The Value of the Sacraments to the Catholic Faith and All of Humanity
by Kevin J. Cody
It's not about religion; it's about relationship with Christ.
It’s not about religion; it’s about relationship with Christ. I was struck by these words on a sign in front of a Baptist church just outside of my subdivision. Especially during a time when there is such strong anti-religion sentiment, why would a religious institution display those words?
Perhaps it is a ploy to attract those who are disenfranchised with religion. Perhaps it is directed at the strong Catholic presence in the village.
I began to think about what my response would be if a parishioner asked me about the sign. Yes, our ultimate goal is union with the Father through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. But how do we go about entering into and experiencing an ever-deepening relationship with Christ?
That is the purpose of the doctrines, rituals, signs, symbols, and community support found in Christian religions. That is the primary purpose of the Sacraments in the Catholic faith.
We also have a large Hindu temple in the village. What about non-Christian religions? Is relationship with Christ the only way to God?
I remembered reading a book years ago that I thought addressed these kinds of questions well, so I decided to revisit Edward Schillebeeckx’s Christ The Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward. 1963). Schillebeeckx is a respected Catholic theologian who was ordained into the Dominican order in 1941.
As a result of my reflection on Schillebeeckx’s theology of the Sacraments, I surface here the value of the Sacraments in entering into relationship with Christ—and hence the value of religion, particularly the Catholic faith. I also reflect on what Schillebeeckx’s theology has to say about the salvation of religions that don’t focus on relationship with Christ.
Relationship through Encounter and Visibility
The influence of Augustine on Schillebeekx stood out to me right away, particularly the way he views experience, authority, and signs in developing his theology of the Sacraments. Like Augustine, Schillebeekx sees knowledge and understanding as stemming from three sources: experience, authority, and signs. Augustine says that knowledge and understanding start with the visible in order to arrive at the intelligible and first cause of things. Knowledge proceeds from the visible to the invisible, from appearances to reality.
In other words, Augustine perceived knowledge from experience as a knowledge of the intelligible. Schillebeekx expands Augustine’s perception to include encounter when he says that true knowledge and encounter with God is possible for us only through the visible and our own bodiliness, that in Christ the invisible becomes visible.
According to Schillebeekx, then, we cannot rely solely on our direct experience. We must be open to the divine authority of Christ who is the revealer and mediator of truth. Christ’s use of signs enables us to go beyond the knowledge of immediate experience. The symbolism used in the Sacraments, like the words of Scripture, refers to the transcendent. Through them, we encounter the invisible God.
Confronted with Love
Schillebeekx maintains that our bodily presence to each other is essential to encounter. It is only when we are personally confronted with another’s love in some telling gesture that we can truly enter into that love. Christ’s gesture of human love makes it possible for us to respond and encounter God.
Schillebeekx illustrates the power of gesture by referring to a human glance or smile and how it can effect change in us and result in powers that weren’t apparent before. “How much greater the God-man smile can change our whole life.” It is our choice to give or withhold ourselves from each other. Encounter is a modern word for a reality that has always been recognized in religious life and preordained in the Incarnation—“God addressing man as a man amongst men” (from the Foreword).
At first, Schillebeekx’s proposition that encounter with God is possible only with his visible presence did not bear truth in my own experience. My strongest experience of encounter with God was visible only in my mind’s eye.
But I recall my struggle to make sense of and hold on to my encounter with God. I even began to doubt that it had happened at all. Yet, it was that experience that was instrumental in leading me back to the Church and my becoming active in it.
Visible and Physical
Religion offers support of spiritual experiences through visible revelation and symbolism so that we can make sense out of, hold on to, and build upon those experiences. Hence, visibility is important. It helps make our encounters with God real and lasting—although not necessarily making the encounter itself possible.
Perhaps we’ve taken Christ’s action for granted and don’t appreciate what he has done for us. Would we even have a clue how to approach God without Christ? And if we did somehow approach God, would we be capable of an intimate encounter? And does that encounter have to manifest itself in some way?
For me, encounter with God is manifested physically through a kind of percolating sensation within my chest. As I’ve become more involved in ministry, I’ve noticed that this sensation seems to flow from me as I become more focused on others’ faith development rather than just my own. That feeling of encounter is definitely aided by what I see in the rituals of liturgy, the Sacraments, and in the yearning of the first-time recipients of the Sacraments for contact with the divine. It has been my experience that religion has been about relationship with Christ.
Jesus: The Only Way to God?
Schillebeeckx takes an apologetic stance when describing Jesus as the “primordial sacrament.” He states that Jesus was intended by the Father to be in his humanity the only way to the actuality of redemption. There is only one God and one mediator.
I have always questioned whether Jesus was the only way to God. I find it hard to believe that the convictions of billions of non-Christians who believe they have found God can be so wrong, and that God wouldn’t somehow be there for them. Schillebeeckx explains that it is true that non-Christian religions can achieve a certain visible manifestation of inward grace because human life in and with the world itself is part of an anonymous dialogue with the Creator. But any religious experience produced by this inward grace doesn’t yet encounter the visible embodiment of grace hidden in the depths of the human heart.
It was in the visible form of something holy—first Israel, then Jesus—that the hidden substance of Truth was revealed and given shape. The non-Christian can have authentic religious urges, but without the support of visible divine revelation, it becomes a mixture of true devotedness to God, dogmatic distortion, and moral confusion. Other religions, according to Schillebeeckx, can have a fragment of unconscious Christianity.
In today’s society, we are very much aware of the diversity of culture and belief, and we have become more tolerant and open to each other. Are we going in the wrong direction? I don’t think so.
In fact, such diversity may even be in God’s plan. Can we in our diversity become one people? According to Schillebeeckx, God’s ultimate purpose is to call a faithful people to himself. That is why, after continual failure documented in the Old Testament, God raised up a man who represented humanity’s ability and vocation to faithfulness. With Christ, all of humanity is already in communion with God. He is the visible realization of the divine invitation and human response.
Christians and non-Christians certainly benefit from God’s generosity, whether we realize it or not. Christ was and is necessary for our salvation and communion with God, and he is present in all who desire and make themselves available to God.
How do we know and make ourselves available to God? We come to know and make ourselves available to God through religion, which includes encounter through the Sacraments and a supportive faith community.
Kevin J. Cody is the Director for Religious Education at St. Alphonsus Parish in Lemont, IL. He is the President of the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors (NPCD). He serves on the Archdiocese of Chicago Advisory Board and on the board of the Chicago Association of Religious Educators.
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