Sacraments and the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Someone once said to me, “I don’t need a priest to forgive my sins. I go directly to God.” I shuddered, hoping that he didn’t realize the import of what he was saying, for no one goes directly to God: “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”[1] Furthermore, the essential characteristic of that mediation is what we may call physical. Jesus did things: he visited, he spoke, he touched, he even once made a paste and applied it to the eyes of the man born blind. In short, he was located, and one had to go to where he was to encounter God in the man Jesus. The pre-Reformation Churches—Roman Catholic in the Latin and Easter rites, as well as the Orthodox—have maintained this pattern, established by Jesus himself, in their sacramental ministry where location, words and actions are the means by which the believer encounters God in the Lord Jesus. Hence, we have church buildings, sacred art, rituals, liturgies, postures of prayer and so on. The entire panoply of Catholic devotion, with its abundant use of images, and especially of the crucifix, witnesses to our appreciation of the concrete nature of God’s mode of acting in Jesus, and throughout sacred history as well.  When, for instance, God established the Old Testament forms of worship, he prescribed external rites, the execution of which gave the worshipper the sure conviction that his prayer was being heard. Are we Christians to be less favoured than our Jewish forbears in the faith? Certainly not! For we too have our assured access to the throne of God, through Jesus, seated “at the right hand of God to intercedes for us?[2]

Our tradition has singled out seven acts that in a special way assure our acting in accordance with God’s commands and as such are pleasing to him. The sacraments, whose effect may be enhanced by the devotion one brings to their celebration,[3] have an objective reality that is independent of fervour on the part of the participant.[4] Baptism does remove original sin and incorporate the infant into the Church, even if he is unaware of it. Similarly, the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ whatever one’s disposition, to the point that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”[5] An instance of this aspect of the sacraments is found in today’s first reading, in which the Apostles Peter and John travel from Jerusalem to Samaria to endow the baptized Christians there with the Holy Spirit, i.e., to complete their Christian initiation that had begun with their baptism. This episode raises a question that can illumine our understanding of the event, which corresponds to the sacrament of confirmation: Were the Apostles themselves confirmed? More broadly, had they been baptized, or ordained or received any of the sacraments as we know them in the Church today?

I can best respond to these questions by noting that a sacrament is a participation by the believer in some event or aspect of the mission of Jesus. Confirmation, to begin with today’s reading, is the fulfilment now of what Jesus promised his disciples when he met them after the resurrection, viz., that he would send “the Spirit of truth [who] will guide you into all the truth.”[6] That pledge was accomplished at Pentecost when the Spirit descended on the Apostles gathered in the upper room. Pentecost, sometimes recognized as the birthday of the Church, signals the beginning of the public proclamation of the Gospel. That apostolic experience is made available to us today in confirmation, by which the Christian is empowered to witness to his faith by having experienced in the sacrament his own Pentecost. The Apostles, therefore, were confirmed, perhaps not in what we might now consider a full liturgical ritual, but by the event itself. And it is access to this event that the ceremony gives to us, who come after. Similarly, in baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in sacramental contact with the death and resurrection of Jesus:


Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.[7]


Again, the Apostles experienced the actual events that baptism makes present, in that they lived through the agony of the crucifixion and the exultation of the resurrection. That was their “baptism.” Similarly, their “first Holy Communion,” so to speak, was at the Last Supper when the Eucharist was established; and their ordination was effected when Jesus then said, “Do this in memory of me.”[8] Repentance and forgiveness likewise, in the paradigmatic case of Peter, were associated with the Passion, when “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly,”[9] a text complemented by Peter’s threefold profession of love for Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.[10] Thus, sins can be forgiven, and, of course, the sacramental principle states that forgiveness will be experienced in a ceremony of some kind. The intriguing history of the sacrament of reconciliation—confession—shows how the tradition of the Church preserved as it developed the original germ of the sacrament as exhibited in Peter. We may be inclined to envy the Apostles for their immediate contact with Jesus during his time on earth, but in the sacraments we are as close to him as they were: as present to Jesus on the cross as if we were on Mount Calvary and to Christ risen as if we had encountered him at the empty tomb or in the upper room: “Blessed,” indeed, “are those who have not seen and yet believe.”[11]

[1] 1 Tim 2.5.

[2] Rom 8.34.

[3] Ex opere operantis.

[4] Ex opere operato.

[5] 1 Cor 11.27.

[6] Jn 16.7,13.

[7] Rom 6.3-4.

[8] Lk 22.19.

[9] Lk 22.61-62.

[10] Jn 21.15-19.

[11] Jn 20.29.