We all face times in our lives when we feel as if we are crossing a desert. This can be caused by almost anything, from the sickness or death of a loved one to problems with work or unemployment. When it happens we may feel angry or bitter, or we may just feel we have entered into a dark tunnel which appears to have no end. Whatever the cause, and sometimes we won’t even be sure what that is, these are times when we often really struggle to carry on believing that God is with us, and struggle too to make the effort to come to Mass.
On this first Sunday of Lent, we remember that Jesus went through this too. We need not think that he literally did not eat for 40 days and 40 nights, but it clearly felt like that. Suddenly, after a moment of joy at his Baptism, of closeness to God the Father, he is plunged into the dark. Many people feel this, moving from a moment when God feels very close, to a time when God seems to have disappeared, and we feel we are completely on our own. Our Gospel (Luke4:1-13) appears to soften the story here, by telling us that Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit”, but this doesn’t mean that his experience was any less dark.
I can look back now to moments of fear and darkness in my life when I would lie awake at night feeling absolutely awful. I could actually say to myself at the time, “Do not be afraid Martin, God is with you”, and I can look back now and know that he was. But at the time, I felt completely alone. Similarly when my mother died, I know that God was with me in my grief, but it didn’t feel like that!
What a relief to realise that Jesus experienced this too. We sang of it in our first Hymn
Saviour breathe forgiveness o’er us
All our weakness thou dost know
Thou didst tread this earth before us,
Thou didst feel its keenest woe:
Lone and dreary, faint and weary,
Through the desert, thou didst go.
Now you know why I tell you to pray the words of the Hymn, even if you can’t sing, and if you can sing to remember to pray the words as you sing them!
But Jesus doesn’t just leave us lots of holy thoughts about God, because he knows how easily such thoughts can go round and round in our heads tempting us to despair. Look at what happened to him! The devil actually quotes a nice thought from the Bible at him to lead him astray. Jesus knows that we need more than just nice holy thoughts in the desert, but some actual signs of his presence and support. So in and through his Church he gives us actual objects where his presence with us is focussed and made real; and as you probably know we call these outward objects “sacraments” which simply means “holy things”:- The Water of Baptism, the Bread and Wine at Mass, the Oil of Anointing etc.
These Sacraments are not the invention of the Church, but the gifts of God to the Church. Each one can be found in the life of the first Christians as we see from the Bible – in the New Testament. Some are explicitly there, as when Jesus actually tells his disciples to take the bread and wine and “Do this in remembrance of me”, (Luke 22:19) or at Easter says “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”(Matt 28:19). Other sacraments develop from the example and teaching of Jesus, as in the way he lays hands on the sick to heal them, or gives his disciples the power to forgive sins.
In each case, they are clearly given because Jesus knows how much we will need God’s presence made real for us in this way as we move, and sometimes stagger, through life. Not just words remember, but what the Church calls “efficacious signs”; that is outward signs in which God is really present and through which God actually does work whether we feel it or not.
Yes, whether we feel it or not! As the Catechism puts it “The sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” Such a relief to hear these words! As a priest, to know that even when my faith is weak or my mind wanders, God works through me for you despite my failings. As a Christian, to know that God comes to me, and has come to me, through the Sacraments, whether I feel, holy, or feel nothing at all.
Some of what you have just heard me say is what we were discussing in our Lent Course which started last Tuesday evening. Let me leave you with some of the ideas about sacraments that the people there came up with.
- An outward sign of inward grace
- A means of coming closer to God in particular circumstances
- An opportunity for God to be present in our lives in a special way
- An event representing some sacred happening
- A religious rite – instituted by God
- The mutual exchange of love expressed through certain words and actions
- Sharing your life with Jesus – Dedicating our lives to God – gaining strength from Him
Giving us health and strength for particular needs
Great words, and they are yours, not mine!