The Sacramental Life
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". . . Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in a him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (Jn 4:14).
In addition to prayer, Christ has given us a wonderful means to become holy. The sacraments were given to the Church by Jesus Christ to sanctify us. They are the means by which we receive the "living water" of which Our Lord spoke. Water in this sense signifies the life of God called sanctifying grace.
A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give us grace. A sign is a thing that stands for, or represents, something else. For example, our national flag represents our country; smoke indicates the presence of fire. We are all familiar with the signs in the sacraments. The water in Baptism, for example, indicates our death to sin, the cleansing of the soul, and the new life which is given by God. But the sacraments are more than ordinary signs. They are efficacious signs. This means that they actually bring about what they represent.
To understand this better, think about the ordinary stop sign. This sign indicates to the driver that he should stop at an intersection. But it cannot make him stop; he must stop himself. The sacraments are different. In Baptism when the water is poured and the words "I baptize you . . ." are spoken, the soul is actually cleansed and the new life of grace is actually infused. This is the great power that Our Lord gave to these simple signs.
Christ himself gave us the sacraments so that we could share in his life and have that life nourished in us. He gave us these sacraments so that we would have a certain, or sure, way to receive the grace he won by dying on the Cross for us. But why did he choose to give us his grace through the sacraments?
As human beings we learn through corporeal, material, things around us. Thus, to learn we depend on our senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Our Lord gave us the sacraments as sensible means - means that can be sensed - for us to know that grace is active in our lives. At Baptism, when we see the water being poured and hear the words, we know that God's life now dwells in the soul of the person baptized. We are certain of this. In the same way, when we hear the priest in Confession say that our sins are forgiven, we know that God has forgiven our sins.
All of the sacraments make us holy by giving us grace or by restoring or increasing the life of grace in us. Thus all of the sacraments nourish and strengthen our spiritual life and help us draw closer to God. However, two of the sacraments are our "lifelines" to grace - Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
The Sacrament of Penance
On the evening of the Resurrection, Our Lord appeared to the apostles in the upper room. He said to them "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn 29:22-23). Christ gave the apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins, thus instituting the sacrament of Penance, Confession, or Reconciliation.
Although original sin is removed through the sacrament of Baptism, we know that we are still in a weakened state. We have a strong inclination to sin, and we do, in fact, easily fall into sin. Our Lord knew that even after Baptism Christians could still sin. He gave us the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation so that we could receive God's forgiveness frequently.
The sacrament of Penance, then, is a great gift by which the sins we commit after Baptism are forgiven. If we have committed a mortal sin, God restores to our soul his life which had been lost. God increases his life within us and strengthens our friendship with him when we confess our venial sins. In addition, through the actual or sacramental graces which we receive, God helps us to avoid sin in the future. For example, if you confess that you have lied, God will give you strength and help you be truthful in the future.
The sacrament of Penance can help us draw closer to God and make us better and stronger Christians. For this reason, it is good to receive this sacrament often - even when we have not committed any mortal sins.
To make a good Confession and worthily receive the sacrament we must do five things:
1. Before receiving the sacrament you must examine your conscience. You should ask God to help you recognize your sins since your last confession.
2. You must have true sorrow, contrition, for your sins. This contrition is based on our love for God, sorrow for having offended him, and hatred of our sins.
3. You must have a firm commitment not to sin again. This means that you must resolve to do all you can to avoid sin and the occasions of sin in the future. If you do not intend to give up your sinful ways, God cannot forgive you. You would not be truly sorry.
4. You must confess your sins honestly to the priest. This means that you should not conceal any mortal sins. Neither should you try to hide anything out of shame or embarrassment. The priest, taking the place of Christ, is there to give you forgiveness and not to rebuke you unnecessarily. He may, however, give you some advice or guidance to help you overcome your sins.
5. You must be willing to perform the penance which the priest gives you and then to do it.
The Holy Eucharist
"Truly, truly, I say to you . . . he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has eternal life . . ." (Jn 6:54).
The Eucharist is the sacrament in which Our Lord is present - Body and Blood, soul and divinity - under the appearances of bread and wine. Just as our bodies need physical nourishment to order to live, our souls also must be nourished. The Eucharist is this spiritual food.
The Eucharist is a means of receiving grace and, at the same time, is the source of grace - Jesus, himself. The Eucharist is thus the most important sacrament and the fountain from which all grace flows.
In receiving the Eucharist - called Holy Communion - we become united to Christ. This union nourishes us by helping us to become more like Christ. Through reception of Communion the life of God is increased in our souls, bringing us closer to him. Just as food strengthens our bodies for difficult physical tasks, this great Sacrament helps us to become spiritually stronger.
To benefit from the graces of the Eucharist we must prepare ourselves to receive it worthily. First we must be in the state of grace when we receive Holy Communion. This means that if we have committed a mortal sin we must first go to Confession before receiving Our Lord. St. Paul told the Christians at Corinth: "Whoever . . . 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" (1 Cor 11:27). To receive Our Lord in the state of serious sin is a sin of sacrilege.
Secondly, to receive the Eucharist worthily we must believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the sacrament. Again St. Paul reminds us: " . . . anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the Body eats and drinks judgment upon himself" (1 Cor 11:29). We must, then, prepare ourselves to receive Communion by remembering that we are about to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord.
Finally, we must observe the Eucharistic fast. The Church gives us this law - no food or drink (except water or medicine) for one hour before receiving Communion - out of reverence so that we may prepare ourselves to receive our great Lord and King. This small sacrifice reminds us of what we are about to do. (The sick and those who care for them are exempt from this fast.)
After we receive Our Lord, we should spend time in thanksgiving - thanking him for coming to us and asking Jesus to help us. The following prayer, called the Anima Christi, might help us meditate on the great gift we receive. Many people recite this prayer after Communion.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within thy wounds hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from thee.
From the malicious enemy, defend me.
In the hour of death, call me.
And bid me come to thee, that with they saints I may praise thee for ever and ever. Amen.
Because the Eucharist is our source of spiritual nourishment, it is good to receive this sacrament frequently. By attending Mass each Sunday we are able to receive Holy Communion at least once a week. However, realizing the greatness of this sacrament, we should try to receive Our Lord even more often - even daily - by attending Mass during the week. St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, reminds us of this.
Two classes of people should communicate often, the perfect because, being well prepared, they would be very wrong not to approach the fountainhead of perfection; and the imperfect, that they might preserve their strength; the weak that they might become strong; the sick that they might find a cure; the healthy, that they might be preserved from sickness.
Even when we are unable to attend Mass we can make a spiritual communion in which we ask Our Lord to come to us and dwell in us in a special way.
When we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread", we include asking to receive the Eucharist. When we realize the extreme love for us which Jesus showed in establishing a way to stay with us on earth, we will long to receive him as often as possible. He was the delight of the saints. St. Teresa of Avila prayed that "though our bodily eyes cannot feast themselves on the sight of him since he is hidden from us, he may reveal himself to the eyes of the soul and may make himself known to us as another kind of food, full of delight and joy, which sustains our life."
St. Bonaventure prays: "Grant that my soul may hunger after you . . . upon whom the angels desire to look, and may my inmost soul be filled with the sweetness of your savor, may it every thirst for you, fountain of life, the foundation of wisdom and knowledge, the fountain of eternal light, the torrent of pleasure, the richness of the house of God."
In addition to the reception of Our Lord in the Eucharist, we can adore him and draw closer to him through adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist remains after Mass. Therefore consecrated Hosts are reserved in the tabernacle in the church. Because Christ is truly present in our churches and chapels, we should try to spend time adoring him, thanking him, and talking to him about our needs. If we cannot get to daily Mass, perhaps we can make a daily visit to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Besides such visits, there are sometimes special devotions to the Blessed Sacrament in which we can participate. We may go to church for Benediction. The Eucharist is placed in a special container called a monstrance, so that we may see and adore the Body of Christ. The priest holds up the monstrance and blesses us with Christ himself. Sometimes the Host in the monstrance will be exposed on our altars throughout the day so that we may pray to Our Lord in a special way.
These devotions remind us of Christ's presence in the Eucharist and help us draw closer to him. We can deepen our union with Christ by receiving Communion often and visiting him in the Blessed Sacrament.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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