Recently, I attempted to describe the beauty surrounding the Sacrament of the Last Anointing. At least it is beautiful when circumstances allow it to be carried out in the fullness of its liturgy. I think that came into my mind because of late I have been saying goodbye to a number of lifetime friends. That happens when you are in your 80’s!
Today, permit me to go in the other direction. I would like to talk about baptism which centers around birth and new life. Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism more effectively than we did before the Second Vatican Council. It may be that in the past many saw baptism as a sweet, cute little ceremony involving this beautiful baby and a family that was so happy because of that child’s arrival. There is nothing wrong with that but there is much more involved. In baptism, the mother and father have given birth to another wonderful human being. Their life has been passed on to the next generation and there is more to life and more levels of life than simply that of natural birth. When the parents have faith they want that child to have their faith which is belief in Jesus Christ and a desire to live a life walking in the footsteps of Christ.
Today baptism is seldom celebrated with just one child or for one family. More properly, families are clustered together so that five, six sets or even maybe ten or more babies may be baptized at one time. Many parishes conduct baptism on one particular Sunday of the month with the entire congregation present. This can produce some logistical problems for families on a tight schedule but it is a reflection of a profound reality about baptism. When a person is baptized he or she enters into the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. He or she is absorbed into the community of faith which binds us to God the Father through Jesus and binds all of us together at the same time.
In baptisms, symbols abound! Candles are burning, the priest or deacon is vested, a large baptistery is present containing water that was blessed by the bishop during the previous Holy Week. The baby or babies are anointed which is a traditional way of declaring the sacredness of the child’s body and the sacredness of the soul that is soon to be joined to Jesus of Nazareth. The central symbol, of course, is water. Water is a symbol of life and was used even in the Old Testament to symbolize a new life, a life that is closer to Yahweh, a life that now makes us one with Jesus. Following the actual Rite of Baptism, the newly baptized is clothed with a beautiful white garment, again symbolizing a change in state of life and of its relationship to God through Jesus, and then finally, an Easter candle is lit which symbolizes Christ’s resurrection, and now symbolizes that the effectiveness of Jesus’ resurrection transcends time and reaches out to embrace this new baby. Altogether it is a beautiful and meaningful ceremony.
I am happy about the fact that people instinctively understand this and you usually find that people are exuberantly happy when present at the celebration of baptism.
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The other day I celebrated my 82nd birthday. To me that did not seem all that old. After all, just a matter of months ago I was in my 70’s, but when I mentioned to a friend that I was 82, the person blurted out to me, “You are not only 82 but you are eight years from 90!” I double-checked and the math seemed to be correct. Wow!
When you are in your 80’s, first one and then another of your friends gets a little ahead of you and goes on to God. I have experienced this a great deal of late and I must admit that it makes for calm, thoughtful thinking about God, our lives and how we have lived them.
This got me to start thinking about the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, the meaning and beauty in which they are celebrated in ideal circumstances. I have ministered the Sacrament of the Last Anointing in various circumstances sometimes in rather rushed or awkward manner as on the site of an automobile accident or an explosion. But let’s look at it in terms of the ordinary celebration of Extreme Unction. The person approaching death is laid out in bed in comfort and dignity surrounded by members of the family, sometimes children and grandchildren, sometimes siblings, sometimes the spouse. Beside the bed, there is a freestanding crucifix surrounded by two burning candles and the priest has brought in a container for holy oil, a small locket containing the sacred host, the Blessed Sacrament, the presence in our home of Jesus of Nazareth.
The priest is not just an individual. He represents the Universal Church and he also represents the local Church into which this dying person has been living. As the priest prays over the person, he is thanking God for this person’s presence in the community of faith over the years. He was baptized, made his First Communion, most likely married and worked hard, raised a family and now the end is in sight. Spiritually, the priest and the community from which he has come lift that person up towards God and presents him and his whole life as a gift to God. We ask God to accept this person’s life, reward him for his goodness and receive him into eternal life.
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Yesterday, I described that the church building today would be presented to us as an enormous tomb. No matter where we are in the world, our parish church would be empty and lifeless. The Blessed Sacrament is not present in the Tabernacle, no candles are used and the prayers are sad and mournful. Yes, Christ has died.
While thanking God for his infinite generosity, the Christian world mourns the fact that our frailty, our weakness, our sinfulness have brought about the agonizing death of Jesus of Nazareth. As grim as this issue is we do not let it depress us. We know that on Saturday night we will turn away from our sadness, we will turn from the consideration of the agony of Jesus and we will explosively celebrate our faith, faith that teaches us that yes, Christ has died but more importantly, he has risen and he will conquer all.
Onward to Saturday.
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For the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, He is still with us. Jesus is here. Jesus is walking with us. This awesome reality is brought into our lives and maintained in our lives by the mystery of the sacraments. The sacraments are spiritual gifts of awesome and unimaginable value. Through the sacraments, Jesus touches us and we, ourselves, reach out to touch Him.
This is true in all of the sacraments, but I want to say a word today about one that is very important, but that we tend not to think about a great deal. I am talking about Confirmation. Confirmation is a one time event surrounded by extra ceremonies, excitement and family jubilation. Speaking frankly, the jubilation is caused by the happy atmosphere that marks the life of the family when the Bishop comes and presides over this important event. There is nothing wrong with that, but a more important cause of happiness should be that this young developing adult is making a commitment to be a follower of Jesus. She is CONFIRMING the commitment made for her at the time of her baptism. She is walking into the future, strengthened by her faith, supported still by her Godparents and now by her confirmation sponsor. She is moving into a challenging chapter, but she has her faith, her friends, and the saving power of Jesus Christ to guide her and keep her on the track which leads to eternal happiness.
While it may be a one time event, the reality of our confirmation should be with us throughout our life and make us conscious of who we are, and to whom we have been joined-Jesus Christ. Now we can say, with St. Paul, “For me, to live, is CHRIST.”
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We’re still on SIN. I began this by mentioning that many are curious about what the priest hears in the confessional, hour after hour and year after year. I usually answer that question with something very true, but for me, at least, is a cliche. There is not much variety! While we have received 10 Commandments from GOD, most human beings have serious trouble with only two or three of them. We DO honor our parents. We do NOT steal. We DO try to worship God. But some of us have more difficulty with the 6th, 7th, and all that coveting business.
Sins are committed in the face of temptation. IF the temptation is resisted, we are spiritually stronger. If we succumb, we are damaged somewhat. But temptations vary on the basis of age, place in life, and spiritual formation. Let’s talk about elderly penitents today.
They are settled in life. Their day to day experience is often routine. For the most part, they have established good habits, relationships that are suppportive. They have intelligence and free will, so are certainly capable of sin- even grave sin- but most of them are free of grave sins the majority of the time. These people will confess “uncharitable speech”, the telling of risque jokes, failure to say morning prayers. While these weaknesses should be avoided, they are usually not “sinful” at all- just bad manners. Bad manners are to be avoided, but they are NOT sins in themselves.
Onward through the fog!
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