When I was an undergraduate, I had to give a presentation on Edward Schillebeeckx’s Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Schillebeeckx is one of those theologians who went off the deep end in the post-Vatican II era. But back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when Christ the Sacrament was written and published, he was one of the young lights of Catholic theology -- along with Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger.
At any rate, I was assigned to present the first chapter of Christ the Sacrament. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it’s one of the best works on sacramental theology that I know of. The general thesis is this: The only way we can be saved is to have a real encounter with God. Thus, Christ became man so that we might have that encounter. But since Christ is risen and has ascended into heaven, he is no longer present on earth. So how do we have this encounter with God? Namely, through the sacraments. It was my job to explain this in some detail.
During my presentation, in trying to explain that Jesus Christ was the sacrament of God -- that is to say, that Jesus Christ was a sensible and tangible reality of God’s salvific presence in the world -- I said that every proper human action that Christ did was done by God. Every gesture of kindness -- every smile, every wink, every extended hand welcoming a person into his friendship -- was an expression of God’s infinite kindness.
Unfortunately, my professor didn’t like this. At the end of my presentation, she said that to understand how Christ is the sacrament of God we must focus on the Paschal Mystery -- the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “We can’t get caught up into thinking about all the small and insignificant gestures,” she said (or something like it).
Looking back, she had a point. I had strayed from Schillebeeckx’s main point in Chapter One of Christ the Sacrament. I was too young to understand that she wanted an academic presentation, not a spiritual meditation. But her words stayed with me. They created a kind of wall between myself and the gospels. For, you see, back then I was desperately seeking the approval of my professors. That’s what young students do who want to go on to graduate studies and eventually teach on the university level. Being a good student, I learned the lesson well: The narrative of Christ’s life are an object of study, not an object of devotion.
This wall stood erected for years, and it finally fell when I began reading the In Conversation with God books by Fr. Francis Fernandez. It would be impossible to cite all the different places where Fr. Fernandez, in his simple yet profound way, explains, as I once tried to, that every proper human action performed by Christ was performed by God, and therefore reveals the utter transcendent and incomprehensible God. Yet, I want to cite one paragraph:
Mercy is proper to God, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. Mercy had its most perfect manifestation in Jesus Christ. Especially through his life-style and through his actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live -- an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice, and poverty -- in contact with the whole “human condition,” which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. The Gospels should inspire in us to rely on the merciful Heart of Jesus in our every physical and moral petition. He awaits our loving please.I particularly like this phrase: “Especially through his life-style and through his actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live.” Christ’s life-style and actions -- through these he revealed God’s infinite mercy and love. If we are in Christ, then our live-style and our actions have the ability, if we are willing, to reveal to others the mercy and love of Jesus Christ.