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Chapter 30: Sacraments in General and Baptism

Question E: What is the human action of our glorified Lord in the sacraments?

1. Insofar as he is Incarnate—that is, insofar as he is man—our Lord’s redemptive act is a perfect sacrifice (22‑G). As a human act, Jesus’ sacrificial act lasts, since human acts which determine a person endure (2‑E). This point, already explained (23‑B) as it pertains to the sacrifice of the Mass, is taught in Scripture (see Heb 7.22–28; 10.10–12). The death of Jesus is past, but the human commitment which led to his death remains forever.10

2. Since Jesus’ human, redemptive act still exists, all the Masses done in remembrance—acts commanded by him at the Last Supper in the very act which carried out the choice that led to his death—are really performances of this same, enduring redemptive act (23‑B).

3. Here, to “remember” does not mean returning to the past in memory, but keeping fully in view for its present relevance what is essentially permanent, though it began at a certain point in the past. In this context, remembering signifies much the same thing as when one is said to remember a friend by sending a gift to keep the relationship alive. This is not simply recalling old times but giving fresh expression to an enduring bond.11

4. Jesus’ human activity ought not to be regarded merely as the instrument of the divine person. His human acts really are human acts of the Word. It is not that human acts are used by the divine nature, but that the divine person acts humanly according to his assumed nature and capacities (21‑F, but cf. S.t., 3, q. 64, a. 3).

Insofar as our Lord is the Incarnate Word, his human life, death, and resurrection all have the character of a revelatory sign. In him is revealed the mystery, the hidden plan of God (see Eph 1.9). During the time of his earthly life, he revealed the Father (see Jn 1.18). Now the mystery, which is Jesus himself in glory, is itself communicated to us (see Col 1.25–27), so that we can be formed into the great mystery, the whole Lord Jesus.12

This forming is accomplished in the Spirit by the action of Jesus in the sacraments. Whenever the sacraments are administered, they are always Jesus’ human acts (see SC 6–7; S.c.g., 4, 76). The Church also acts in the sacraments, but before she can act must first exist, and she exists only insofar as Jesus instituted the sacraments and formed the Church by them (see DS 1601/844; LG 7).

The washing of the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper (see Jn 13.3–10), the institution of the Eucharist and authorization of the apostles to do it in memory of him (that is, to keep his act always present—cf. 1 Cor 11.23–29), the conferral of the Spirit and power to forgive sins (see Jn 20.21–23), the authorization to proclaim the gospel and baptize into a gathering of the people of the new covenant (see Mt 28.18–20), and the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost (see Acts 1.4–5; 2.1–4) were acts in which Jesus instituted the sacraments by performing the signs which brought the Church into being (see LG 9; SC 6).

5. The divine person, our Lord Jesus, continues to act not only divinely but humanly in the sacraments. They make the human actions of the Word visibly present. As every well-instructed Catholic child knows, the species of the Eucharist conceal our Lord’s bodily presence; he is invisibly present there, with a presence which includes his whole being and action. Less often realized, however, is that Jesus is visibly present in the sacramental acts which are really his, although they are carried out by human persons acting as his agents (see S.t., 3, q. 64, a. 4; q. 78, a. 1).

6. Thus, one’s meeting with Jesus in the sacraments is not a symbolic contact or a purely spiritual encounter. One really meets the Incarnate Word (and thereby also meets the Father and the Spirit). This is real, human communion with God.13

Insofar as the sacraments are cooperative acts in which we are united with Jesus, we come to share morally by our commitments and performances in his redemptive act. However, there is another communion—that which derives from the bodily dimension of the human meeting, both in its substantial (hidden eucharistic) aspect and in its dynamic (sacramental performance-contact) aspect.14 This bodily dimension of human meeting with God in Jesus gives the sacraments their unique importance, for without this we might follow Jesus by imitating him, but our Christian lives would not be the carrying out of his very own life. Because of the sacraments, we can do the very same works Jesus does and constantly enlarge upon them (see Jn 14.9–21).

It is primarily insofar as the sacraments are performances of the redeeming act of our glorified Lord Jesus that they effect what they signify, because they do this by making his act present and effective. Thus the sacraments both signify grace and communicate the grace which is God’s response to the sacrifice of Jesus. Because the human, redemptive act of Jesus which exists now and is communicated in the sacraments began during his earthly life and will be wholly fulfilled only in his second coming, the sacramental sign also refers back to the passion and death of Jesus and ahead to the end of ages (see S.t., 3, q. 60, a. 3; q. 62, a. 5).

10. Schillebeeckx, op. cit., 55–56, fails to grasp the lasting character of human acts; thus, he attributes the enduringness of the redemption to Jesus’ divinity. This position is a case of commingling, for it attributes a divine quality to something properly human.

11. A study of this important point about remembering: Bastiaan van Iersel, S.M.M., “Some Biblical Roots of the Christian Sacrament,” in The Sacraments in General: A New Perspective, Concilium, 31, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Boniface Willems, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1968), 6–15.

12. See Cerfaux, op. cit., 474–94.

13. The phrase “Christ the sacrament” is a symptom that something is wrong. Christ is not a sacrament. One who sees him also sees the Father (Jn 14.9). The sacraments are not signs of a meeting with God; they are meetings by cooperation with God. They are signs (expressive performances or carryings-out on us and for our benefit) of the unique, complex, human, redemptive act of Jesus and the divine response to that sacrifice.

14. This point is put clearly: Odo Casel, O.S.B., The Mystery of Christian Worship and Other Writings, ed. Burkhard Neunheuser, O.S.B. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1962), 14–15, 150–60. In general, Casel rightly understands the sacraments as acts and takes seriously the presence in them of Jesus’ unique redemptive act. Unfortunately, he lacks the theory of action needed to explain what he rightly asserts. He also seems to overstate the similarity between the mystery of Christ and the pagan mysteries. However, his theory of the sacraments is much sounder than that of Schillebeeckx, who criticizes (op. cit., 55–56) Casel, wrongly assuming that human acts are events which pass away when their performance is finished. Schillebeeckx does not see that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not in themselves acts of his, but foreseen consequences of his act, which is to eat the Passover, a meal which still continues in every Mass as the continuing performance of the very same choice Jesus was executing when he said: “Do this in memory of me.” Jesus now executes his lasting self-determination by means of the performance of priests acting in his person according to his command.