatican Council famously called the Eucharist "the source and summit of the Christian life" (LG 11).  In a very real way, the Church flows from the Eucharist and it's purpose is to make the Eucharist present.  The centrality of the Eucharist to the life of the Church is not some modern development of doctrine; nor is it some optional Catholic devotion that the faithful may take or leave.  It has been at the core of our faith from the very beginning of the Church.  In the weeks during the Easter season, you may recall the many gospel readings that relate how the disciples recognized the risen Lord "in the breaking of the bread."  From the earliest days of the Church, Christ has made Himself present in the Eucharistic meal.

We have only to look to the early Church Fathers to find testimony to this Eucharistic faith.  There is not a one who does not make mention of the Eucharist, so central it is to the life and mission of the Church.  Here are a few major examples.

St. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch after St. Peter left to establish the Church in Rome with St. Paul. It is said that Ignatius was taught the faith by St. John the evangelist.  He was martyred in 110 AD in Rome.  Before his martyrdom, he wrote letters to many Churches.  Those letters are some of the earliest post-New Testament Christian writings.
[Heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6).

St. Justin lived in the second century and was one of the first major apologists for the Christian faith against the pagan Roman empire.  His writings are some of the earliest we have that describe the ritual of the Mass.
There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at his hands... And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the one who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.  For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in the like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 65).

St. John Chrysostom lived during the fourth century and was the Archbishop of Constantinople.  He was known for his eloquent preaching (his name means "golden tongued") and his staunch defense of the faith.
He [St. Paul] called it a cup of blessing [1 Cor 10:16], because holding it in our hands, we so exalt Him in our hymn, wondering, astonished at His unspeakable gift, blessing Him, among other things, for the pouring it out, but also for the imparting thereof to us all.  'Wherefore if you desire blood,' says He, 'redden not the altar of idols with the slaughter of brute beasts, but My altar with My blood.' Tell me, what can be more tremendous than this? What more tenderly kind? (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24:1)
This [the Eucharist] is even that Body, the bloodstained, the pierced, and that out of which gushed the saving fountains, the one of blood, the other of water, for all the world... This Body has He given to us both to hold and to eat; a thing appropriate to intense love (Homilies on 1 Corinthians, 24:4). 

St. Augustine is one of the best known of the Church Fathers, living from 354 to 430 AD.  He was bishop of Hippo, a prolific writer, and stalwart defender of the faith against many heresies, including Pelagianism and Arianism.
You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily.  That Bread which you see on the altar, consecrated by the word of God, is the Body of Christ.  That chalice, or rather, what the chalice holds, consecrated by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ.  Through those accidents the Lord wished to entrust to us His Body and the Blood which He poured out for the remission of sins.  If you have received worthily, you are what you have received... (Sermons 227).

If you are like me, you will take comfort in knowing that our faith today is a participation in the same faith professed by these great saints.  Their words from the past still give expression to our continuing belief, the living faith of the Church in the saving power of Christ's life given freely for us, made present today in humble form of bread and wine.  The only response we can rightly offer to such a gift is one of humble thanksgiving, which is what the Church has always expressed in her word Eucharist - "to give thanks."

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Trinity: Lover, Beloved, and the Love between them.

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There is perhaps no doctrine as essential to the Christian religion than the Holy Trinity.  The belief in one God in three Persons makes Christianity unique in all the world. In the words of the Athanasian Creed:
Now the Catholic faith is that we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is One, the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
If you don't quite grasp that on first reading, don't feel bad.  The Trinity is, fundamentally, a mystery.  It is something beyond our reason, beyond our ability to comprehend.  The Trinity involves the very essence of God, and to comprehend that, you'd have to be greater than God Himself.

But just because it is a mystery does not mean we shouldn't spend time thinking about the Trinity. Rather it means we can spend our entire lives thinking about it and never come to the end of it.  This is, in fact, the Christian vocation -- to spend all eternity pondering the great mystery of the Holy Trinity.

During the first several centuries of the Church, nearly all of the great heresies were Trinitarian.  They all involved some error about how Christ or the Holy Spirit were related to God the Father.  Is Jesus really God?  Is the Holy Spirit really God?  In each case, the Church held fast to the faith in one God existing as three Persons.  These three Persons share all things in common -- even the very same being -- differing only in their relationship to one another.

This idea of God having relationship within His being makes the doctrine of the Trinity so vital to our lives as Christians.  We are made in the image of God, which means there is something Trinitarian about us, as well.  No, we don't exist as three persons in one being.  But we are made to be in relationship.  As John Donne said, "No man is an island."  This is why Christ commands us to love God and our neighbors (Mk 12:31), and why He teaches that we will be judged according to how we treat our neighbors (Mt 25:31-46).  We are made for community.  We are made for communion.

The human relationship par excellence is marriage.  This is why God's relationship to the Church is described in terms of a marriage (Eph 5:32).  And this is why the Church takes Christ's teachings about marriage so seriously.  In his recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia (the Joy of Love), Pope Francis writes:
Marriage is the icon of God's love for us.  Indeed, God is also communion: the three Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live eternally in perfect unity.  And this is precisely the mystery of marriage: God makes of the two spouses one single existence... This has concrete daily consequence, because the spouses... can make visible the love which Christ loves His Church and continues to give His life for her (AL 121).
Being made in the image of God means that we are made to be in relationship.  The fact that God has within Himself relationship, while being a mystery above our reason, nevertheless is compatible with reason. God, after all, is love (1 Jn 4:8).  And love requires both a lover and a beloved.  Love requires relationship.  You and I must look outside of ourselves for this; but God, perfect in every way, has this within His very being.  This is why instead of saying "God is loving," we say "God is love."  God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is both the Lover and Beloved and the Love between them.

When we Christians worship the Trinity, we are worshiping Love.  When we defend the doctrine of the Trinity, we defend Love.  When we meditate on the Trinity, we learn the ways of Love.  And insofar as we love, we become like God.  Because "the love of God has been poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Holy Spirit: Intimate & Mysterious

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Imagine the Holy Spirit.  It's hard to do, isn't it? The Third Person of the Holy Trinity defies our attempts to hold a picture of Him in our minds. With the Father and the Son it is relatively easy. Even though we know that God the Father really isn't a bearded old man sitting above the clouds, we know what "fatherhood" is.  We can relate to that image of God.  God the Son became Incarnate and dwelt among us. Images of Jesus abound in our faith  He is the perfect Image of God.

But what about the Holy Spirit?  How are we to envision Him?  As a dove?  A breath? Tongues of flame?  A mighty wind?  Even though they each tell us something true about the Spirit, none of these images seem "personal" to us.  It is no wonder so few of us "get" the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, like the wind, the flame, or a bird in flight, is elusive.  He cannot be confined by our imaginations.  You cannot cage the wind.

Yet the Holy Spirit is not entirely beyond our grasp.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies eight ways in which we can know the Holy Spirit (CCC 688):

  1. In Sacred Scriptures.
  2. In Sacred Tradition.
  3. In the Magisterium.
  4. In the liturgy & sacraments.
  5. In prayer.
  6. In the charisms and ministries of the Church.
  7. In apostolic and missionary life.
  8. In the witness of saints.
All of these ways to know the Spirit are found in the Catholic Church.  The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost has traditionally been considered the birthday of the Church.  Just as God gave life to Adam by breathing His Spirit into him (Gen 2:7), God gives life to the Church with the breath of His Spirit. The Church is the Body of Christ, and just as our bodies have souls, the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church.

Ironically, even though the Holy Spirit is the most enigmatic of the three Persons of the Trinity, He is the one with whom we have the most intimate relationship. 

Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the "Paraclete" or "Advocate."  These words both mean "he who is called to one's side" (CCC 692).  The Holy Spirit stands at our side throughout our lives as Christians, consoling us, sanctifying us, and leading us into the light of truth.  This is, not coincidentally, also what the Church is called to do.  This is because "the mission of the Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church" (CCC 737).  

Perhaps we can say that the Church is the image of the Holy Spirit, just as our bodies are the image of our souls.  We cannot separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the Church.

The best place, then, for us to come to know the Spirit of God better is within the Church, by participating fully in the sacramental life she makes available to us.  The sacraments, by their very nature, are established by Christ to bring us closer to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.  
The goal of the spiritual life is to grow closer to God.  The Holy Spirit is God, as we profess in our creed: He is the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  With the Father and the Son He is adored and glorified.  We can come to God only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most venerable prayers offered to the Holy Spirit is this: Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.  Let us invite the Holy Spirit anew into our hearts this day.  Let us cooperate with His grace, and allow His love to infuse our wills so that we may be drawn by the Spirit into eternal union with the Triune God.