The Sacramental Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Over the last several weeks we have considered how each of the seven sacraments can serve as a model for our spiritual life. Today in conclusion let us consider how our whole life can be sacramental.

The sacraments are sacred signs. They show Christ’s presence in all the key moments of life: birth, death, coming of age, community leadership, the most basic relationships of family, our daily struggle to love better, and, in the Eucharist, our daily life in communion with the God we worship.

The sacraments confer grace. They penetrate us with the life of Christ. But it would be too little to think that grace comes only “after” we receive them. It is grace that draws us toward them, grace that leads one to ask for Baptism, grace that leads the sinner to repent and go to Confession, grace that makes us long for the Eucharist, divine, sanctifying, transforming grace that leads us to consecrate our lives in marriage or the priesthood.

The sacraments, we could say, confer grace “in both directions.” They “go before us,” drawing us on, pulling ourselves to them, just as the people of his time were drawn by the magnetism of grace to Jesus. Grace does not leave us as we were before; grace makes us want to do something, to come to Jesus. Grace makes us want to express our new life through the sacraments. All of our life, the Holy Spirit is driving us to the sacraments.

In the sacraments we consummate that grace, we live it out in its fullest way. In Confession, we become no longer just sort of penitent, but true, sacramental penitents; no longer just vaguely thinking of Jesus, but uniting our sufferings to his in the Anointing of the Sick, etc. The sacraments show what grace does in us. And when we come to those perfect moments in the life of grace, when we act like graced people by truly participating in the sacraments, the sacramental life of grace is fulfilled and renewed in us, and so the sacraments drive us forward, as well.

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St. Patrick’s fabulous prayer, “the Breast Plate,” sums up the sacramental life admirably. Toward the end, it says

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left

To live the life of the sacraments is always to be running to Christ, and to know that it is Christ himself who has given you the grace to run to him. Christ before me, Christ behind me.

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At the heart of the sacraments is the Eucharist. They all revolve around the Eucharist as around the sun.

We receive Christ in communion. On the one hand, our life is profoundly united to him. He comes to dwell in us, and draws us to dwell in him. Our whole life is consecrated by union with Jesus.

On the other hand, we receive this union as a gift – purchased at a price we did not pay. We know that union with God is not something we can grasp at, but something he freely offers to us. We express this everytime we come running to communion – every time, even in prayer and at a distance, we long to come running to communion.

We offer Christ on the altar. He is the priest, offering perfect thanksgiving to the Father – and we unite ourselves to his perfect prayer. He is the victim, the sign we offer of how precious the Father is to us. He is the altar, upon which we offer ourselves. By joining our worship to his, we not only accept him as the perfect worship, but say that we want to give our life as fully to the Father as he did.

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To live the sacramental life is to be all Eucharistic. It is to love this sign, this culmination and fulfillment, this source and summit of our perfect prayer and perfect self-offering in love. And it is to love that culmination of the life of grace in such a way that it penetrates all of our life. To be all Eucharistic.

The other sacraments show our whole life ordered to the Eucharist. Our new birth is our entrance to the Eucharistic Church, our coming of age is our commission to preach this perfect union. Even our marriages are calls to show the true, interpersonal love that is Jesus, and to order all our lives to helping others to love him better.

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What parts of your life seem the least sacramental, the least Eucharistic? What would it mean to let them be filled with sacramental, Eucharistic grace?

eric.m.johnston

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