The Sacraments of the Catholic Church.
That striking and most instructive Bible story of Balaam and his ass has furnished material for much small wit and a great deal of irreverence on the part of some who ought to realize that God's holy Word is too sacred a book to be treated in such frivolous fashion. In that story the Holy Ghost tells us that "the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand." This is a very significant statement for one who stops to think how different the world must be to brute senses from that which it is to us. We are impressed by this over and over again if we are at all careful to observe the ways of beasts and birds and creeping things. The dog is guided by his nose far more than by his eyes, and the horse quite as much by his ears as by any other sense. The lower creatures appear often to have intimation of things which we cannot in the smallest degree discern. There is good reason to think there are countless realities, sounds and odours, in nature of which we have no perception whatever. We supplement our sense with all sorts of artificial aids, mechanical inventions and the enslaved forces of nature, but the brutes and the birds seem often to far outmaster us in their sensibility. How does the homing pigeon direct her flight so unerringly to her dwelling place when let loose hundreds of miles away from it? And those senses which we have, and sometimes fancy to be very fairly developed, are put to shame by some poor human creature, who has only half as many channels of contact with the material universe as ourselves. The blind attain to marvellous delicacy of touch and hearing, and the deaf learn to talk as well as those with the best of ears simply through the study of the movements of the lips.
I. Now the Holy Ghost teaches us that there is a vast and very lovely spiritual world lying behind, being as it were veiled by, this natural world of sense. That spiritual realm is the natural home of the angels. Balaam's ass was given power to discern the form of one of these bright spirits opposing the sinful prophet's course. Afterwards the prophet's own eyes were "opened," as the Bible puts it, and he too saw the menacing messenger of God. Often we read of the eyes of men being thus opened to recognize angelic existences which they could not discern with unaided human vision. Our natural life is thus allowed from time to time to penetrate that celestial life at some point, and then we have what we call a miracle, or if it be in the realm of our devotional life a mystery, such as a sacrament. For a mystery does not practically differ from a miracle except in the fact that it is not recognizable by our senses, but appeals only to our faith. It is not the less a reality of that spiritual world which lies behind the natural world, and is the real existence, our natural world being related to it much as the realm of imagination, of fairies and goblins in which children find so much delight, is related to the world of actual earth-facts. The Catholic religion is concerned primarily and chiefly with this spiritual existence. It deals with the world's matters only in so far as they bear upon that. It gives heed to the corporal works of mercy in the hope that by means of them it may the more powerfully preach the Gospel to the poor. The practical business of God's Church with individual souls is to introduce them to that spiritual country as would-be inhabitants of it, and then to develop and train them up as citizens of it. You perceive that it is a strange unearthly proceeding throughout, and those who look upon Christ's religion as meant merely to ameliorate and sweeten this life can have no comprehension of the sacramental system of the Catholic Church. It is that upon which I want to dwell with you this evening. The Catholic Church is ever drawing aside the veil which hides the true and spiritual existence from the eyes of men, and seeking to persuade them to look so earnestly upon the unearthly vision that they may become enamoured of it, and enter with enthusiasm into her system for making them partakers in that glorious life. Of course such a consummation cannot be reached by any earthly means. The celestial existence is utterly foreign to our present being. No amount of natural development or refinement of human civilization is capable of translating the creature into the life of the Creator, of working the mighty metamorphosis of the mortal into the immortal. The only power which can effect this miracle of miracles is the death of our Lord upon the Cross and His resurrection. The only agent mighty enough to bring it to pass is the Holy Ghost Himself.
II. Just as we believe there never was or could have been such a thing as spontaneous generation, for all life can come from God alone by His free gift, so the Church teaches us to believe that the first and fundamental step in the uplifting of the creature to the life of the Creator must be the independent and most gracious act of God without any merit or assistance on the part of the individual. Therefore this first step is aptly likened to birth. We came into being in this world without any choice of our own, we were given existence by God. Our parents indeed were used as His agents in the manner of our coming into being, but they could not bestow life upon us. No more can anyone bestow celestial life upon the soul. The parents are indeed the agents of God in bringing the little child to the font, in promising for it the things it cannot of itself yet undertake, but the new birth is altogether His gracious act. It is a veritable birth, an entrance into a true state of existence not otherwise to be attained, so far as we know. Our Lord's words are very express upon the point: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It is not for us to limit the divine power. He may have His own way of admitting into the kingdom of God those who through no fault of their own have never been baptized. With that however we have nothing to do. He could not speak more plainly than He does here to Nicodemus, both as to the fact that Baptism is a true birth into the kingdom of God, and that there is no other way of admission into that kingdom except Baptism. One likes to find parables in nature which illustrate, in some small degree at least, the truths of revelation. Let us take a leaf out of the story of insect life. Entomologists tell us concerning the order of the Lepidoptera, to which the butterflies belong, that there are four distinct stages in their existence. They begin life, as other insects, in the egg. When hatched out the second stage of their being is that of the larva, the grub or caterpillar as we familiarly know it. The caterpillar lives his life, and then enters the stage of pupa being, as a chrysalis, apparently dead and hung up in a coffin of his own spinning. His life is not truly ended, for when the appointed time is come he issues forth from the pupa condition as a lovely butterfly to float on painted wings radiant in the sunshine. This final stage the entomologist calls imago, that is the image or the perfect creature. I beg of you to keep these simple facts of natural history in your mind as we proceed, for I think they will help us to grasp the Church's doctrine of the sacramental life.
The life of the insect in the egg is very imperfect, embryonic indeed, but it is a true life. The life of the human infant yet in the mother's arms and nursed at her breast is more than embryonic, but it is exceedingly undeveloped. The spiritual life of a child just baptized into the kingdom of God is hardly more than that of the insect yet in the egg. It is unable to do anything of itself to fulfil its high calling. But there is life. It has begun that existence which has its true perfection in the country of the angels with God. So Baptism, the gift of life, is the first sacrament of the Church.
III. Baptism however is no more than the beginning of that spiritual life which it is the business of the Church to foster and develop among the children of men. The tiny insect does not remain long in the embryonic condition of existence in the egg. It issues forth and assumes its own functions in the world, seeking its food, going on instinctively to fulfil the end of its creation. The little child brought by Holy Baptism into the realm of the celestial life, as by a true birth, soon comes to an age at which the moral sense exerts itself. There is recognized the distinction between right and wrong, and the obligation to do the right and resist the wrong.
There is moreover an enemy in the path, that wicked one, even Satan, who is ever trying to overthrow the gracious work of God in the soul. We cannot remain in the irresponsible state of infancy. Whether we will or not we must face the battle of life, the struggle of temptation. It is at this point the Catholic Church provides her children with another sacrament. The kind Master knowing that the power of the Evil One would be too great for His children were they unassisted in their resistance to him has vouchsafed the grace of Confirmation, as it is called, or strengthening, by the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost. This sacrament comes at once as defensive and offensive armour to the soul, guarding it in all sorts of ways against the insidious assaults of the enemy, equipping it with many mighty weapons before which he must quail, and which if right bravely wielded must surely beat down his attack and put him to flight. When David went forth to fight the Philistine giant, Goliath of Gath, Saul wished to array him in the royal armour, but David was unused to that and could not wear it. However he did not go forth unarmed but with his shepherd's sling, a terrible weapon in the hands of one well-skilled to use it, as Goliath found to his cost. You perceive then that Confirmation is a sacrament appropriate to spiritual adolescence, fully equipping the soul for its lifelong fight as the good soldier of the Lord Christ.
IV. Nothing is more characteristic of the insect in the larva-stage of its existence than its need of food. It is by this that it chiefly goes on to develop the fuller conditions of its being. And as in this world's life food is of the utmost necessity of our existence, so also we ought to expect something corresponding to food in the spiritual sphere to be of prime importance to the Christian. We have not only to be sustained in that heavenly state of being to which Baptism admitted us, but we have to grow and develop in it more and more unto the perfection of the spiritual being. Most reasonable then is it that we should look for a sacrament of food and drink. And I believe that no one with unprejudiced mind can read that marvellous sixth chapter of St. John, in which our Lord speaks of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, without realizing the singular greatness and unique beauty of the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist which the Catholic Church holds and teaches. The miracle of the loaves, where five thousand were fed, had greatly excited the people. They came asking for a sign that our Lord was divine. They apparently had been prompted by the Pharisees to take the ground that the miracle of the loaves was not so wonderful as that of the manna, on which their forefathers had been fed supernaturally every day for forty years. The Master reminds them that while that manna was called bread from heaven it was not bread from heaven in the highest sense, but only bread for this earth, supernaturally supplied. It gave the partakers of it no supernatural life. "Your fathers," He said, "did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead." But He would give them bread from heaven of which men should eat that they might not die. And the bread from heaven was nothing else but Himself--"I am the bread of life." . . . "I am the living bread which came down from heaven." . , . "The bread which I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." ..."Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." And so He went on marvellously unfolding the great truth that He had celestial food to supply to His people, and that food His own flesh and blood. One can see how nothing but His flesh and blood could be adequate meat and drink for the spiritual life, for no earthly nourishment could profit the soul. Still we might imagine in a mystical sense the Lord's body and blood, His very vitality, as in a real way supplied to the believer through prayer and devout meditation, entering in heart and mind within the celestial places and as it were feasting thereat the King's own board. Howbeit He has not left us in doubt as to the way in which He meant us to be partakers of His flesh and blood. "For in the night in which He was betrayed, He took bread; and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, He took the cup; and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of this; for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins; Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me." Who can doubt that the gracious Master meant this Eucharistic food to be the nourishment and sustenance of His people as they go on developing the life vouchsafed them in their Baptism to its full glory and perfection? Therefore the Church has ever taught concerning the Eucharist that it was the sacrament of food and drink for Christian souls, and that it was as impossible for the disciple of Christ to live the heavenly life without the Eucharist as it would be for man to support the existence of this world without the sustenance of this world. It is most true that the outward forms of the Eucharistic meal do not appeal to our human senses as the body and blood of the Lord, or indeed as any aliment properly fitted to sustain within us the spiritual life. No doubt because so unearthly a reality could not be grasped by such feeble organs as our senses. We ought not to forget however that one of the fundamental principles of our religion is that we must live in it largely by faith and not by sight. We must take our Lord's word for things. He is not worthy to be reckoned our Lord if we cannot trust Him absolutely and unquestioningly. It is a part of that obedience whereby our loyalty is tested that we are called upon to accept the sacramental mysteries on His authority and not on the evidences of our own senses. He said very plainly and simply of the Eucharistic gifts; "This is my body," and "This is my blood." Therefore we believe that in the Eucharist He gives us His body and His blood, though our senses only tell us of the presence of bread and wine.
V. There is a characteristic of the human soul, in the days of its earthly pilgrimage, which has no true counterpart in the life of the lower creatures of our earth. It is sin. The beasts and birds and creeping things, caterpillars and butterflies, have no moral consciousness. Yet it is to be noted that they have to endure some of the consequences of man's sin. They must suffer pain; they meet with disease, and accident, and often with premature and violent death. In his spiritual life man is constantly falling sick, being hurt and maimed in various ways, perhaps sometimes almost slain, by his conscious transgressions of the divine law. In spite of his celestial birth, in spite of the heavenly armour of Confirmation, in spite of the unearthly food of the Eucharist, our wilful and heedless souls are constantly lapsing into sin, forfeiting our eternal inheritance, and arresting the development of our spiritual life. God being very pitiful calls us unceasingly to repent, and to come back again into the paths of grace. He would not that any of His children should perish. Therefore He has mercifully provided a sacrament in the Catholic Church for the express purpose of the restoration of sinners. It is called Penance. A very simple and gracious sacrament it is, calling for no more on the sinner's part than genuine sorrow for his misdoing, a frank confession of it to God's representative, the priest, a firm purpose of amendment with the faithful performance of such penitential satisfaction as may be laid upon him; and then by means of the priestly absolution the prodigal is restored to his Father's house. One could not believe such a thing possible if our divine Master had not said to His Apostles, "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them," for thus we understand that for all time He entrusted to the priesthood of His Church the power to put away the sins of penitents.
VI. There are other sacraments, besides these four. There is Matrimony, for the sanctification of the conjugal union; there is Holy Order for the perpetuation of the Ministry; there is Extreme Unction for the comfort and healing of the sick. But I need not dwell upon these now, because the sacramental principle and the sacramental life are fully illustrated for all mankind in those four ordinances which we have been considering. By Baptism the human creature, already existing in the natural life, is born again, that is into the spiritual life. He does not indeed appear to be different in any particular from other human beings who have never received Holy Baptism. The offspring of the butterfly, while yet in the embryonic existence of the egg has nothing to distinguish it outwardly from other insect life in the same stage of being. By Confirmation, Holy Communion and Penance, the soul is led on towards its heavenly destiny, even as the insect in the larva-stage of its being advances toward its lovelier end. We like the caterpillar, our fellow worm, grovel here upon the earth, giving no outward tokens of the pledge of immortality which we have within us. The insect passes from the larva-state into that of the pupa, spinning its own coffin, and resting in it as if dead. So as if dead God's servants who have been sustained and edified by the sacraments in this life must rest among the dead until their destined time shall come. But at last the meaning of all that mysterious sacramental life shall be revealed. The chrysalis bursts, and the lovely butterfly goes forth to disport itself in the sunshine. Men call this perfect type of insect life imago, the image, and how exquisitely suggestive that is of the perfect state of the soul, metamorphosed by the sacraments into the very image and likeness of the Son of God. "We shall be like Him," the Scripture says. He is the true image, in His humanity, of creature glory, the ideal of the sons of God. And by the prodigality of His unwearied grace you and I, if we shall faithfully use His holy sacraments, shall likewise realize that ideal.