Advent is here and as we get closer, day by day, to the birth of our Lord and Savior, we reflect on the hope of the coming kingdom of heaven. In the following lectio divina reflection, we focus on this hope. John the Baptist brings a message of hope to all those coming to him for baptism. Hopefully this Sunday’s Gospel reading brings a sense of true hope to us as well. Are we continually looking ahead to when we will reach the kingdom of heaven? Do we have hope that we will reach it one day? Or have we forgotten the significance of Christ’s birth in our own, modern lives?
That’s a lot to think about. I encourage you to close your eyes, say a prayer, calm your mind, and then join me in reflecting on the Gospel passage for this second Sunday of Advent.
To follow along with me on this lectio divina prayer time, you will want to have the upcoming Sunday Gospel reading for December 4 handy. If you need to review the steps of lectio divina you can find a quick outline from St. Meinrad Archabbey. Remember to read the Gospel passage at the start of each of the four sections below (the ones that start with an “R” word).
Repent; acknowledged their sins; produce good fruit.
RESPOND: What is God saying to you?
The Gospel reading for Sunday always seems to me to come across as harsh and ruthless. It appears as if John the Baptist is attempting to turn the Pharisees and Sadducees away, but in reading this through a couple times, I see more and more that John is really relaying a message of hope. They, too, can be baptized but they must show repentance. How do we show our repentance? We must produce good fruit. John the Baptist is not just speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but to all who are listening, including us the readers. Our good works alone will not gain us entry into the kingdom of heaven. We must repent, be baptized, and then go forth and do good works, that is, produce good fruits.
In this passage I hear God’s message of hope. I need to get to confession more than once or twice a year (which has been an improvement for me, but I’m striving for more), I need to continually work at always acting as an image of God, and I need to show Christ’s love in all I think, say, and do.
RESPOND: What do you want to say to God?
Thank you, God, for the gift of the sacraments, particularly of baptism and reconciliation. I pray that I can be more mindful of my thoughts, words, and actions. Help me where I fall and forgiven me for my transgressions.
Spend some time in silence after your fourth reading of the passage.
Share in the comments, what do you feel God is saying to you in this passage? How would you respond to him?
Our fourth child’s baptism was not going to be impeccable. I knew that from the start. But the Lord had sanctified me since the days back when my focus lied solely on the letterpress invitations, the picture perfect outfits, and the catered food for our first child’s baptism.
None the less I was distressed. There hadn’t been an extra moment to do a photo shoot and have the invitations delivered in time. No new baptism garments had been ordered. Instead we were re-using the outfit from our previous boy. My own clothing selections were dull at best. I had the choice of one of two dresses in my closet that fit.
But I still wanted to celebrate our newest guy’s special day with a little, very simple, fan fare. The week of the baptism, I sent out a text to our immediate family with the details of the date and time of the baptism and that we would be having a meal at home following. I was content with this small amount of celebration.
But less than 48 hours after I sent my text invite out, I was replying and un-inviting everyone because the three big kids had fevers and appeared to be coming down with something. I hadn’t planned an elaborate menu… in fact, I hadn’t even bought the groceries, thanks be to God… but the evening before Henry’s baptism, as I was rocking him to sleep, I was crying out to God in prayer for peace about the events that were being placed in front of us. I went to bed with a heavy heart but knowing that I had poured myself out to Him and that He would lead me.
Saturday morning came and while it was evident that not only would we not be having any type of celebration, we would also not be attending Mass. One fever appeared to be lessening but one was raging its full force upon our four year old son. Here He was sending me a peace and confirmation that, indeed, I had made the right decision to cancel the festivities.
Late afternoon rolled around and I spent my time ironing clothing for everyone to wear and pushing fluids to everyone lying on the couch. Hubby was off to Mass by himself and the plan was for me to bring the four kids in time for the baptism. I put on my old standby, the purple maxi dress with the hole in the front, with peace. It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t make this day feel special. And to top it off I was wearing a jean jacket as a shoulder cover. Ick. Blah. And then dressing the boys. They ALWAYS fight me about putting on dress clothes. The buttons, hot fabrics and stiff shoes are not their favorite. Neither is sitting quietly. So instead of a battle I chose to embrace peace and let them wear jeans and a dress shirt.
Gasp! What level had I now stooped to?!?!!!
I told the kids to load up into the van and I realized that not only did I not have a camera I didn’t have anyone arranged to take the photos. This was a new low as I have been a photographer in the past and hold every photo of a milestone near and dear to my heart. Improvision was the only acceptable answer and I grabbed my DSLR, the tripod and the remote and headed out the door. Immediately I knew the only reason I so quickly thought of this was His divine mercy shining down on me. Because I can count on one hand the times that I have used the camera with the remote. To have it where I could find everything and all batteries were ready to go was truly a miracle. I instantly knew that this night was in His hands and that He was with us.
The trip to church was quick and uneventful. There was no fussy baby or spit up on the formal clothing. Amazing. We made our way into the church and met the four guests that were in attendance. My husband’s parents, whom were there to be Henry’s godparents, and my husband’s grandparents.
The church was quiet. I set up the camera on the tripod and focused it on the baptismal. Our oldest boy, who was sick in every sense of the word, sat quietly next to me and looked over his beloved baby brother whom he affectionately calls “Junior.” And he knew that he couldn’t touch him or hold him even though he so badly wanted to. My heart melted when his sick, brown, watery eyes caught mine. I knew that he didn’t even feel like being there. And in that moment I decided to let him hold the remote and be my photographer. Yes, the perfectionist in me had fully lost her mind to allow the four year old to photograph the baptism but I knew it was what I needed to do for him to feel included. His eyes lit up and he gladly took the remote from me and snapped a few test shots.
Our priest came and welcomed us and had us sit in the pew directly in front of the baptismal. As he handed out the booklets for everyone to follow along with an all knowing peace came over me followed by joy. Our son was being welcomed into the church! Everything that the Lord has called me to do as a mother was right here in front of me and it was monumentally emotional thinking about the significance of Christ coming into our fourth gift and the massive responsibility that was in my arms to raise him up in the faith.
Somehow I gulped down the lump in my throat and kept ahold of the mist that my eyes were trying to make into tears.
The litany… St. Henry, pray for us. St. Victor, pray for us.
The oil on his heart.
The pouring of the water. Henry laughed.
The Sacred Chrism.
The placing of the white garment.
His candle being lit.
The prayers over the mother and father.
I know I am becoming a sap in my ‘old age’ but I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is working within me, refining me, to truly see my faith and to experience it in ways I never thought possible. Thank you Lord for the worst, most very bad baptism that I could have ever imagined. Because in the disappointments You showed me Your magnificence and the monumental event that baptism truly is.
Welcome to the Catholic Church Henry Victor. As I hold you close tonight and smell the wonderful Chrism on your head I pray that you always keep the faith and keep close to Him. Your mama is so proud.
I was rolling quite a few ideas around in my head while the calendar days were being scratched off much more quickly than I cared to see and my deadline loomed larger and larger. I bounced a few of these ideas off on my 18 yr old and he suggested that since I needed seven quick takes – why not review the seven sacraments… As he so wisely pointed out; we are coming up fast on Lent and what could be better to ponder at this time than the seven sacraments instituted by Christ and maintained by our catholic church? How do you argue with such wisdom?
So subdue the drum rolls, please, as I roll out this month’s Seven Quick Takes (and we’re linking up to This Ain’t The Lyceum).
Quick Take one: Baptism
According to our Catechism (CCC 1211) these seven sacraments are divided into three groups. The first group is comprised of the sacraments of Christian initiation. And the first of these is Baptism and is the first step that we take as we embark on our Christian journey; regardless whether we are baptized as an infant or as an adult. Jesus himself was baptized by his cousin St. John the Baptist before being led “by the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty day and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Mathew 4:1-2)
According to St Gregory of Nazianzus; “Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…. We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water: anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed: enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship. (Oratio 40 preached at Constantinople Jan 6,381)
The second of the initiation sacraments is Confirmation during which we receive the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. According to the Catechism (CCC 1831) these are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Quick Take three: Eucharist
Within the Roman rite – one’s first Holy Communion is typically received around the seventh year of life which is determined by the church as the beginning of the age of reason and marks the beginning of, hopefully, a lifetime of receiving this life giving sacrament. Within the Eastern rites the infant receiving baptism immediately following also receives Chrismation and the ‘admission to Eucharistic Communion’. (CCC 1233) These three sacraments complete the initiation sacraments.
Quick Take Four: Penance and Reconciliation
Penance is one of the two Sacraments of healing that Christ instituted for his Church to offer His people. “The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health,3 has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.” (CCC 1421)
Some may ask why, once we are washed clean through the act of baptism, is there a need for the Sacrament of Penance or Confession? The Council of Trent (1549) answers this perfectly as quoted in the Catechism: “Nevertheless the new life received in Christian initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of Christian life.”
It is through the sacrament of penance, as instituted by Christ through St Peter, (Mathew 16:13-20 that we are able to be washed clean and be healed of our sins.
The Catholic Catechism answers the question of what is this sacrament called with the following:
It is called the sacrament of conversion because it makes sacramentally present Jesus’ call to conversion, the first step in returning to the Father from whom one has strayed by sin.
It is called the sacrament of Penance, since it consecrates the Christian sinner’s personal and ecclesial steps of conversion, penance, and satisfaction.
It is called the sacrament of confession, since the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest is an essential element of this sacrament. In a profound sense it is also a “confession” – acknowledgment and praise – of the holiness of God and of his mercy toward sinful man.
It is called the sacrament of forgiveness, since by the priest’s sacramental absolution God grants the penitent “pardon and peace.”
It is called the sacrament of Reconciliation, because it imparts to the sinner the life of God who reconciles: “Be reconciled to God.” He who lives by God’s merciful love is ready to respond to the Lord’s call: “Go; first be reconciled to your brother.”
Lent is a wonderful time to take advantage of this sacrament – especially if it is a sacrament that has fallen by the wayside. When I read the explanation of this sacrament in the catechism it filled me with resolve not to miss this wonderful opportunity to be filled with Christ’s grace.
Quick Take Five:Anointing of the Sick
There are some misunderstandings surrounding this sacrament. At one time it was known as the ‘receiving of last rites” because it was, and still is, a sacrament used to fortify “the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house.” (Council of Trent 1551) However, it is also a sacrament through which Jesus can unify our suffering with his and thus support the Church and, if it is for the good of our soul, also bring us physical healing from a grave illness. Contrary to the misbelief that one can only receive the Anointing of the Sick once in a lifetime; if one recovers from a grave illness for which they have been anointed and later faces death again, or is suffering intensely and is in need of fortification, they can once again receive this sacrament. (CCC 1515)
This sacrament is based in Jesus’ command to heal the sick (Mathew 10:1-8) as well as through tradition.
“… the apostolic Church has its own rite for the sick, attested to by St. James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters] of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Tradition has recognized in this rite one of the seven sacraments” (CCC 1510)
As I mentioned at the beginning of this quick takes post the Catholic Church has the three sacraments of initiation through which the Christian begins his journey to heaven. In addition, the church uses three sacraments to assist a Christian on the last leg of this journey. These are the sacraments: of penance, (when possible) the anointing of the sick and the Eucharist. The administering of the Eucharist when in danger of death is referred to as Viaticum.
The anointing of the sick can only be administered by a priest whereas the Viaticum can be administered by a priest, a deacon or an extraordinary minister, using the reserved Blessed Sacrament.
Quick Take Six: Holy Orders
“Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate,presbyterate, and diaconate.” (CCC 1536)
Holy orders is one of the two sacraments that the Church refers to as sacraments of salvation. (CCC 1534) The sacrament of Holy orders is conferred through the Bishop laying his hands on the head of the ordinand while asking God for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and his gifts proper to the ministry to which the candidate is being ordained. It is only a bishop that can confer this sacrament which imprints an indelible sacramental character upon the recipient who must be a baptized member of the church. Only the Church authority has the responsibility and right to call someone to Holy Orders.
While I have links to the three degrees of the priesthood above I will give a brief description of them. The episcopate refers to the Bishops and their duties, the presbyterate refers to the priests and the diaconate is the most obvious as it refers to our deacons.
What some may not know is that there are two forms of the diaconate. There is the permanent diaconate and the transitional. The transitional deaconate belongs to the seminarian who is preparing to become a priest. While the spiritual mark on his soul is permanent when he is ordained a deacon, he does eventually transition into the priesthood when he is ordained. On the other hand, the permanent deacon belongs to the man who is not, at that time in his life, feeling the call to the priesthood. He may or may not be married when ordained. If single the acceptance of ordination requires a commitment of celibacy and if married at the time of his ordination, should his wife pass away after ordination he may not re-marry. He may though, if called, become a priest.
We have all, at one time or another been inspired, by various members of the religious in our lives. Sometimes, though, we have felt let down by one priest or another. However, regardless of our feelings, or the personality of any particular priest, the sacraments celebrated by him are never invalid or impure. This is emphasized quite powerfully by St. Augustine and, as such he is quoted in the Catechism: Since it is ultimately Christ who acts and effects salvation through the ordained minister, the unworthiness of the latter does not prevent Christ from acting.76 St. Augustine states this forcefully: As for the proud minister, he is to be ranked with the devil. Christ’s gift is not thereby profaned: what flows through him keeps its purity, and what passes through him remains dear and reaches the fertile earth. . . . The spiritual power of the sacrament is indeed comparable to light: those to be enlightened receive it in its purity, and if it should pass through defiled beings, it is not itself defiled.” (CCC 1584)
That is so reassuring and perhaps one of the most important things we can remember about the sacrament of the Holy Orders – that our priests are acting “in persona Christi”.
Quick Take Seven: Sacrament of Matrimony
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (CCC 1601) This understanding of this sacrament is the same in both the Eastern and Western (Latin) rite. In the Latin rite the spouses mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church and this is the same within the Eastern Rites except that in order for the sacrament to be held valid the priest must also extol his blessing on the couple. (CCC 1623)
The sacrament of marriage is the other sacrament that is for the salvation of others. In fact, the Second Vatican Council refers to the family as the Ecclesia domestica or the Domestic Church. This is very apt as it is within the family that we exercise the ”priesthood of the baptizedin a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.’ Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and “a school for human enrichment.” Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous – even repeated – forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life.” (CCC 1656)
It is the duty of the wife and husband to aid each other in getting into heaven and as well the duty of the parents to raise their children in such a way that they are well prepared to continue their personal journey to heaven so it is very fitting that this is called a sacrament of salvation.
This concludes our Seven Quick Takes of the seven sacraments. A much heavier quick takes than usual, I admit. My topic for next month promises to be a little lighter but not much. I know that by the first Friday of March I will be a tad lost in my efforts to follow the resolutions I will set for myself on Ash Wednesday. I will be flagging quite a bit – if Lent follows its norm for me. I plan to take March’s quick takes as an opportunity to reset myself with seven suggestions that not only I can follow, but anyone who is also lagging a little in the middle of the race. My hopes is that we can apply one or more of them to our Lenten sacrifice and find ourselves ready to head for the finish line and the celebration that follows. Until then, a bientot!
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bible, we are saved by grace alone. But, what is grace? What does saved by grace alone mean?
I must admit that I cannot do any better a job explaining what grace is than what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on it, nor the simpler Baltimore Catechism. So please consult these links for explanations from genuine writers and theologians. However, often we learn better first from a friend in common speech than a formally written text. So, here we go, my friend.
To understand grace, first we must understand who we are. We, humans, are souls first and foremost. We are souls tethered in time and space by our earthly bodies. Similarly, angels (God’s creations before us humans), are souls as well, but in contrast, they do not have bodies and thus are not bound in time nor space, similar in that way to God.
Grace is a share in God’s life; it is a free gift to our souls from Him. There are two kinds of grace, actual grace and sanctifying grace. Actual grace is an unmerited favor that God bestows upon us by His generosity, like what we mean when saying, “By the grace of God we made it to the airport on time.” The other kind of grace, sanctifying grace is what I’d like to focus on. In the Bible, this kind of grace, or a soul in the state of this kind of grace, is often referred to as being or having Eternal Life.
The angels were all created in a state of grace, and were living in harmony with God in Heaven, until a third of them, lead by the angel of light Lucifer (also known as Satan), chose against God and were cast into Hell. The fallen angels, being creations of a higher order than humans, were damned immediately for all eternity. It is these fallen angels who are the masters of evil.
The souls of our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created with sanctifying grace, a share of God’s life, dwelling inside. Their souls were alive in God. Like the angels, they too had a perfect union with Him. They were created in a state of Original Justification. However, they were beguiled by the Serpent (a disguise of the fallen angel Satan), and chose of their own free will to disobey God’s one rule for them. They ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge knowing full well that God had warned them they would die if they did so. When God punished Adam and Eve afterward, their bodies did not die but it was their souls that died. They lost the grace in their souls they had been created with. They no longer had God dwelling in their souls. They were now separated from Him.
Furthermore, their children would also be created in a state of separation; the souls of their children would be created without grace, without God’s life, dwelling inside. This is what we call Original Sin. This does not mean humans are created evil, for God does not create anything in a state of evil. All of us offspring of Eve are simply not created in a state of grace, not in an automatic friendship with God, the way Adam, Eve and the angels had been.
Without grace in our souls, without God dwelling in our souls, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The gates of Heaven had been closed after the fall of Adam and Eve. However! God took pity on us lowly humans, and instead of casting us to hell immediately, He promised us a Savior – someone to restore our souls with God. When Christ defeated death on His Cross, when He died for our sins and Resurrected, He reopened the gates of Heaven. He made Heaven attainable. It is Christ that brings us the grace our souls need in order to be restored and in order to enter Heaven.
We first receive sanctifying grace in our Baptism, which is also known as regeneration. This is why Baptism is so very, very important to all humans. God uses an element of His creation, water, as a vehicle to apply Christ’s saving grace that our souls need to be “reborn”; to become alive again in God and to be eligible for Heaven.
Moreover, we receive grace through the Eucharist. When we partake of the Eucharist, we are partaking of Jesus’s body, blood, soul and divinity. While God uses water in Baptism to apply Christ’s grace to our souls, it is through His creations of bread and wine that God continues to feed our souls more of Christ’s grace during our earthly lives.
When we choose to sin, whether it is mortal or venial, we adversely affect the grace in our souls. In a venial sin, we remain in a state of grace, but our souls are just a bit ill or injured. In a mortal sin (a sin of grave matter done in full knowledge and with full consent, like Adam’s and Eve’s) the grace in our souls is actually lost – the way the angels, and Adam and Eve lost their grace.
However, when we approach Christ in the Sacrament of Confession with genuine and contrite sorrow, another one of God’s creations, a human, specifically a priest, is used to restore grace in our souls, whether we’re in a state of mortal or venial sin. It is a wonder God is so patient and forgiving toward us humans, but let us be thankful He is!
In a closely related side note, I would like to briefly mention what the Immaculate Conception of Mary means in this context. Jesus, as the second Adam, and being God made man, of course came to this earth in a perfect state of grace (not having been created, but simply made incarnate). Also, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the second Eve, was given the privilege of being created in the same state as her predecessor, Eve. Her Immaculate Conception means she was created with God’s grace already dwelling within her soul, in view of the merits of her Son, Jesus.
The topics of Justification and Sanctification are natural follow ups to this discussion of grace, but we’ll stop here today. I hope perhaps this explanation has helped some readers of Catholic Sistas understand these topics, as it’s not always easy to understand! I leave you with some Church Father quotes, as they are better and holier writers than I’ll ever be.
St. Justin Martyr in A.D. 151
In his First Apology talks about persons seeking to become Christians and quotes Scripture:
Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” John 3:5 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, says the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if you refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” Isaiah 1:16-20
The Christians of Carthage have an excellent name for the sacraments, when they say that baptism is nothing else than “salvation,” and the sacrament of the body of Christ nothing else than “life.” Whence, however, was this derived, but from that primitive, as I suppose, and apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ maintain it to be an inherent principle, that without baptism and partaking of the supper of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and everlasting life? So much also does Scripture testify, according to the words which we already quoted. For wherein does their opinion, who designate baptism by the term salvation, differ from what is written: “He saved us by the washing of regeneration?” Titus 3:5 or from Peter’s statement: “The like figure whereunto even baptism does also now save us?” 1 Peter 3:21 And what else do they say who call the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper life, than that which is written: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven;” John 6:51 and “The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world;” John 6:51 and “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you shall have no life in you?” John 6:53 If, therefore, as so many and such divine witnesses agree, neither salvation nor eternal life can be hoped for by any man without baptism and the Lord’s body and blood, it is vain to promise these blessings to infants without them.
St. John Chrysostom in A.D. 388
In The Priesthoodhe speaks of how priests make possible the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confession for our Salvation, and quotes Scripture:
For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” Matthew 18:18 They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained?” John 20:23 What authority could be greater than this? “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son?” John 5:22 But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. … For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?
This is the fourth of a series of posts reflecting line-by-line on the Anima Christi.
Over the past few months we have been reflecting on the rich prayer Anima Christi. The first three lines petition the Lord to sanctify, save, and inebriate the petitioner. The fourth line of the Anima Christi implores: “Water from Christ’s side, wash me.”
The “water from Christ’s side” refers to the water, mingled with blood, which flowed out at the crucifixion when a soldier thrust his lance into Jesus’ side to give assurance of his death. Tradition, supported by medical fact, holds that the soldier’s lance actually went up through Jesus’ ribs into his heart, and so the blood and water that came out of Jesus’ side originated from his heart (the water being fluid from the pericardium). Jesus confirmed this to St. Faustina when he gave her the Divine Mercy image, which shows rays of light, representing blood and water, emanating from his heart.
This is an interesting biological tidbit but it has such beautiful spiritual implications. The heart, of course, is thought of as the center of emotion, particularly love. The cleansing water that we are asking Jesus for in this prayer is water straight from his very heart – from the center of his love for us. Jesus underscored this spiritual implication by telling St. Faustina that the blood and water “issued forth from the depths of [his] tender mercy.”
It’s significant that the author of this prayer specifies exactly what water with which he’s asking to be washed. When we pray this prayer we should be thinking of the origin of the water – the crucifixion. It is by the sacrifice of Jesus’ death that any washing clean is possible. Without this sacrifice, we would be have no access to cleansing water. We would be mired in the dirt of our sin forever.
The first time we become beneficiaries of the water flowing from the crucified Christ is at Baptism. Water is used to cleanse our souls of original sin (and actual sin, if we are beyond the age or reason at the time we are baptized). We believe that this cleansing with water is very real, not just a symbol. It of course is not literally the water from Christ’s side with which we are washed, but the water that is used is itself efficacious in making our souls spotless. Without literal water, the washing away of original sin cannot take place.
Baptism is the starting place of our salvation but it does not ensure a permanently-clean soul. As Catholics, we understand that we have to be forgiven over and over again because we sin over and over again. Each time we fall, we must ask forgiveness, repent and start anew. As we sin on a regular basis, we need spiritual cleansing on a regular basis; and though we can bless ourselves with holy water to remove venial sins, we don’t always need literal water to cleanse our souls. The Sacrament of Confession is the normal way that we seek forgiveness, and there’s certainly no water needed there!
As reception of the Eucharist also forgives venial sins, this verse asking the Lord to remove our sins is very appropriate in a prayer that people would be praying after Communion. But I see it as asking for an even deeper cleansing. We are asking the crucified Lord to cleanse us not only of our sins themselves, but also of our imperfections, our tendencies toward sin, our attachment to sin. We want to be purified completely so that our souls can be restored to the pristine condition they were in after our Baptisms. We want to be able to present ourselves to the Lord “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).
In summary, the fourth verse of Anima Christi is asking Christ, by the power of his crucifixion, to pour his very heart out over us to make our souls sparkle as they did just after our Baptisms – to make us new again.
I often struggle to find the “right” words to say to the Lord after receiving him in the Eucharist. No words ever seem adequate. Writing this reflection has reminded me that the treasury of prayers in the Church provides us rich and beautiful ways to express the wordless whisperings of our hearts. There are those Christians who believe that you should always pray “off the cuff” and that there is something “less than” or even bad about repeating memorized prayers. I, however, am grateful to have such spiritually-deep prayers available to me, not only to help me to express myself to God, but to help me to hear God expressing himself to me.