Good Shepherd Sunday, and we find ourselves in the season of “special sacraments.”
Our new Catholics received sacraments of initiation three weeks ago. Our vigorous youth have recently been confirmed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, strengthened with the anointing of Christ Himself. Soon our little ones will receive the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion for the first time. Then, in the cathedral in Richmond, and in cathedrals all over the world, young men will be ordained. And some of us will have some weddings and baby baptisms to celebrate soon, too.
We hear the Lord Jesus clearly say to us today, “I am your Shepherd.” We know that He uses many means to shepherd us to heaven, but the sacraments above all. So let’s pause and meditate for a moment on the sacraments.
How many sacraments has the Lord given to His Church? Seven. Seven. Good number. Like the seven days of the week, the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven golden lampstands in the heavenly tabernacle—not to mention the jersey number worn by Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Pete Maravich, John Elway, David Beckham, Nate Archibald, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, and Joe Theismann.
The seven sacraments can be divided into categories in a number of ways. Let’s divide them into the two categories of ‘repeatable’ and ‘unrepeatable.’ Which sacraments are unrepeatable?
Baptism. Confirmation. Holy Orders. All of these mark a person spiritually in a permanent, irreversible way. Marriage? Well, a person could marry a second time. But: “till death do us part.” A person can celebrate the sacrament of marriage a second time only after a certain someone dies.
Okay. What is a sacrament? Every sacrament has two aspects, both of which make the sacrament a sacrament.
On the one hand, all the sacraments involve outward, visible things. For the Holy Eucharist, you need: bread, wine, an altar, and a priest. For Anointing of the Sick, you need oil; for Baptism, water. For Confession you need a conversation. For marriage, you need a man and a woman. Etc.
So: sacraments are visible, “outward.” Their visible, outward elements have been established by God. Water, oil, bread, wine, man, woman. But the Lord established the visible, outward aspect for the sake of the other dimension of the sacraments.
Sacraments convey invisible grace. They give to us the ineffable power and love of God. They unite us with Him, strengthen that union, repair wounds to it, help us to help others achieve it and sustain it, and guide us to its final consummation in heaven.
Now, remember when we were talking about our faith, what we believe in?
We believe in one thing: God. We believe in two fundamental mysteries: the ___________ and the ___________.* We believe all the articles of the ___________.**
We believe in the holy Catholic Church, which means we believe in the divine grace communicated by Her sacraments. We see, we hear, we taste, feel, and smell the outward, visible aspect of the Church’s sacraments. We believe in the inward, invisible aspect.
We see bread and wine; we believe in Body and Blood. We see water pouring; we believe in spiritual cleansing. We see the Bishop anoint with holy chrism; we believe in the Holy Spirit coming down from heaven, like on Pentecost. We hear the priest say the forgiving words of absolution; we believe that Jesus Christ Himself forgives. Etc.
Now, what about the ‘repeatable’ sacraments? Holy Eucharist. Confession. Let’s focus on these two.
If getting to heaven is like rowing a boat down a river, and Holy Baptism puts the water into my personal river to heaven, and Confirmation gives me the boat, and Marriage or Holy Orders actually puts me in the boat, then the Holy Eucharist and Confession are my two oars.
How often do I need to pull on these oars? Well, God Himself says: All able-bodied individuals must attend Holy Mass at least once a week. Okay. What about twice a week? Even better. Four times a week? Great. Every day? Great. In these parts, that requires some driving.
What about Confession? God says, Whenever you commit a mortal sin, you must confess it to a priest. Okay. God also says to us, through His Church, Go to Confession at least once a year. Okay.
Fr. Mark says: If I myself let more than a month go by without going to Confession, I’m slipping. Thanks be to God, it has been over 15 years since I let a month go by without going to Confession at least once. If I don’t have any mortal sins to confess, I confess the venial sins I can think of.
A person whose conscience does not accuse him or her of any mortal sins can make a good confession simply by reciting the Act of Contrition to a priest–and good will come of it. My recommendation: Confession once a month, whether you need it or not.
May God be praised for His sublime gifts! Thank you, dear Lord, for giving us Your life through the sacraments of Your Church.
* Trinity and Incarnation