Friday, February 8, 2013

The Sacraments and Communion with God

In previous works, we defined the sacraments as (among other things) signs that facilitate communion with the God who is One in Three Persons.  In short, according to the Apostle Peter, we become "partakers of the divine nature" as we grow in holiness.  Before we can continue this discussion, we need to ask ourselves something.  What is the point of Communion with God?

While this question might seem simple, it has sparked a lot of debate throughout Catholic circles.  If one really wants to drill down into the issue, the entire debate surrounding Christopher West's interpretation of John Paul II boils down to this very question.  It has always been this way.  Ever since the Garden of Eden, man asked himself this very question we are considering today.

There are a lot of ways to look at this.  For some, we walk around with our palms pressed together chanting softly in praise and adoration of God.  For others, communion with God is a nuptial union that surpasses any human emotion or experience.  Then there are those who view attempting to describe heavenly realities with human expressions as utterly pointless.  Whatever it is, we know it will be better than here.

All of these are true, and I suppose they come into play one time or another in heaven.  Yet as true as they all are, their answers are incomplete.  They are means, not the end.  To the fan of Christopher West, why does God wish to "marry us?"  What is the purpose of God providing peace?  As always, the answer may be found within the Scriptures, starting with God's call to Abram:

And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father's house, and come into the land which I shall shew thee.  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be blessed.  I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee, and IN THEE shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed:  So Abram went out as the Lord had commanded him....  Abram passed through the country into the place of Sichem, as far as the noble vale: now the Chanaanite was at that time in the land.  And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him: To thy seed will I give this land. And he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.  (Genesis 12:1-7)
We would do well to remember that at this point of salvation history, there was no Christianity, there wasn't even Judaism.  Mankind had just failed in their ultimate act of rebellion in the Tower of Babel, and the result was a perpetual rending asunder of humanity.  Out of this confusion and chaos, God calls Abram.  Now the classical understanding of this passage has always been that God showed Abram the land of Israel, and promised that land towards his descendants.  To Christians (possessing the fullness of revelation), though the original meaning remains true, we discover something far deeper:

By faith he that is called Abraham, obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.  By faith he abode in the land, dwelling in cottages, with Isaac and Jacob, the co-heirs of the same promise.  For he looked for a city that hath foundations; whose builder and maker is God....  All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and saluting them, and confessing that they are pilgrims and strangers on the earth. For they that say these things, do signify that they seek a country. And truly if they had been mindful of that from whence they came out, they had doubtless time to return. But now they desire a better, that is to say, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for he hath prepared for them a city.(Hebrews 11:  8-10,13-16)
As with just about everything in the Old Testament, what is happening is but a sign of a greater reality that will come.  When Abraham looked at "the land" which God would give him, he was not looking at some mere human city.  Rather he was looking at heaven, that which God designed and prepared for them, and invites those who have faith to enter into.

What would we find in such a city?  We may perhaps best understand what we could have by seeing what the faithless were denied.  We can find that answer many times throughout the beautiful Psalms of David:

Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest in thy holy hill?  (Psalm 14:1)
Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts:  As in the provocation, according to the day of temptation in the wilderness: where your fathers tempted me, they proved me, and saw my works.  Forty years long was I offended with that generation, and I said: These always err in heart.
And these men have not known my ways: so I swore in my wrath that they shall not enter into my rest.  (Psalm 94:  8-11)
This last Psalm is of particular importance to us.  The writer of the Hebrews gives a rather lengthy commentary on this Psalm that needs to be quoted in full:

Take heed, brethren, lest perhaps there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, to depart from the living God.  But exhort one another every day, whilst it is called today, that none of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.  For we are made partakers of Christ: yet so, if we hold the beginning of his substance firm unto the end.  While it is said, Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in that provocation.  For some who heard did provoke: but not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. And with whom was he offended forty years? Was it not with them that sinned, whose carcasses were overthrown in the desert? And to whom did he swear, that they should not enter into his rest: but to them that were incredulous?  And we see that they could not enter in, because of unbelief.   Let us fear therefore lest the promise being left of entering into his rest, any of you should be thought to be wanting. For unto us also it hath been declared, in like manner as unto them. But the word of hearing did not profit them, not being mixed with faith of those things they heard.  For we, who have believed, shall enter into rest; as he said: As I have sworn in my wrath; If they shall enter into my rest; and this indeed when the works from the foundation of the world were finished.  For in a certain place he spoke of the seventh day thus: And God rested the seventh day from all his works.  And in this place again: If they shall enter into my rest. (Hebrews 3:12-16, 4:1-5)
While we receive countless things in the heavenly city, most importantly, we find rest.  This is something even Adam did not have, as he had to work in the garden even before the fall.  Throughout salvation history God's people have been nomads and they have been builders of empires.  They have been minorities and majorities.  They experienced ecstasies and sorrows, peace and war.  Yet all of them had the same purpose:  they had to work.  In the fullness of time, Christ came to bring us towards the home where we will have to do none of these things.  We will have rest.  We find further evidence for this in the masterful poetry of St. John of the Cross, perhaps the saint who expressed this union so perfectly:

Within my pounding heart
Which kept itself entirely for Him
He fell into His sleep
Beneath the cedars all my love I gave.

From o'er the fortress walls
The wind would brush His hair against His brow
And with its smoother hand
caressed my every sense it would allow.

I lost myself to Him
And laid my face upon my Lover's breast
And care and grief grew dim
As in the mornings mist became the light
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
Knowing what communion with God entails, we now have another question we will ask ourselves through our study on the sacraments.  How are the sacraments a sign of rest, and how do they provide this rest?

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