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Sacraments: Christ's Gift of the Spirit

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
One of the ways we can think about sacraments is as God reaching down through history to apply the power of the cross to the present moment. Since Christ handed on to us the gift of His Holy Spirit through the cross, the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the cross in our sacraments becomes the means by which Christ re-presents his offer of the Spirit. This is because, as has been discussed in previous posts, sacraments are signs that make real what they signify. Our sacramental signs, instituted by Christ himself, point to his Incarnation and thus perpetuate that Incarnation among and in the Christian community across all time and space. As the Spirit is received through Christ and therefore through the sacraments, we can also think of the sacraments as a kind of re-actualization of Pentecost. This points us to the complementary missions of the Son and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, sent by Christ (who was himself conceived by the Holy Spirit), allows us to receive Christ in a new and deeper way. 

The medieval scholastics tried to bring out this ‘Spiritual’ dimension of the sacraments by making a threefold distinction in their sacramental theology. Sacraments, as we have mentioned above, are signs that make real what they symbolize. They therefore distinguished that which is a sign only, for example bread and wine which symbolically remind us of Christ’s presence; from that which is a sign and a reality, for example the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist in which Christ is really present, but still pointing us to a deeper union with him which is to come; and, finally, the reality only: the ultimate goal of the sacrament which does not point beyond itself, the mystery of grace, our union with God in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. 

For each sacrament the Holy Spirit comes to us under a particular aspect; in other words the work of the Spirit has a slightly different emphasis in each sacrament. Yet broadly speaking the work of the Spirit in the sacraments can be summed up as both binding us to Christ through the forgiveness of sins, the healing of wounds, and drawing us into his life; as well as conforming us to Christ so that we can become instruments of grace, so that we can help others to come to Christ, so that we can become the presence of Christ for other people. 
This conformation and union allows us, so to speak, to worship within the Holy Trinity itself as adopted sons and daughters. In the Spirit, the bond of love between Father and Son, we share in the eternal and infinite outpouring of love between the persons of the Holy Trinity. The basic movement of the sacraments, then, is from God to us. In the Spirit we are bound to Christ who draws us back towards God. Yet this union with and conformation to Christ which the Spirit brings suggests that the love of the Trinity that we now share in ought to spill out into our lives: to pray in the Spirit suggests that we will also live in the Spirit. In a very specific sense, then, every baptized, confirmed, ordained or married person is a sacrament. That person’s life is potentially a sign and a channel of grace for others, our lives can be a gift of God to others. 

A properly celebrated sacrament facilitates this sacramental life: that is, if we are open to all three dimensions of the sacrament: as a sign of Christ, as the sign and reality of his presence and action, and as a gift of the Holy Spirit, then we will become increasingly Christlike, increasingly able to live and pray as Christ did. However, it is possible to resist the grace of the sacrament. It is possible to resist or reject Christ’s gift of the Spirit and to refuse to allow the Holy Spirit to take root in our hearts. If, however, we allow the Spirit to work in and through us, we shall be transfigured.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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