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A sense of God’s grace (Latin gratia, Greek charis = free gift) is at the heart of Christian faith and spirituality. It is the distinctive mark of St Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel: in Jesus we are saved and drawn into the life and love of God by God’s free gift – it is not something we can earn, and the Good News is that we don’t have to earn it (that’s why it’s ‘Good News’ - ‘Godspell’ – ‘Gospel’). It’s a liberating, transforming message and marks Christian faith out as different from all others: we don’t – and can’t - earn God’s love and salvation by following laws, we don’t – and can’t - merit salvation by following a moral code. God’s life and salvation is a free gift to us in Jesus Christ. It’s a liberating message. As St Paul puts it we are called to ‘the freedom of God’s children’ (Rom. 8:21).
Our call then is to rejoice in this freedom, to embrace this gift, and to live our lives in its light. The moral life is our response to God’s gift, not a means of earning it.
The challenge is to look out for those movements and spiritualities which try to lure us back onto the treadmill of trying to earn the love and forgiveness of God.
(c) Fr Colin Blayney
Christian faith is at its very core sacramental – which means that the divine, the spiritual, is experienced through the medium of what is tangible, human, worldly. The ‘seven sacraments’ are a unique and special experience of this – water, oil, bread and wine, human love, all become the vehicle of the presence and experience of God. But this ‘sacramental’ way of experiencing and meeting God is not restricted to the liturgical sacraments – they are of course a high point, an assured encounter with God, stemming as they do from Jesus himself and his ministry. But all of life is recognised by a Christian as having a sacramental dimension: we encounter God in the world, in nature, and above all in human beings – and especially those weakest and most in need (‘insofar as you did it to the least of these…’).
The reason for this lies in the doctrine at the heart of Christian faith - the Incarnation: the Word became flesh, God, who is Father, Son and Spirit, opened that inner Trinitarian life out of love for us. The Word of the Father, by the outpouring of the Spirit, took on our human nature in Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the supreme sacrament of God and because of the Incarnation humanity itself is revealed as infused with God’s presence and a means to encountering God.
(c) Fr Colin Blayney
III Being Church
Christian faith, perhaps uniquely, is a faith which cannot be lived merely privately. The core of Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News was the two-become-one commandment: love of God and love of neighbour. Or as the First Letter of John reminds us: that we cannot love God unless we love our neighbour. Love of neighbour is the sacrament by which we love God.
It would be strange then –indeed impossible – if our relationship with one another was not intrinsic to discipleship.
In Luke’s Gospel Easter comes to its fulfilment in the Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit – and what is born on that Pentecost morning is the Church, the Spirit-filled community of Christians led by the Apostles. Easter inevitably, inexorably, leads to the birth of the Church – the community of Christians led the Apostles (and now by their successors, the bishops) in which love of God and neighbour are its interpenetrating pillars.
‘Communion’ – that is, community which is created by, indwelt by, empowered by, the Holy Spirit - is at the heart of Christian faith and so no – I cannot be a disciple in isolation. hence the core, the fundamental, the first principle of Christian life from the very beginning of the Church – the need to gather as that Spirit-filled communion every week on the Lord’s Day in order to renew our relationship with him and with one another. As fourth century Melitus of Tunisia cried: ‘Without our gathering for the Lord’s Day we could not live.’
At the heart of Christian faith is the message that we are ‘saved’. Indeed the very name of Jesus comes from the Hebrew phrase ‘God saves’. But what does ‘salvation’ mean? What are we saved from?
In the Scriptures there’s more than one word for salvation (‘redemption’, ‘atonement’, ‘justification’, etc.) which is a good sign that we’re dealing with a mystery – a reality which was intuited by the first Christians and which they were seeking words to describe.
Perhaps to best grasp what this deep Christian intuition is about – that we need to be ‘saved’ – we need to reflect on our own human nature, and its relationship to God. We are creatures – we are loved into being by God, but we are not God. We're limited, finite, imperfect. And yet, as St Augustine put it, we are made for God – our destiny is to be united to God (‘You made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You’).
But there is a problem – we, the creature, in our finiteness, cannot bridge the gap of being between ourselves and the Creator, who is Infinite. That gap can only be bridged by God. It is God’s initiative to reach out and gift human nature with divine life. This is in fact the great message of St Paul – that all is grace, that all is gift: that we can’t earn salvation, nor do we need to. The beautiful mystery at the heart of Christian faith is that God makes the offer of self-gift to us – we merely have to respond and open our hearts and accept the gift.
This is what we mean by salvation. Of ourselves we are unable to unite ourselves to God, who is our destiny. Our very being cannot attain its purpose. But the Good News is that God, who is Love, reaches out to us, gifts us with the very being of God, makes us capable of achieving our eternal fulfilment and destiny (union with God): saves us.
‘Salvation’ is but another name for our experience of God as Trinity: the God who is Father, reaching out in love through the Son, who by the power of the Spirit takes on human flesh, and who by his self-gift in returning to the Father draws us, in the same Holy Spirit, into the life of the Father.
‘Salvation’, ‘grace’, God’s saving self-gifting to us’ – this is the mystery, and the Good News, at the heart of our Christian faith.
.IV The Eucharist
As Catholics we are a supremely ‘eucharistic’ people – it is the celebration that we come to each week on the Lord’s Day and we celebrate it in so many other contexts also – weekdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and the list goes on.
The Second Vatican Council named it as ‘the source and summit of the whole Christian life’, in other words the fount from which all our life derives, that which sends us out, and at the same time that which draws us together.
At the heart of our eucharistic faith is the belief that Jesus is truly present. After all, presence is central to the whole of Christian faith. Our faith is in a God of love who is present to all creation sustaining it in being; present in grace, sustaining our spirit; and present above all, through the Incarnation, in Jesus – the Word made flesh. Indeed it would be strange if there were not a sacrament of presence.
But the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not an end in itself, as though we should merely look at the Eucharist. The presence has a purpose. And it’s threefold.
Firstly, Jesus is present in his sacrifice. After all, he lived his whole life sacrificially: ‘for others’. His death was the culmination of a whole way of life. Jesus eternally is the one who gives himself to the Father and who gives himself to us. The Jesus who becomes present in the Eucharist is Jesus in his eternal act of self-giving, of sacrifice, which culminated on the Cross. We meet the great mystery of the Cross in every Eucharist. And if we meet it, we are challenged by it: “imitate what you celebrate” (from the Rite of Ordination). As we share in the mystery of the Eucharist the demand is placed upon us to live sacrificially, ‘given up’, ‘poured out.’
Secondly, Jesus is present in the context of a meal: and a meal brings people together. And this meal above all must bring people together: for what we feast upon is Jesus himself, the Word of the Father who was made flesh and dwelt among us. St Paul preaches strongly that our communion in the eucharistic body of Christ demands that we become ourselves ‘the body of Christ’. “When you come forward to Communion you hear the words ‘The Body of Christ’ and you answer ‘Amen’. So be the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true” (St Augustine).
And finally, but note – finally – Jesus is present for the strength and nurture of our own spirit. What comes first is that we ‘imitate what we celebrate’, that the Eucharist powerfully enters our lives to make us look outwards beyond ourselves. But we ourselves have to be strengthened for the mission that comes with discipleship and the Lord is intimately present each of us in the Eucharist to be the strength of our own spirit.