[Pardon the length, and the fact that so much of my work of late has become a variation on one theme. But is has captured my soul!]
Incorporation into Christ through faith and Baptism is the source of being a Christian in the mystery of the Church. In Christ who died and rose from the dead, the baptized become a “new creation”, washed clean from sin and brought to life through grace. — St. John Paul II
The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God. ― Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar
Someone said to me the other evening that because he was not able to go to daily Mass that day — he had some especially intense family and work commitments — he felt “spiritually empty and sad.” When I asked him why he said, “Because I didn’t get my daily dose of grace.”
Now, I am a huge proponent and practitioner of daily Mass and am convinced it offers immense benefits for one’s life. And I wish more people struggled with his issue! But…
I think that sometimes Catholics can “externalize” the sources of grace God has entrusted to us and imagine that the sacramental life is more like getting a “fill” at the gas station and less like the progressive unsealing of the fountain of life that upwells deep within.
When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I made hundreds of pages of notes on everything I read. I would like to share a particular entry relevant to this gentleman’s spiritual struggle. When I wrote this entry in 2006, I had just read an article on the striking absence in St. John’s works of any significant mention of the role of the Eucharist in the mystical life. I wrote [slightly edited with new insights]:
In the context of the Council of Trent’s massive emphasis on the role of the Sacraments and Holy Mass in Christian piety, John’s near silence is really striking. Certainly different from Teresa. But it is very much in keeping with strands of medieval mystical traditions. What’s clear is that John is eminently interested in the cultivation of what has already been received in Baptism, and Baptism’s seal, Confirmation. John’s whole vision is built on this premise: because of Baptism, the Kingdom of God is within awaiting our permission to wage ‘bellum caritate’ [the battle of love] and render us conquered and capable of divine love. For John, the life of grace inaugurated in Baptism incites God’s revolution.
Baptism is the key salvation event when the Sower planted in my soul a seed of divine life, poised to germinate and grow into a massive “Tree of Life” that fills heaven and earth with its healing leaves and life-giving fruit. Baptism opened up in my soul a fountain of living water, welling up with the eternally proceeding Spirit. Baptism renovated my body into a Temple of the Trinity — St. Paul says my body is a naos, the Holy of Holies (1 Cor. 6:19; Gal. 2:20!). Baptism knitted me to all of the baptized as a single Body in which the divine Glory has chosen to abide forever. Baptism infused into my soul the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity that make finite-me “capable of God.” Baptism gave me a share in Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the end-game being the conquest of sin and death in me. Baptism gave me re-birth, making me a child of God whose vantage and privileges are those of the Son of God. Baptism marked me indelibly with Christ’s priesthood, empowering me to co-offer my body with His to the Father, on behalf of all and for all. Baptism empowered me to love others with the very love of the crucified God Himself. Baptism made of me a new creation, an outpost of the coming Kingdom established behind enemy lines, to commence the making new of all things with the newness of the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
These are simply a few of the effects of Baptism. All of this I bear within me, when I run in the way of His commands.
« Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God » – St. Leo the Great
Take my breath away.
All other Sacraments flow from, perfect and flow back to Baptism. It is the primal Sacrament that makes of each Christian a microcosm and mediator, revealing our interior life to be the goal of the journey. My heart is the nexus of matter and spirit. In each of us the whole of creation is redeemed, if we permit it to be. Fiat lux, fiat mihi. Even the Holy Eucharist, the consummation, source and summit of Christian life, has as its telos, its goal my interior life: “Take, eat; take, drink.” Proclamation is toward hearing, consecration is ordered toward consumption, Eucharistic ingestion toward interiority. At Mass, even my sacrificial Oblation, with the heart’s upward turn (sursum corda!), offers Heaven the fuelwood I have gathered from Earth within my heart. When we receive the Eucharist, we consume Fire, and when we exit Church — Ite, missa est! — we are to exhale the Fire within.
The whole mystery of the divine economy is already fully present within us, awaiting our Yes to receive and expend its riches on the world.
It wasn’t lost on John that his experience of “transforming union” with Jesus during the brutal nine months he spent in prison took place while he was deprived of the Sacraments, as he lived under an ex-communication imposed by his own religious Order. Unable to celebrate or attend Mass, receive sacramental Confession. All he had was the Fire within, kindled by Baptism. In him was the City of God, “whose fire is in Zion, and whose furnace is in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:9). John allowed the massive mystery of Baptismal grace to unleash the Refiner’s Fire, removing all in him that prevented a union in love with Christ.
Holy Orders exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within the faithful the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism. Holy Matrimony exists to amplify, augment, intensify, nurture, draw out, liberate within a man and woman the inestimable riches they have received in Baptism, so they might, with Fires entwined, co-consecrate the world to God and lead it in its journey back to the Marriage Feast of Eden.
In the first centuries of Christianity, daily Mass only very slowly evolved as a practice — largely in monastic contexts. Sunday was understood to be the central Eucharistic event of the week. The six other days of prayers-works-joys-sufferings in the world were for gathering the material (bread, wine, alms) for the Holy Sacrifice on the Eighth Day.
So if you cannot make daily Mass because you are attending to the vocational demands of life (that flow from Baptism), remember you are far from empty. My God. Within you rages the everlasting Flame, the entire mystery of heaven and earth, of grace and nature, of God and man. Be attentive and give thanks that such exalted celestial Treasures have been emptied into such lowly earthen vessels.
Let me (again) conclude with Audrey Assad’s wonderful allegory of the journey of Christian life. Beginning with Baptism (in which we acquire the divine Fire and are wedded to Christ), the Bride, dressed in her white baptismal gown, walks with fierce intent toward the Kingdom through the trials and temptations that threaten to distract her from the ultimate End. Having reached the end of the journey in death, the faithful Christian, entering the spacious Land of Promise, in a final act of oblation casts the divine Fire on the all the material she has gathered throughout her life and offers it up into the new creation (1 Cor. 3:12-16!).
Parents and Godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. She is to walk always as a child of the light. May she keep the flame of faith alive in in her heart. When the Lord comes, may she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom. – Rite of Baptism for Children, §100
When American poet Robert Frost was in his 60’s and was asked to reflect on his life, he responded:
I am no longer concerned with good and evil. What concerns me is whether my offering will be acceptable.