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Sacrament of God

"After the consideration of those things
which pertain to
the mystery of the Incarnate Word,
we must consider the sacraments of the Church,
which have their efficacy from
the Incarnate Word himself."

St. Thomas Aquinas

In these words of introduction to the Sacraments in his Summary of Theology, St. Thomas Aquinas infers that the beginning of any consideration of the Sacraments is preceded by an understanding of Jesus, the Incarnate Word.

This idea of treating Jesus as the ‘first’ or ‘primordial’ sacrament has been recovered in our time and is an essential element in our understanding of Sacraments in the life of the Church. It is essential because the sacramental system of the Church seeks to express who Jesus is for us today, to make his Word and Spirit present to us.

The symbols in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, lead us, as they led the Jewish people, to appreciate God.

In these ancient writings God is
- the ‘Shepherd’ who leads (Mi 7:14; Ps 23),
- a ‘Rock where I can take refuge’(Ps. 18:3f; 144:1),
- the ‘king’ (Nm 23:21; Ps 93 and many of the Psalms),
- the ‘judge of all the earth’(Ps 7:7f; Ps 9:8; Ps 96:13).
- spoken of as ‘an eagle’ that ‘hovers over its young’ (Ex 19:4; Dt 32:11),
- a Potter who shapes (Jer 18),
- the Shield that protects (Ps18:3; 144:2),
- the ‘teacher from my youth’(Ps 71:17),
- the ‘Word’ who speaks through prophets(Is 6: Jer1; Ez 1 ),
- the ‘Lover’ searching for the Beloved (Song of Songs, Hosea).
Here is a wealth of imagery, of metaphor, of symbolism.

We recall a problem named in the last section when talking like this. We can refer to such language as "just a symbol".

Yet these symbols developed from the lived experience of people, and if you really think about it, we can only talk about God by using symbols. These symbols express the ‘real presence’ of God.

.As we said in the last section, the best symbols are universal, and one of the tasks facing us today is to find relevant, inclusive symbols of God for our culture and time. This quest is a main part of the renewal of Sacramental life.

With these beginning thoughts in place we want to say that Jesus is the Symbol of God. Jesus is THE Sacrament. He is the Sacrament of God. He points us to the reality of God. The Greek word ‘icon’ expresses this reality. Jesus is the Icon of God. He pictures God for us. He did this especially through his own appreciation of God as ‘Abba’, an intimate word for Father.

As this notion of ‘Abba’ developed, Jesus was able to express his own oneness with the Father. By accepting the invitation to ‘Follow Me’ the apostles were on their way to this appreciation of God as ‘Abba’, but they found this difficult. Just after Jesus stated that he was ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ that they were to follow, Philip exclaims –‘Show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’ (Jn 14:8).

We can almost hear some exasperation in Jesus’ voice as he says:
‘Have I been with you all this time... and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. Jesus is the Real Presence of the ‘Abba’. By living with Jesus the Apostles ‘knew’ God. The different gospel traditions are rich with his revelations.

One of Jesus' main ways of revealing God was through stories. These stories are parables, a genre of story that surprises listeners, gets them in touch with their prejudices and presumptions, their biases and pre-suppositions, challenging them to see what life could be if lived with the God revealed by the values that are in the stories. For example, the Prodigal Son shows a God of mercy and compassion, a God of patient waiting and understanding, a God who invites us to enter fully into divine mercy.

At the same time incidents in the life of Jesus and his actions of healing and reconciliation help us appreciate the God he is revealing. The feeding of the five thousand reveals a God who nourishes us in the desert places of life. His handling of the situation of the woman taken in adultery points to a God of forgiveness and not of judgment and vengeance. He sits down and eats with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and shows a God who includes all, especially the poor and marginalised. A very significant symbol in his life was when he washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. He was not the one to lord it over people. He was the ‘servant leader’ who called his disciples to follow and do as he had done.

His revelation culminates in the great event of his dying and rising and points to the God of salvation. This is remembered especially in the sacrificial, fellowship meal of the Eucharist.

Jesus promised the Spirit to his disciples, a spirit who would empower them to live and act ‘in memory’ of him. The fulfillment of this promise is celebrated in the Pentecost event.

Everything that Jesus said and did is significant. That is why people have studied and analysed and agonised about the meaning in the stories he told and about the incidents and images of the Gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus shaped the culture and society of peoples as the Word and Spirit of God spread throughout the world. The Gospel story of Jesus was expressed in the story of communities which formed to live by the values in the Gospel in the power of his Spirit and in the next section how these communities became symbols of Jesus.

Further Reading
Georgen, Donald. "The Mission and Ministry of Jesus".
Michael Glazier, Wilmington, Delaware, 1986.
This book is an easily readable study of the historical Jesus.


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Copyright © Anthony Kain 2009