Fresh insights in sacramental theology

My summer reading this year included Fr. José Granados’s excellent book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh, which Catholic University of America Press has recently made available in English. (The Spanish original Tratado General de los Sacramentos came out in 2016.)

Like the Church Fathers, Granados emphasizes the rootedness of the sacraments in the Incarnation of Jesus. This means giving due importance–too often lacking in theology–to the human body, which is the locus for all of our relationships.

The sacraments tell us that the message of Jesus is always rooted in the concrete relations that we form in our flesh.

José Granados, Introduction to Sacramental Theology, xiv

The book’s preface eloquently identifies the fundamental desire to which the sacraments respond, our need for the presence of Jesus:

“We have his parables, we lack the sight of him; we have his commandments, we lack his voice; we have the strength of his commission, we lack the touch of his arms. Without the second, the first loses its foundations: doctrine that is clear but abstract; morality that is superior but utopian; mission that is great but irrelevant.” (xiii-xiv)

The sacraments provide what is missing.

This leads to surprising conclusions about the need for a sacramental basis for today’s evangelization. A fairly common error is to think that responding to the needs of the modern world means conforming to the modern world; really, it means offering what contemporary life lacks.

“In fact, the great evil that afflicts the postmodern subject is his isolation in the cell of subjectivity. What remains is a weak individual who moves to the tune of his most intense feeling, with no relations to sustain him and with no path to bring him to his destination. We will not cure this sickness by proposing that he encounter God in the depths of his soul. For his real problem is the lack of relational environments that would enable him to understand his true identity, which is always discovered and forged in an encounter and a communion.” (383)

Interview on Sacramental Theology

Chapel of the Corporal, Orvieto

Last month I had an interesting discussion with Jesuit scholastic David Inczauskis about the sacraments–what they are, why we have them, how they and the theology surrounding them developed through time, what are the challenges for sacramental theology today. David produces an in-depth podcast on liberation theology, so my general introduction to sacramental theology was the lead-in to some of his reflections on liberation theology and the sacraments, which are also included in the podcast. Here’s the Apple version of the episode:

Episode 22: Liturgy and Sacraments, the Liberation Theology Podcast. I’m told it can be found on other podcast venues as well.

Abraham’s promises

Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

This morning, I want to talk about Abraham.  For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related.  Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree.  He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis.  He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented.  It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation.  When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards.  And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock.  And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again.  And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.

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Augustine’s baptism

The baptism of St. Augustine, San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:

“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”

Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.

“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”

St. Augustine, Confessions, Book IX, vi (14)

More on Augustine (and Ambrose)

Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.

San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)

In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.

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Visiting Augustine’s Tomb

Arca di Sant’Agostino (1362), San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, Pavia, Italy

Theologian don’t have a G.O.A.T. designation. (That’s “Greatest of All Time” for those who aren’t as hip as yours truly.) But if we did, Augustine of Hippo would probably get my vote. Sure, he’s not as systematic as Thomas Aquinas, but he more than makes up for it with humanity and passion, the way you can feel him throw himself so completely into the quest for God in his sermons and treatises. If you read Augustine’s sermons out loud, you can feel the power of his rhetoric. I’ve had many a conversation with the saint as I worked on my dissertation.

So it was quite a thrill–like visiting Graceland, or Disney World before it went woke–to spend an afternoon at the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia last week. You might reasonably wonder how the North African theologian’s bones ended up in a smallish city in the north of Italy. Pavia, today sensible and pleasant, was the capital of the Kingdom of the Lombards in the 8th century. After his death, Augustine’s relics had been hustled out of Hippo to save them from the Vandals (today the tribe would be called the Mostly Peaceful Protesters) who lay siege to Hippo as its bishop lay dying. The saint’s body ended up in Sardinia, which, like much of the Mediterranean coastline in the Middle Ages, was subject to vicious Saracen raiding. For safekeeping, Liutprand, King of the Lombards–who is buried in the same church–had the bones brought to Pavia. There they reside in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro.

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Leo the Great on the Ascension

Raphael, The Ascension, Vatican Museums

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

On Spiritual Communion

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.

Maximus of Turin on the Resurrection

Albrecht Dürer woodcut, cathedral museum, Mdina, Malta

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…

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Signs of Easter

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.

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