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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 9: The Rites of the Church
Part 1

If the Church is the mediation of the grace of Christ, we must look also at one of the main submediations of her mediation, namely, the sacraments. The actual grace that comes to us from the sacraments wells up within human nature, sanctified in the Church, from springs placed there by God (viz., the various sacramental characters and other sacramental titles to grace).

The Sacramental Principle

To appreciate the sacraments theologically not just anthropologically, as rites of passage, or sociologically, as occasions for the building of community we must backtrack and resume that constitutive principle of Catholicism, incarnational realism. The distinctive Catholic attitude to both Church and sacraments stems from the conviction that incarnation the self-communication of God to humanity through embodiment in the human and visible still remains, even after Christ's ascension, the principal form of God's covenant presence to us. Although Jesus Christ is no longer part of the public, observable space of this world, the incarnation continues, albeit under different modalities.

As we have seen, Christ is, for Catholic Christians, God's communication of his own inner life, the Word, and he is so both totally, absolutely, and yet in an incarnate, tangibly human fashion. For this reason Catholic theology often uses an expression not found in the New Testament by calling him the "sacrament of God," the primordial sacrament. In other words, he is the supreme instance of a sign that actually brings about what it symbolizes. Christ's human existence does not simply convey to us what God is like in the manner of an audiovisual aid. Then he would be no more than a teacher, albeit one who taught through his life, death, and resurrection. Rather, the sign which Jesus actually is brings to us the very presence of God. He is God's way to us, mediated by human embodiment, as he is our way back io God. He is God's sacrament. The continuing mediation of God through the human which follows on, with the ascension, from the work of Christ is nothing other than the Church and the sacraments. As the Letter to the Ephesians sees it, the Church, as the body of Christ, is the manifestation in history of the mystery of God's eternal purpose which was consummated in the glorified crucified Lord. The Church, then, is the visible sign, and mediation, of God's grace because she carries on the divine sacramentality. She is the sacrament of Christ who is the sacrament of God.

Catholic teaching about the seven sacraments follows from this principle of incarnational realism, since sacraments are focal moments, when the Church's life as the sacrament of Christ comes to fullest expression. As Pope Leo the Great puts it,

"All that is visible in the life of Christ has passed over into his mysteries [the sacraments of the Church]."[1]

Ambrose in his Apology of the Prophet David says,

"You have shown yourself to me face to face, O Christ, I find you in your sacraments."[2]

Not for nothing does Aquinas place his treatise on the sacraments immediately after his treatment of Christ's life and passion: they are the "sacraments of his humanity." Though it is the glorified Christ who principally ministers them to us, it is the humanity of Christ that became, through the passion, the glorified principle of grace. It is, then, the mysteries constitutive of the Christus passus (the dying and rising Christ) that actually sanctify souls in the sacraments. Christ's Passover enjoys a primacy here among the mysteries of his life because it is the divinely appointed fulfillment of his mission. Other mysteries of the vita Domini have saving efficacy only insofar as they are ordered to this principal mystery, being lived out by Christ as preparation for his death and exaltation. At the Lincolnshire church of Kirton-in-Lindsey a fourteenth-century wall painting, now lost, showed in its uppermost image the Crucified between Mary and John, while

"from the wounds of the crucified body blood flows in seven trickling lines which create a semi-sphere radiating into scenes of the seven sacraments."[3]

Similarly, on the octagonal "seven-sacrament fonts" of East Anglia, sadly defaced by Reformation-period iconoclasm, the passion of Christ and the risen Crucified One form the eighth image challenged only by stone icons of the baptism of Christ (which, theologically, is a prefiguration of his death and resurrection). [4] In texts and images in other media as well, the Passover of Christ appears as the abiding source of sacramental life. The redemption becomes "re-actualized," not of course in its physical and historical detail but in the sense that the humanity of Christ and his saving acts are present actively and. dynamically in the sacraments of the Church. In particular, then, as Aquinas points out, it is to the saving passion that any sign must be related if it is genuinely to count as a sacrament of Christ.

No sacrament could be such, moreover, unless Christ himself instituted it. No purely human symbolic creation could have this valency. Although the New Testament records "words of institution" only for baptism and Eucharist, the Catholic doctrine is that the other sacraments are not so much created by the Church as recognized by her.

"In those pregnant engagements of her faith which we call the sacraments, the Church became increasingly aware that she was both doing and encountering Jesus' human will as the human expression of the mystêrion of God's eternal saving will, by analogy, then, with those engagements of her faith for which Jesus' command was explicitly given."[5]

Each sacrament was instituted for the purpose of some chief effect, to be gathered from its signification, its symbolic texture. Because Christ is God, these sacramental signs, while they are humanly intelligible (were they not, they would be of no earthly use in our salvation) are ultimately signs in God's language. In them God speaks: he communicates by way of our languages, including our vocabulary of gesture. This renders the sacraments events in which the Church recognizes her own deepest identity as the sacrament of Christ, and events, moreover, by whose celebration she becomes more fully that sacrament.

Like all God's actions, the sacraments are never nugatory. They do not depend on our response for their constitution as acts of grace, though that response is needed for their fruitfulness. If they manifest the sacramentality of the Church, the continuing incarnation of Christ as the sacrament of God, then they cannot be simply psychological stimuli to the exercise of faith and devotion. The world is never the same again after the celebration of a sacrament.

In their totality, the sacraments present a portrait of Christian existence under the regime of grace. They structure the organism of life in Christ. That life comes to birth in baptism. It finds its maturing, and acceptance of responsibility, in confirmation. It receives its nourishment in the Eucharist. When it falls morally sick it has the sacrament of penance, and in physical convalescence, or by way of immediate preparation for the kingdom in dying, the anointing of the sick. It acquires its pattern of common life through the sacrament of orders, and its realization in the family through the sacrament of marriage.

Above all, the self-communication of God for our salvation, through the Word of God which does not merely testify to a distant God but brings about his actual presence, has its sacramental climax in the Eucharist. In this sacrament, Christ himself in his Body and Blood that is, in his personal presence is the very medium in which we encounter him. In all the other sacraments, we are related in some way to Christ's redemptive work, through the instrumentality of creaturely realities like ourselves, be they animate or inanimate. In the Eucharist, however, we are related to his personal presence as our Redeemer, and that in no other medium than himself. That is the meaning of transubstantiation.

Even then, however, the ultimate goal of God's purpose is not that there should simply be such a sacrament for its own sake, just as it is not an end-in-itself that there should be the sacrament of Christ in the incarnation. The goal lies in our return through Christ, through the Church, through the sacraments, to unity in God, as his sons and daughters. Even in the Eucharistic presence, the ultimate reality involved is the mystical unity of the Church in charity humanity sharing in the life of uncreated love which unites Father and Son in the Holy Spirit.

Communio Sanctorum

The Creed's commitment to a communio sanctorum is hard to interpret from an historical viewpoint. The ambiguity of the Latin a communion "of holy persons" or "in holy things"? allows for a reference here to the sacraments, and this is how much (but not all) of tradition has read it. A sermon on the Creed from the time of Charlemagne refers the clause to

"that holy communion, through the invocation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in which all the faithful ought to participate every Lord's day."[6]

Medieval theologians who took this line sometimes integrated the two possible genders or sanctorum by saying that the clause's object is "the communion which the saints enjoyed," namely, the holy sacrament of the altar. In the eleventh century, Peter Abelard speaks of

"that communion by which the saints are made saints, and are confirmed in their sanctity, by participation in the divine sacrament."[7]

Aquinas, in his short commentary on the Creed, also tries to have the best of both worlds, remarking that

"Because all the faithful form one body, the benefits belonging to one are communicated to the others. There is thus a sharing of benefits in the Church, and this is what we mean by sanctorum communio."[8]

He explains that the "goods shared" comprise everything worthwhile done on earth by the saints, but particularly the seven sacraments, since they alone convey to us the virtus (the power, or in the archaic English sense, the "virtue," the peculiar property) of Christ's passion, the atoning act whereby Christ as head redeemed his body, the Church. The sacraments are, in other words, a uniquely privileged sphere of the action of the Holy Spirit transmitting to us the reality (insofar as we can share it here and now) of the Son's redeeming work, that highpoint of the Father's love and mercy to the world.

The conjunction of this reference to the sacraments in the pneumatological section of the Creed with Aquinas's Christological or Christ­centered theology of the sacraments as extensions, expressions, or manifestations of the victorious passion of the Son tells us something of prime importance. The sacraments involve the presence and action of both the Spirit and the Son, and as such they cannot really be described as "impersonal" realities (however useful that term may be in enabling us to distinguish between the two historical alternatives, based on grammatical gender, in the interpretation of this article). Just as a symbolic gesture like a birthday present or handshake is an embodiment of personal intention and activity, so too are the sacraments.

Although a purely symbolic understanding of the sacraments would already justify us in calling them holy things, the Church claims more for them than simply that they are a kind of vocabulary for articulating the purposes of Son and Spirit. Or, better, because the Son and the Spirit whose purposes the sacraments articulate are the Son and the Spirit of the Father, the source of all creation, they cannot express those purposes without (to some extent at least) realizing them. We make this point by calling the sacraments "efficacious signs," symbols that actually tend to bring about what they symbolize. Indeed, when we reach the Eucharist we come to a sign that does not simply effect what it symbolizes namely, our feeding upon Christ by induction into the movement of his sacrificial dying but actually contains the giver of the sacrament, since the reality of the bread and wine are converted into the being of Christ, retaining only just so much of their own reality as will enable them to stay within the order of signs, important as that is to their functioning as sacraments. The sacraments are holy, then, not only because they are symbols for the work of Spirit and Son, but also because they draw on the creative power of the Father, being efficacious signs that bring about the active involvement of Spirit and Son they signify, and, in the case of the Eucharist, the personal actuality of the very being of the incarnate Son (on which there must also follow, thanks to the communion of life between the persons, the presence of the entire Trinity). We speak therefore of holy baptism, holy orders, holy matrimony, but we call the Eucharistic gifts the "most holy," sanctissimum, the "most holy sacrament of the altar."

Furthermore, the shared sacramental goods found in holy living in the Church have their center in the Eucharist. All the sacraments in their various ways find their meaning in relation to that center. Baptism and confirmation have to do with, respectively, entry into the Eucharistic community and taking on full responsibility as a member of Christ's priestly people. Penance and the anointing of the sick are about return to the Eucharistic table when one has been impeded from approaching it by sin or sickness, or, in the case of the last anointing (extreme unction), access to the eschatological fullness of the Eucharist, preparation for the banquet of heaven. Orders is about the provision of ministers to enable the continuance of the Church as a Eucharistic fellowship, and matrimony has as its goal the constitution of that community's most fundamental cell, the "domestic Church" of the family.

The Liturgical Principle

The sacraments are embedded in a wider structure of gesture and prayer: the liturgy. This too requires our attention, for in the ritual life of the Church in Catholic symbolic activity at its most intense the meaning of the whole Christian religion comes to expression. In the Catholic view, ritual is anthropologically necessary to religion. Without it, the atempt to express ultimate realities ruptures the life of the imagination. Ritual weaves speech, gesture, rhythm, and structured ceremonial into a form of worship expressive of the human person's being in the world. It unites our physical, mental, and emotional being in a single response to the unseen, all within the specific conditions of humanness.

Of course, there is more to liturgy than anthropology. Through the liturgy, as Catholicism understands it, Jesus Christ continues to exercise his priestly office. That office has two aspects or faces. With respect to the Father, Christ's priesthood consists of glorification; with respect to humankind, it consists in sanctification. Through his life and death, Christ glorified God and sanctified human beings; exalted at the resurrection, his priestly work goes on. In Jesus Christ, our humanity gives ceaseless adoration to the Father and through him the Spirit of the Father is poured out on to the world, to heal the wounds of human nature and raise up humankind to share the life of God. This priesthood of Christ the head is shared by his body the Church. The head does not separate himself from the body, so Christ's mediation between the Father and the world is participated in by the Church.

The proper approach to celebration of the liturgy may be exemplified from the biography of the priest-novelist R. H. Benson.

At . . . the old Jacobean chest, with emblems of the Passion gilded on its panels, which served for altar, Hugh said his Mass, quickly and without mannerism, regarding it essentially as his priestly business, his opus Dei sacrifice for God and not edification for the populace, nor even an affair of personal devotion. He was fond of emphasizing the obliteration, by the conventional vestments, of the human outline; so, too, from tone and gesture must the merely personal be remorselessly eliminated. The idea of prayers elegantly "read to" an audience was repulsive to him; neither were pious sighs or inequalities of voice to be allowed as tribute to his own feelings. The whole action was hieratic.[9]

The liturgy is not subpersonal, however, but suprapersonal, for it expresses the communion of a multitude of persons present visibly or invisibly through the Church's great high priest, Jesus Christ, with the three-personed God.                       

The value a Catholic places on the Eucharist in part comes from and is certainly sustained by an atmosphere of reverence. The Eucharist as rite, as drama, "works" in the same sort of way as does a play hence the importance of care and objectivity in the manner of celebration of the Mass. If F. R. Leavis could say of tragic drama that in it we have

"contemplated a painful action, involving death and the destruction of the good, admirable and sympathetic, and yet instead of being depressed we enjoy a sense of enhanced vitality,"

so too at the Mass we encounter the death of Christ and yet we come away with a "sense of renewed life and of hopeful joy," rather than one of "depression at the futility and pointlessness of human existence." In the impersonality of the liturgy, mine matters only "insofar as the individual sentience is the individual focus of experience." Significance is revealed, not because of conscious purpose or will on the worshippers' part, but simply because this rite is what it is, ex opere operato. In the liturgy we are concerned with metanoia, "repentance,"

"a transforming of perspectives and expectations, both in self-knowledge and in knowledge of reality, which may sometimes occur in observable moments of special insight or of emotion intensity, but is more commonly . . . a steady re-direction of the personality as a whole."[10]

The Ethos of the Liturgy

The ethos of the liturgy varies in the concrete from community to community turning, above all, on whether a particular group of the faithful belongs to the Latin Church, or to one of the Catholic Eastern Churches. The language of their worship may be the vernacular, with its advantages of greater (at least surface) intelligibility and capacity for transfiguration of the profane world. Or it may be a specially preserved "sacred" language (Latin, patristic Greek, Syriac). The use of a sacred language underlines the truth which is the other side of the vernacular coin. It draws attention to the discontinuity between the public world of our everyday concerns and the space and time of the liturgical celebration in which, sacramentally and symbolically, the pilgrim Church steps into eternity. That salvation is both already given us and is still to come, the gift of the ineffably mysterious God, is well expressed in the coexistence, within the Church, of both vernacular and non-vernacular liturgical languages. Naturally, for this coexistence to flourish, the Latin liturgy must retain that degree of salience and mainstream use that makes it available as a shared inheritance. It appears that Jesus himself used Hebrew, in his day an archaic sacral language, rather than the vernacular Aramaic, at the last Supper. Presumably he wished wished thereby to heighten the sacrality of the action and words, and to emphasize continuity with God's salvation celebrated in the Passover. An exclusively vernacular liturgy can tempt clergy and faithful to cast the Mass entirely into contemporary terms, and make it appear as something that we ourselves devise. But then we should not be doing what Jesus ordered us to hand on; the Mass would be deprived of strong roots in the past, and be less effectively something that forms us as we celebrate it.

Of course not everything in the ritual celebration of the Eucharistic drama, or the other rites of the Church, goes back to Jesus and the apostles, or even to the early post-apostolic community. Such things as vestments, incense, holy water, blessed ashes, and blessed candles appear in the Church's worship only with the "peace of the Church": her emergence to not only tolerated but also privileged status within the civil society of the Roman Empire. The domain of the sacramentals reflects in its own limited fashion the universality of salvation. The material elements are caught up into an incamational scheme which can bestow good things upon human beings ex opere operantis Ecclesiae (that is, through the working of the prayer of the Church, not the direct action of God). We must stress that the objects themselves are but lightly touched: only a tenuous thread connects them with the grace of the all-hallowing Word. Though many of these "smells and bells" were anticipated in the Judaism of the Old Testament, some people regard their ecclesiastical reemergence (or fresh creation) in and around the fourth century as distinctly suspect. Was this not a creeping paganization of the gospel? Just as the English historian Edmund Gibbon regarded the papacy as the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned on the grave thereof, so the French political philosopher Charles Maurras saw Catholicism as Judaeo-Christianity tamed and civilized by the Greco-Roman ethos. Needless to say, this is not how the Church herself understands the development of her worship. For her, the evolution of these ritual appurtenances does not denature her primitive worship but helps her to bring out the meaning of the liturgical actions. Vestments interpret the standing of the deacon, priest, or bishop as recipients of the sacrament of orders; incense indicates the honor due the Eucharistic elements or the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints, and the people of God, plebs sancta Dei; holy water reminds the faithful of their own baptism and the need to continue in the graced life of baptismal existence; ashes invite them to remember the command of Christ that we should undertake penance; the candles carried by the congregation on Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation in the Temple, recall how Christ was there proclaimed a light to the nations, and indeed called himself the light of the world.

In such ways the ritual objects or actions created by the Church tease out the meaning of the liturgy; the sacramentals (as the chief ceremonial aids to our worship are called), subserve the deeper reality of the sacraments. Just because the Church's liturgy is the action of Christ the high priest, and because her sacraments are his continued activity as the risen Lord of the Church, her worship has a depth of significance which requires not only words but also gestures to unfold. Such words and gestures are not improvised but prescribed. For Catholics, canon law and rubrics are not, in principle at least, impertinent intrusions upon the expression of our faith. The sacraments are expressions of faith in which the Church realizes her being as the congregation of the faithful, prescribing ritual actions as bearers and witnesses of a faith continuous with her origins, acknowledging her Lord as the summary, concrete presence of God's eternal purpose of salvation and renewing on earth Christ's intercession with the Father.

The Liturgy of the Hours: The Sanctification of Time

In descending into hell, Christ entered both past and future time. With his resurrection, the total content of his saving work can be focused on different points in historical time. Not only are all ages open to God, but, with the atonement, all time is penetrated by the mystery of Christ. It is from this Christological background that the Church approaches the sanctification of that medium in which the narrative of human life unfolds.

Not only the year has to be sanctified, but also the week and the day. Sunday is the fulcrum of the liturgical week, for it is the weekly Easter: the commemoration of the Lord's resurrection and, as such, the fulfillment of the Sabbath, at any rate in time as we know it. Sunday is the "primary holy day of obligation" when all the faithful, of whatever ritual Church, must assist at the Liturgy of the Eucharist and

"abstain from such work or business that would inhibit the worship to be given to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, or the due relaxation of mind and body."[11]

With profound insight into the paschal mystery, the Irish­speaking Church called Christ Rí an Domhnaigh "King of the Sunday," and celebrated accordingly:

"We bid you welcome, blessed Sunday, a fine lovely day after the week, a fine lovely day to speak to Christ. Stir your feet and make your way to Mass. Stir your heart and drive from it all spite. Stir your lips and speak words of blessing. Look up and see the Son of the blessed Nurse."[12]

Within the week, each day, including Sunday, must be hallowed within its own course, following the example of Israel. In the synagogue, prayer was said thrice daily, accompanied by readings from the Scriptures for purposes of instruction. As early as the Didache (and so in apostolic times), the Our Father, the dominical prayer par excellence, had supplanted the Shema, Israel's basic confession of monotheistic faith, at these three hours. Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, and Tertullian speak of liturgical assemblies for such non­Eucharistic worship. In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church carries out the priestly office of her head by offering God a sacrifice of praise and by interceding through Christ for the salvation of the whole world. The special characteristic of the Hours in this regard is that they consecrate the flow of time, the course of day and night. The Hours extend the praise and petition of the Eucharist to the different hours of the diurnal round.

Each Hour is composed of four elements: a hymn, psalmody, the reading of the Scriptures, and prayer. Underlying this structure lies a deeper pattern: the dialogue between God and humanity. In each Hour we hear two voices, the word of God in the Bible, and the word of humanity in the other texts which are preparation for, commentary on, or application of the word of God. The hymn is meant to express the particular characteristic of each Hour or feast, so as to draw those present into the celebration, especially by its literary beauty. The Psalter constitutes the largest element in the Divine Office. It has a proven power to raise human hearts to God, to help them give thanks in happy times, to bring consolation in adversity. The psalms are always recited in the name of the Church; thus, even though the feelings expressed in them may not coincide with our own at a given moment, we can always find a reason for joy or sorrow in singing them. The antiphon helps bring out the character of the psalm, or color it to fit the tonality of some particular feast or occasion. Also psalm-like are the gospel canticles the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. These have a special dignity as acts of thanksgiving for human redemption and so are given the same solemnity as the liturgical proclamation of the gospel itself. The reading of the Scriptures forms the climax of the Office. Normally the reading is followed by a response or acclamation, aimed at letting the divine Word penetrate more deeply into mind and heart. In celebration of Lauds and Vespers with the people, a brief homily on the Scripture can be given. The last element is the prayers. The petitions, added in the liturgical reform of Paul VI, are always linked in some way to the praise of God and the recalling of the history of salvation. They include intercessions for the Church and world. At Vespers, the final petition is always for the departed. In accordance with tradition, the Lord's Prayer follows, and the entire Office is rounded off by a concluding prayer, either proper to the day or underlining the special character of the Hour.

The morning is, in its freshness and stillness, especially suited to the praise of God. Human beings and nature awake to their daily "resurrection." In the Office of Lauds, the Church rejoices at the renewed gift of life and light, acclaiming thereby the Creator. At the same time, the rising sun, referred to in the solemn canticle, the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), also symbolizes the resurrection of the Redeemer. Just as Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, hailed the dawn of the day of salvation, with the birth of the forerunner, John, so the Church daily greets her risen Lord as "Oriens ex alto." Lauds highlights the praising psalms, often those with nature motifs. On Sundays and feast days the Benedicite (Dan 3:35-68) calls on all creation to join in this act of praise, acknowledging God's sovereignty, which means, in the New Testament context, the kingship of the risen Christ.

Vespers a name originally used for the evening star, and the evening meal was also called in early times lucernarium: the Office of lamp-lighting. Christians followed Jews in using blessing prayers for lighting lamps, and this preliminary rite lent its name to the prayer service that followed. Vespers is the Christian counterpart to the sacrifice of incense offered each evening in the Temple as mentioned in Psalm 140, a favorite Vesper psalm which prompted the use of incense, first during its own recitation but in later times during the singing of the Magnificat, the canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church Fathers regarded incense as a symbol of Christ on Calvary. They read the psalm as a prayer of the crucified Lord who stretched out his arms on the cross and celebrated the first Vesper rite of the new covenant at the hour of the evening sacrifice. Although a Christianized evening prayer is already found in the third century, in Tertullian and the Apostolic Tradition, where it consists of lucernarium, psalmody, and an agape meal, the development of the classic Vespers services of East and West is the work of the fourth to the sixth centuries.

If the character of Vespers is essentially that of thanksgiving for the blessings, spiritual and temporal, of the day, Prime (now used only in the monastic Office) is basically a blessing for the day's work. The martyrology is read, the day's work distributed, and the superior's blessing closes the ceremony. The "little Hours" of Prime, Terce, Sext, and None were at first confined to monastic churches, but in the eighth century became obligatory for all clerics in the West. Terce, Sext, and None are the more venerable little Hours: they derive from the division of the day into three segments in the Roman Empire. Tertullian and Hippolytus commend private prayer at these times, citing the apostolic practice in Acts 2:15; 10:9; and 3:1-7. By the fifth century monks and devout people had turned these "apostolic prayers" into public rites in many places.

The same was true of Compline: John Cassian describes how Eastern monks would gather in huddles to recite some psalms before retiring, while in the Rule of Aurelian of Arles the apt choice of Psalm 90, later the classical Compline psalm, is enjoined. A preliminary rite, consisting of spiritual reading and a self-accusation of faults, was generally omitted in non-monastic settings, while the body of the service a hymn, psalms, a lesson and responsory, the canticle of Simeon, a prayer, and a blessing is faithful to the basic structure of the Liturgy of the Hours. Compline sees sleep as a daily rehearsal for death both of which the Church faces with profound trust in the protecting pressence of Christ.

Matins has the least traceable history of all the Offices. It may have started life as a night vigil (attested already in Tertullian and Cyprian), but it soon became a wandering Office which could be celebrated at various hours and notably, as its name indicates, in the later morning. When the Frankish pilgrim Egeria visited the holy places in the late fourth century she found the laity at Matins and Vespers, the ascetics at the other hours also. In the East, it has retained its nocturnal character as a vigil service, archetypally on Easter Eve, but this was extended early on to the festivals of the martyrs and to Sundays. The perseverance of monks in prayer after the corporate vigil of the local Church was an essential part of the monastic Office in the East after Basil, while Benedict gives it four chapters of his Rule before even considering the other Hours. In the period of Hilary and Ambrose (fourth century), homilies from the Fathers were added to biblical readings at the night Office, and this principle (widened to include post-patristic authors) survives in the modern Office of Readings in the Latin Church. In many monastic communities in the West, however, this is still celebrated as a lengthy Office at the end of the night (rather than, as originally, in the first half of the night).

The Divine Office is, evidently, the worshipping expression of the Church's identity. But it remains for all that a method of prayer as well. As such it is, first and foremost, a symbolic kind of praying, to be approached somewhat as one might a poem. Its meaning has to be grasped as a whole and from within, if the symbols of which it is to be composed (and much of it is, precisely, liturgical poetry) are to exercise their power and introduce us to the wider world whose key they hold. The Office is also a cosmic kind of praying, a prayer that embraces all humankind, disclosing the meaning of all history. Through it we enter the space of the kingdom of God, taking our places as members of a society that extends through time and space but finds its fulfillment in an order of being beyond them, in the new creation where God's incarnate Word has his human home. At the Office, we can apply to ourselves the words of the Letter to the Hebrews:

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Heb 12:22-24).

We have of course come there in signs and symbols, and so the Office is, finally, and in an extended sense, a "sacramental" way of praying. It is to the sacraments proper that we must now turn.

The Particular Sacraments

The Catholic Church holds that there are seven sacraments, all instituted by Jesus Christ. In these pregnant engagements of her faith, the Church became increasingly aware that she was both doing and encountering Jesus' human will as the human expression of the mystery of God's eternal saving will.

1. Baptism

The Eucharist is the supreme sacrament, since it is the ever-renewed sacramental representation of the single sacrifice that has been consti­tuted the source of all sacramental grace. However, it is baptism which is the sacrament of faith. Baptism is that fundamental sacrament which enables us to receive the Word of God not as foreign to our nature but as the renewal of our true nature, now assumed into the ambit of the life everlasting. It is the sacrament of that faith whereby, through the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, we respond to the gospel of Christ, adhering to him and entering into the new covenant he founded.

As a washing, baptism speaks of the cleansing away of sin (both original and personal), but in Catholic soteriology the forgiveness of sins is the same as the coming of grace. As water brings life in the desert, and flows at birth, so baptism is the means whereby God first plants his life in us. The water of baptism is therefore at least bivalent: as cleansing and life-giving. But more than that, it is trivalent, for water can also cause death and death may be redemptive. Paul teaches that baptism is a dying with Christ: we are buried with him (something most clearly seen if baptism is by immersion [going under water] rather than simply aspersion [sprinkling]). We die to sin, which means leading a new and richer life. In baptism we start to share in Christ's resurrection.

This is the meaning of the great sacrament of Baptism which is solemnized among us, that all who attain to this grace shall die to sin as (Christ) is said to have so died because he died in the flesh which is sin's likeness; and rising from the font regenerate, as he arose alive from the grave, should begin a new life in the Spirit, whatever may be the age of the body.[13]

We live out our baptism by continuing to put sin to death and let the new divine life shape our behavior. Not for nothing is the favored time for adult baptism the vigil of Easter. At the start of Lent, those preparing for baptism are enrolled classically, they give their names to the deacon in the evening, and present themselves with their sponsor the next day to the bishop in his principal church. In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (1972) adults are theologically, though not statistically, the normative candidates for baptism Lent serves as a retreat aimed at preparing for baptismal regeneration. At Jerusalem the candidates were told,

"If your wedding-day were approaching, would you not leave everything else and devote yourself entirely to preparing for the feast?"[14]

Penitence, prayers of exorcism, examination of purity of motive, catechesis: these preliminaries are still reflected in the Catholic liturgies of the sacrament and its preparation. In the Jerusalem Church, the bishop expounded the Scriptures first literally and then spiritually, prior to solemnly "handing over" the Creed on the Sunday before Easter. Theodore of Mopsuestia admonished the candidates:

"By the recitation of the Creed you bind yourself to God by the mediation of the bishop and you make a pact to persevere in charity toward the divine nature."[15]

During the Easter vigil, in the last preparatory rite, Satan is renounced traditionally facing the West, the region of visible darkness, which Hilary takes as adhesion to Christ in his victory over the dark power. The contrast is underlined by the turning to the east, toward Christ as rising sun of the second creation. The leading to the baptismal font which follows signifies the candidate's entrance into the Church. Baptisteries were frequently octagonal, for eight is the number of the eschatological Sabbath and so of the life of the kingdom, to which this sacrament gives entrance. The removal of garments prior to the anointing with the oil of catechumens, with its agonistic symbolism (it recalls wrestlers in the arena) is a configuration to the naked Christ and a sign of the filial trust which replaces the shame proper to the sinner before God. On the oil Denys the Areopagite writes:

The high priest [the bishop] begins by anointing the body of the postulant with holy oils, thus in symbol calling the initiate to the holy contests which he will now have to undertake under the direction of Christ, for it is he who, God as he is, orders the combat. He himself descended into the arena with the combatants, to defend their freedom and to assure their victory over the forces of death and damnation.[16]

This conformation to Christ who "in this Goodness was the first of athletes" was followed at Antioch by the consecration of the baptismal water (still done today in the Roman Rite, unless the water was blessed on Easter Eve itself). The liturgies are rich in their deployment of illuminating types for this water: the Creation, the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, etc. Clement of Alexandria remarks that

"the new birth of Baptism comes about by water and the Spirit, like the coming to be of the universe."[17]

Justin Martyr holds that

"Christ became the head of another race regenerated by him, by the water and wood which contained the mystery of the Cross, as Noah was saved by the wood of the ark when he was carried with his family on the waters."[18]

Basil says that

"the people came out of the sea whole and safe; we also come out of the water as living men from among the dead."[19]

Cyril of Jerusalem explains that the baptismal bath that follows is an antitype of the passion of Christ: both like and unlike it. It is unlike in that the historical fact of the passion is only imitated dramatically (in the "drowning" and "rising again"); it is like in that the grace­content is the same. By this rite, we have communion in the saving grace of the passion. What seemed to be a tomb is in fact a womb, a maternal womb as the Fathers love to point out.

"You are blessed when you come out of the most holy bath of the new birth, and when you pray for the first time beside your Mother the Church and with your brothers."[20]

And this statement leads to the perfectly rhetorical question:

"Since the birth of the Christian is accomplished in Baptism, and since the baptismal birth only takes place in the one Bride of Christ who is able spiritually to bring to birth the sons of God, where could he be born who is not a, son of the Church?"[21]

The newly baptized is now clothed in a white garment (the "christening robe" of baptized infants), which Theodore calls "the sign of that shining world, of that kind of life to which you already come by means of symbols."[22]

In the Roman liturgy, after the gift of a candle with flame lit from the paschal candle itself, there is a postbaptismal anointing which will be either the sacrament of confirmation (on which see below) or, if confirmation is not to be given directly (as with infants in the West) a sealing with chrism-oil mixed with sweet-smelling balsam which looks ahead to that second sacrament. In either case we are dealing with a sign of incorporation into the Christian community which is at the same time a pledge of salvation. Like the brand sported by soldiers or devotees of a god in the ancient world, this commits one to a public act of witnessing. The Fathers frequently stress what Cyril of Jerusalem calls the "holy and indelible" character of this seal: the ineffaceable nature of the baptismal character comes from the fact that it is founded on God's irrevocable promise. Sacramental initiation brings one into a new order: there is an objective holiness which is retained (sacramental character) even when the subjective holiness that should flow from the grace of the sacrament is imperilled or lost. Baptism (and confirmation) are never repeated.

Baptism is entrance into fellowship with the Holy Trinity. As the Trinitarian persons ceaselessly give themselves to each other in eternity, so in the love they communicate in time do they enfold the baptized Christian in their own communion. Since it thus grants access to the Father, the source of the triune life through the manifestation of that communion in the economies of Son and Spirit, baptism must necessarily be both Christological and pneumatological. As a celebration of the paschal mystery, whereby the barrier of sin is destroyed and humankind reconciled to the Father, baptism is a sharing in the mystery of Christ. Yet baptismal regeneration is the work of the Spirit, whose house is the Church. It incorporates into the community of the Church. The anointing with chrism which follows baptism shows that the neophytes now have for their vocation the offering of spiritual sacrifices, the sacrifices that belong to the spiritual house of which they are living stones (1 Pet 2:5). The Shepherd of Hermas, a text of the subapostolic age, records a vision:

The tower which you see being built is myself, the Church. . . . I asked her, Why has the tower been built on the water, Lady? . . . Because your life was saved and shall be saved through water, and the tower has been founded by the utterance of the almighty and glorious Name and is maintained by the unseen power of the Master.[23]

The Church also recognizes that besides drawing adults to faith, God can plant in the minds and wills of children the new life, and this testifies peculiarly strongly to his initiative in grace.

2. Confirmation

Confirmation, by its ceremonies anointing, laying on of hands, the giving of the kiss of peace by the bishop does not merely unfold the content of baptism. Distinguished from the gift of the Spirit in regeneration there is also a special outpouring of the Spirit for the promulgation of the gospel.

Since, moreover, the gospel can never be thought of save as the proclamation of the Church, confirmation also introduces the baptized into their full rights and duties as members of the laos, God's holy people as a royal and universal priesthood.

It is at once, then, the sacrament of mission and (therefore) of "ordination" to the laity, the entry on duties and rights befitting the general priesthood of the faithful. As in the life of Christ there were two stages to his paschal mystery Easter and Pentecost so, in the life of the Christian, which is typically modelled on Christ's, there are likewise two stages baptism and confirmation to her initiation into that saving mystery in its evangelical and catholic form. Just as Pentecost strengthened the apostles with the power of the Spirit for their mission in the Church, so too this sacrament has been seen as an empowering: robur ad pugnam, "strength for the fight," something associated particularly, in the twentieth century, with Catholic Action, the social outreach of the faithful into a world increasingly unheeding of Christian truth and values. In all these respects, the Holy Spirit in confirmation completes or seals what is given in baptism: hence the common patristic name of this sacrament, the seal of the Spirit. Confirmation is the "Ite, missa est!" ("Go, you are sent forth!") of baptism. It publicly ratifies the baptism in water and the presbyteral anointing before the whole assembled Church, and links these to the Eucharist, where the Spirit is invited to descend in his fullness on the communicant. As reformed in 1971, the Latin Rite retains the laying on of hands but stresses the anointing as the main sign of conferring the Holy Spirit, virtually adopting the Byzantine formula. Where baptism is more Christic, confirmation is more pneumatic.

The new dignity of the confirmed person vis-à-vis the mission, worship, and social action of the Church would not be efficacious without a more ready disposition to be at God's service, and this is the primary sacramental grace of confirmation: a more abiding docility to the Holy Spirit, in his sevenfold gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. Ambrose calls these gifts "the seven virtues that you receive when you are marked with the seal." Confirmation is thus a new outpouring of the Spirit having as object the perfecting of the spiritual energies given in baptism. This explains why in the Christian East, this sacrament is seen as the sacrament of spiritual progress. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Mystagogical Catechesis tells his neophytes:

First you were anointed on the forehead, to be freed from the shame which the first man, after his sin, carried with him everywhere to be freed so completely that you may be able to contemplate the glory of God with open face, as in a mirror; then on the ears, so that you may find again the ears with which to hear the divine mysteries; then the nostrils, so that, perceiving the divine perfume you may say, "We are the pleasant perfume of Christ.". .. Finally, you were anointed on the breast so that, putting on the breastplate of justice, you might stand up well against the attacks of the demons. [24]

In the Western Rite, by contrast, only one chrismation with oil takes place (on the forehead), while in all the Rites of Catholicism the laying on of hands is de rigueur a gesture customarily amplified either by insufflation (a gentle blowing of breath, the principal symbol in Scripture of the Spirit) or by a striking (again, not too painful!) on the cheek, as a token of entry into holy warfare for the gospel. The bishop, who was in ancient times the only minister of both baptism and confirmation and retained a special link with the latter by retaining the sole right to consecrate its oil and, in the West, remaining the normal minister of the sacrament, then concludes the rite by giving the newly confirmed the kiss of peace, as a token of their deepened communion with the Church, and, through her, in the kingdom.

It is theologically normal for confirmation to precede the first Holy Communion of the newly baptized, but the Latin Church at large has, for pastoral reasons, frequently delayed confirmation: so as to form people in a more perfect obedience to Christ, that they may bear more effective witness to him. The universal Catechism of the Catholic Church comments presciently on the providential co-existence of the two forms of sacramental practice which results:

That of the Eastern Church gives greater emphasis to the unity of Christian initiation. That of the Latin Church more clearly expresses the communion of the new Christian with the bishop as guarantor and servant of the unity, catholicity and apostolicity of his Church, and hence the connection with the apostolic origins of Christ's Church.[25]

Both baptism and confirmation (like, as we shall see, orders) confer as already mentioned a sacramental character, a permanent mark on the soul, for one is now a transformed man or woman. The grace the sacrament brings may be lost by infidelity, but not so this mark which endures as a standing reproach. As Matthias Joseph Scheeben explains, this sacramental character is a sort of "signature" which makes known that the members of the God-man belong to their head, configuring them to him and realizing their organic union with him. It extends to human beings the consecration of Christ's humanity achieved by the hypostatic union, as Christ takes possession of another human person through these sacraments. The sacramental character is then a holiness of consecration which should be followed therefore by a holiness of grace. We should be in nature what we are in status. Such grace springs from the character because the character brings us into organic contact with Christ, the source of grace, and gives us a "right" actually to possess the grace in question. Human beings can set up impediments, alas, to the flow of this grace, but when they do so, Christ does not revoke his action in sealing us. Through the seal God's love binds itself so strongly to us that it remains ever ready to give grace back to us when we have trifled it away. Thus the mark is not in the moral or psychological order (though these are on the horizon), but rather establishes the one baptized and confirmed in the Spirit by God's self­gift, the process of initiation in which he has been active since the first conception of faith by the convert.

3. The Holy Eucharist

In his retreat notes for Corpus Christi, the Church's annual thanksgiving for the institution of this sacrament, the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

(1) Preciousness of our Lord's body, born of the
Blessed Virgin of David's line, crucified, raised
from the dead, seated in heaven; united to Christ's
soul; united to the Word. Appreciate. Feel your

(2) Its mystery; it binds the Church into one, bodily
into one. It is the pledge and means of our
immortality. Revere this mystery.

(3) The good it has done, sanctifying Christians, in
Mass, Communion, as viaticum. Thanksgiving.

(4) It is put into my unworthy hands as a priest [26]

Part 2


1. Leo, Sermons 74.2.

2. Ambrose, Apology of the Prophet David, 12.

3. M. Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Mediaeval Culture (Cambridge, 1991) 102.

4. A. E. Nichols, Seeable Signs: The Iconography of the Seven Sacraments, 1350-1544 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1994)

5. C. Ernst, "Acts of Christ: Signs of Faith," in idem, Multiple Echo: Explorations in Theology, ed. F. Kerr and T. Radcliffe (London, 1979) 113.

6. "Symbolum Graeca lingua est" (anonymous sermon), cited in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2d ed. (London, 1960) 393.

7. Abelard, Expositio symboli quod dicitur apostolorum.

8. Thomas Aquinas, Expositio super symbolo apostolorum, scilicet Credo in Deum.

9. C. C. Martindale, The Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (London, 1916) 2:142.

10. R Kerr, "Liturgy and Impersonality," New Blackfriars 52 (1971) 436-47, citing F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London, 1952) 127.

11. Codex Iuris Canonici, 1247.

12. "Cited in P. O'Fiannachta and D. Forristal, Saltair: Prayers from the Irish Tradition (Dublin, 1988) 24-25.

13. Augustine, Enchiridion 42.

14. Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis 6.

15. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist 13.1.

16. Denys, On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 2.6.

17. Clement of Alexandria, Prophetic Eclogues 7.

18. Justin, Dialogue 138.2-3.

19. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 14.

20. Tertullian, On Baptism 20.

21. Cyprian, Letter 84.6.

22. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist 14.26.

23. Shepherd of Hermas, Visions 3.3, 5.

24. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 3.4.

25. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1244.

26. Devlin, Hopkins, 256.

Part 2

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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