The conviction on which sacramental theology rests is nowhere better expressed than by St. Leo the Great in his sermon on the Ascension: after Jesus ascended into heaven, what was visible in his earthly life has passed over into the sacraments.
At Easter, beloved brethren, it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father…
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments…
The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity…
Leo the Great, Sermo 2 de Ascensione, Office of Readings, Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter
I was very pleased to get the new issue of Worship, where I have an article that brings together some thoughts from the early days of the COVID lockdown with research related to my work on baptism of desire. It provides some of the intellectual background for my thoughts on the limits of e-worship in America.
The article “Spiritual Communion or Desire for Communion?: Sacraments and Their Substitutes in the Time of COVID-19” appears in the April 2022 issue of Worship.
Here’s the abstract:
This article critiques the concept of “spiritual communion” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It traces the idea’s roots to the earlier doctrine of baptism of desire and explores how the scholastic distinction between the sacramentum and res sacramenti supports it. However, it argues that such a distinction runs the risk of reductivism, discounting the embodied and communal dimension of the celebration of the sacraments. It suggests that understanding the Eucharist to represent a single irreducible good which produces multiple secondary goods provides a better way to understand the sacrament. Such a framework is able to account for what is positive in such practices as spiritual communion or televised liturgies while avoiding the danger of presenting them as replacements for the sacrament itself.
Christ is risen! He has burst open the gates of hell and let the dead go free; he has renewed the earth through the members of his Church now born again in baptism, and has made it blossom afresh with men brought back to life. His Holy Spirit has unlocked the doors of heaven, which stand wide open to receive those who rise from the earth. Because of Christ’s resurrection the thief ascends to paradise, the bodies of the blessed enter the holy city, and the dead are restored to the company of the living. There is an upward movement in the whole of creation, each element raising itself to something higher. We see hell restoring its victims to the upper regions, earth sending its buried dead to heaven, and heaven presenting the new arrivals to the Lord. In one and the same movement, our Savior’s passion raises men from the depths, lifts them up form the earth, and sets them in the heights…
Over at America, my friend Rachel Lu has authored the most thought-provoking reaction I’ve seen so far on what appears to be the downfall of Roe vs. Wade, Do we really honor motherhood?. It’s both personal and penetratingly analytical, a thought-provoking lead-up to Mother’s Day.
Roe vs. Wade was a horrific decision in every respect, an act of judicial lawlessness, the fruits of which can be seen in the lawless tactics — from slandering Supreme Court nominees to this week’s leak and violent protests — employed to defend it. Violence begets violence. There seems no line of decency or ethics that Roe’s partisans will not cross to protect it — like a lie that requires a whole string of other lies to keep it going. Listening to the President bluster about having the “right” to abortion-without-limits “because I’m just a child of God, I exist,” one cannot help but wonder, Have you no shame, man?
Rachel’s essay goes deeper than political debates and gets at more complex questions of our social and human identity. There’s plenty in it to challenge everyone’s thinking, including theologians and pro-lifers. It suggests ways in which we’ve ended up with the brutal culture of abortion that has prevailed in Roe’s wake by taking the sacrifices women make to be mothers for granted. I’ll offer just one example, Rachel’s surprising analogy between soldiers and mothers.
At first glance, it might seem strange to compare mothering to soldiering; one involves killing and the other fosters life. In many ways though, the parallels are quite strong. Historically, these are the only two demanding vocations that have been foisted on people in nearly all human societies, with little or no regard for their personal feelings or level of preparation. The demands are daunting, but failure can bring crippling consequences for individuals and society. Motherhood is also like military service in that both require recruits to put their very bodies on the line, running very real risks of disfigurement or death. These remarkable demands are justified in the simplest of terms: They are necessary. Civilization itself is at stake.
With winter now banished, one of my favorite signs of Roman spring is here — flowers sprouting from the tile rooftops. Above, my favorite, the corner of St. Ignatius Church seen from the terrace of our building, below a more modest view from my room. I’m not sure what this annual effusion of greenery means for the structural integrity of the tiles — and, I guess, I don’t really care. I find the flowers exuberant and surprising and, yes, just a tad reckless. In other words, a perfect sign of Easter.
I’ve always thought the flowers — life and beauty — breaking through the tiles a nice metaphor for the Resurrection, like the angels dressed in dazzling white among the scattered tombstones. This year they’ve also put me in mind of Peter. Peter is, after all, a slightly reckless figure, the desires of his heart a step ahead of his own moral capacities. His love for Jesus leads him to boast of his fidelity on Holy Thursday — “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” — and then to find that his steadfastness has fallen short of his aspirations. It is devastating to read of Peter’s betrayal; one can imagine how much more devastating it was to live it.