Within the horizons of the theology of nature and grace, there is a basic theology of sacrament without which we will always struggle to fully understand and teach the Christian faith. Once we make that central ground of revealed truth our own, then we will have immense confidence and consistency in the way we approach our teaching and catechising. What follows is an effort to explore the central Christian notion of sacrament, beginning with Christ, the primal sacrament.
Jesus – the Human One, Sacrament of God
The seeds of a theology of nature and grace were sown on the first Pentecost Sunday. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were already expanding the hearts of the disciples with a new understanding of the meaning of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Above all, what was gripping their imagination was the fact that it was in his humanity that he achieved what he had to achieve. The transformation of their lives was brought about by the truth of their friendship with this ordinary, extraordinary man. At a high level of intimacy – because, in a sense, their very lives were at stake – they shared their deepest doubts, hopes, fears and expectations. They were called, forgiven, and captivated by him. Their world was turned around by him. And at the end of it all, after the terrible trauma of his death, and the unreal experiences of his resurrection, something amazing began to dawn on them. To know him, they now realised, was to know God. To walk, in love, with him was to walk, in love, with God. In the company of Jesus they had confided in, touched and embraced God-made-flesh. That is why Edward Schillebeeckx called Jesus ‘the primordial sacrament of the encounter with God’.
The Spirit of Pentecost inspired them to grasp the fact that what was true of Jesus was true of everyone. God was now, incredibly, as accessible as any true human encounter. Jesus first, and then the Church, became the sacrament of universal salvation. This is something we must all learn. In solidarity with him, everyone is a sacrament of God. Because every detail of Jesus’ humanity shone out with divine grace, so too with us. (see Gaudium et Spes para 22) Because Jesus, to be truly human, would have to have experienced every possible human emotion, then every possible human emotion is potentially revelatory of God. Put another way, it was God’s desire that the divine essence, that the splendour of divinity, should be fully revealed in the limited, time-bound, imperfect humanity of a man called Jesus – Jesus, the Human One.
In more theological language, the story goes like this. Jesus is not just the bearer of revelation; he is the revelation. Revelation is more than a series of truths about God; it is a human being. He is, in his humanity, the message he brings. Jesus does not merely utter words about God; he himself is the uttered word. The humanity of Jesus is the summit and full reality of both creation and of God. Every moment of his life was an invitation to his disciples, and to us, to become more or less human. Always open to love, he himself never compromised. To discover what humanity ought to be, what it can be, the Christian looks at Jesus because he reveals, and indeed is, both the very fullness of created being and of God-become-human. His is the humanity against which we all measure the truth of our lives. That all of us, like him, might become Godlike, or rather reveal the divinity we already carry, is the purpose of life.
Full of this dynamic vision of the meaning of Christ’s humanity then and now, the committed teacher or catechist will find new energy for unfolding the relevance for her students. No detail of their lives will be immune from the constant offer of grace. Whatever excites them, frightens them, confuses them will be the subject matter (and can really be the only subject-matter) of a discussion about Jesus (or, for that matter, about any central aspect of the Christian faith). The reason for holding to this view is that if revelation is about God – a God who desires the fullness of intimacy with us – then equally it must be about humanity, for Christ is both the reality of God’s desire for us, and of our full acceptance of that desire. The locus and moment of revelation and salvation then, takes place in the living experience of humanity, and its meaning, in the light of Christ.
Jesus, the sacrament of God, was so thoroughly human that he scandalised his neighbours more than once. John the Baptist came fasting and they said he was possessed. Jesus came eating and drinking and they called him a glutton and a drunkard. He showed his anger, his deep desire, his need of male and female company, his frustration and his impatience – ‘Get behind me Satan,’ and ‘How long have I been with you and yet, you have learned so little!’ This is the humanity that has opened heaven to us (Heb 5,1-10). In his total humanity, Jesus took on the three great sufferings of physical pain, a loss of his good name, and a sense of ultimate abandonment by his father. He also laughed, cried, rejoiced, befriended, loved, was angry, was tempted, was intimate, celebrated, needed to rest, enjoyed eating and drinking. He confronted evil, and above all, confronted the dark night of his own soul. He was betrayed by one he deeply loved. He grew in wisdom and age and grace . . .
Since it was in the humanity of Jesus, his human friendship, his expression of his emotions, that people experienced God, it is to the purification of our own humanity that we must dedicate our lives if we are ever to be ‘other Christs’ as we are all called to be. It is our authentic, vulnerable humanity that people can identify with. Just as it was in the humanity of Jesus that God revealed God’s own essence and unconditional love so too, it is through our humanity that God continues to reveal the divine pity and compassion to others. And just as Jesus had to enter into the desert of his own heart, and face his own temptations, demons and shadows, so as to stay truly human and therefore divine, so too we need to spend time in the shadow places of our hidden lives if we are ever to be credible and worthy teachers and preachers of the Word.
‘Begin with the human heart!’ said Meister Eckhart, many centuries ago.
(Begin with the Heart pp 77-80)