The Material And The Spiritual

In Ch. 1, we saw how Catholic Christianity, from the time of Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, fostered the sense that all human reality and, indeed, the whole material cosmos has been touched, blessed, and changed by the 'Word becoming flesh' (John 1: 14). The incarnation of the Son of God, understood together with the life, death, and resurrection, and sending of the Spirit that followed, transformed the physical, bodily reality of the created world. To be sure, the 'goodness' (Gen. 1: 1-25) and 'beauty' (Wis. 13: 1-9) of all that was made already showed forth the Author of all goodness and beauty. In a special way, being created in the divine image and likeness (Gen. 1: 26-7), all men and women have always symbolized God. Add too that in the life of God's chosen people certain persons (e.g. the OT kings, prophets, and priests) and places (e.g. the Temple in Jerusalem) manifested God and communicated the divine blessings. Nevertheless, the incarnation brought a quantum leap in the way in which such material realities as water, bread, wine, oil, and human bodies were lifted to a new level and spiritualized to become the channels of the tripersonal God's saving self-revelation or 'bearers' of the divine holiness (see the beginning of Ch. 7).

Through the seven sacraments of the Church, things that we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell bring us the divine truth and power. The water poured in baptism, bread and wine consecrated at the Eucharist, hands imposed in ordination, oil smeared on the foreheads and hands of the sick, bodies joined in matrimony, and the other perceptible signs that constitute the sacraments communicate various spiritual blessings and a share in the life of the tripersonal God. The Church's sacraments transfigure material things and actions of a world which is already 'charged with the grandeur of God' (Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'God's Grandeur').

The sacramentalizing of the material world finds its heart in the seven sacraments that initiate and nourish a share in the life of the all-holy God. But this spiritualizing of the world and human beings extends beyond the seven sacraments: in particular, to such sacramentals as the ashes Catholics receive on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday and the palms they carry home on Palm Sunday. In the proper sense, sacramentals are holy practices, prayers, and things officially approved and blessed in the Catholic Church. They include some of traditions that were fostered by Franciscans and Dominicans and have never lost their popularity: for instance, making the Stations of the Cross (especially during the weeks leading up to Good Friday), Christmas cribs, which recall Christ's birth among us, and the saying of the rosary. In Ch. 2 we noted how these and other practices aimed to sacramentalize or consecrate to God through Christ the whole of life. We also recalled in that chapter the much older practice of pilgrimages, which can bring a fresh start in life and inculcate a sense of human existence as one long spiritual journey. Along with pilgrimages and images, structures (catacombs and then churches) played their part in sacralizing life right from the early centuries of Christianity. Obviously buildings and images are central to the official worship of the Church. But even when the sacraments are not being administered, the churches, statues, mosaics, paintings, and stained glass windows are there to lift to God the minds and hearts of those who visit or simply pass by. For Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholics, icons are endued with divine power and help the whole world to symbolize God. Almost as old as Christian art, 'holy water' or blessed water has been used for such religious purposes as spiritual cleansing and dedication from at least the fourth century.

Some of the sacramentals we have mentioned, such as the palms distributed on Palm Sunday, originate with the history of Jesus (Mark 11: 8). Others such as the usage of sweet-smelling incense, go back even further, in this case to rites followed in the Jerusalem Temple (Ps. 141: 2). The scented smoke of burning incense that rose to God meant 'squandering' something costly in a gift of unreserved love. Incense has maintained a central place in the worship of Orthodox Christians. Catholics use it frequently in processions and in the celebration of Mass.

Living for years in Italy, we have enjoyed the various eating customs associated with the religious feasts. During the Christmas season we eat panettone, a bread made with eggs, dried fruit, and butter. Easter brings the colomba or dove-shaped cake. In other countries hot cross buns or buns marked with a cross have been eaten on Good Friday. In Italy, Spain, and some Spanish-speaking countries, people eat sweets called 'the bones of the saints' when All Saints' and All Souls' Days come around on 1 and 2

November, respectively. Such customs link the secular (in this case, eating) with the sacred, and punctuate the year in a way that gently reinforces a feeling of moving through holy time to a final meeting with God.

Saints play their part in spiritualizing the year and the movement of human life. It can be a matter of the annual celebration of the feast-day of a saint who has a special connection with some nation, city, village, parish, shrine, or person. On 17 March Irish Catholics around the world continue to celebrate with gusto the feast of St Patrick; Scots and those of a Scottish origin do the same on 30 November, the feast of St Andrew, their patron saint. On 13 June Italians pack into Padua for the feast of St Antony (d. 1231), a Franciscan friar who spent the last period of his life in or near that city. Many Catholics, year by year, observe their 'name-day' or feast-day of the saint after whom they are called. Although the day of their birth may not coincide with the feast-day of their saint, it is the feast-day that often counts more for them and their families. Sometimes the 'special function' of a saint figures prominently on the feast-day. Thus St Antony (d. 356), an Egyptian Christian who organized the life of hermits in the desert, is celebrated in Italy and elsewhere as a friend and protector of animals—and, by extension, of goldfish, canaries, and other pets. On his feast-day, 17 January, the Mass ends with wine and special sweet bread distributed to the faithful as they leave the church, while an assortment of animals wait aside (and occasionally are brought inside) to be blessed. At St Eusebius' in Rome this event has become so popular that the cats, dogs, and horses, which used to be able to fit into the church, now have to wait for their blessing in the square outside with their owners.

Around the world Catholics use a wide variety of blessings for their homes, their workplaces, and for other material things that enter their lives and can be consecrated to become part of joining Christ in their pilgrimage home to God. Thus there are blessings for factories, farms, homes, hospitals, libraries, offices, shops, aircraft, motor cars, and ships (including fishing fleets). Blessings are available for engaged couples, families, nurses and doctors (with their patients), teachers (along with their students at the start of the academic year), travellers, and other categories of persons. The urbanizing of the world and the flight from the land may have meant, for a while, a decline in such practices. But now blessings seem to be booming again, and many families treasure, for example, the annual blessing of their homes around Easter time. Through such sacramentals, the powerful presence of Christ in every aspect of our bodily and human existence can become more perceptible. Some people fear that such practices bring a lapse into magical superstitions. But this will not happen so long as believers remember that blessings and other sacramentals aim at putting all times, places, and activities in relationship with Christ.247

The sanctification of time goes together with the sacramentalizing of material realities through sacraments and sacramentals. Such sanctification happens, of course, through the celebration of the seasons and feasts of the liturgical year. But time is also sanctified through the Liturgy of the Hours, when Catholics and other Christians gather at different times of day or night in cathedrals, parish churches, monasteries, and other places to hear passages of scripture (and other sacred writings) and to sing or recite together psalms and further prayers. Those who follow this daily programme of official worship give praise to God, share in Christ's priestly office, and intercede for the salvation of the whole world. Vatican II's first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, sets out beautifully how the divine office or Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies the passage of time on a daily and annual basis.

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