by Fr. Richard McNally, SS.CC., Spiritual Director of EPIC Ministry
I have forgotten who said many of the wise things that have stuck in my mind in the course of life. One of those was that the Greek word often used for sacrament was “mystery”. In that sense a mystery is something that involves both God and humans. And so at the beginning of Mass every day, I invite the congregation to prepare themselves to celebrate “these sacred mysteries.”
It was in the third grade, I believe, that I learned that a sacrament is “a sign instituted by Christ that gives grace.” There you have it. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, institutes the sacraments and I/we receive grace, a share in God’s divine life. God and humanity all mixed up together.
A sacrament is a sign, i.e. something that we can experience with one of the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or touching. Most of the time several senses are involved in perceiving the sign.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed repentance and the forgiveness of sins. His whole life culminated in his death on the cross for our salvation from sin. On the night of Easter, he came to the frightened disciples in the upper room. He said to them, “ Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:22-23) The Church would continue his work of forgiveness through the Sacrament or Mystery of Penance. I bring sins and repentance. The Lord brings forgiveness and grace to be holy. The sign is the word of absolution that the priest says over me. There are other accompanying gestures, e.g. a hand raised in prayer and blessing. The priest does not make up the words and gestures. They are not his but the Church’s. He speaks and does what the Church speaks and does, not just the Church today but the Church stretching back centuries. In the simplicity of it all the Lord acts.
One final thought. As a priest I receive the sacraments as well as celebrate them. Penance is a prime example. I am a sinner who goes to another priest for confession of my sins. Jesus loves us so much that he works through imperfect and even sinful humans to give his grace and love. It’s the mystery.