[Editor’s Note: Professor Bushman’s article was written as an introduction for an article about the Sophia Institute for Teachers. That article, an interview with Veronica Burchard, the Vice President for Education Programs at Sophia Press, will be published in the April edition of “The Catholic Servant.”]
In every way, the sacraments are about God’s love, fully revealed in Jesus Christ. In them Jesus makes Himself present as the One Who loves us “to the end.” (Jn. 13:1) In each sacrament He says: “I love you, I have given My life for you (Jn. 15:13; Gal. 2:20), and I want to love you right here, right now. Do you desire this? Will you permit me to love you?” We cannot say “Yes” and mean it, or know what we are saying “Yes” to, unless we know Who Jesus is: why God became man, and why He died on the Cross to save us.
The sacraments presuppose the faith by which “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.” (I Jn. 4:16) By faith we know the great story of God’s love, which culminates in Jesus’ teaching on love, the new commandment of love (Jn. 13:34), and His death on the cross. The Creed summarizes this story of God’s love. Faith makes our “Yes” to Christ’s love a fully informed and personal “Yes.” Then Jesus says to us what He said in response to people’s faith: “as you have believed, let it be done for you”; “great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mt. 8:13; 15:28) Jesus wants to say “Yes” to our faith-filled desire for His love!
The faith we bring to the sacraments is like that of the woman with a hemorrhage. She was desperate because she spent all of her money, yet no doctor could heal her. Her future could only be resignation to inevitable suffering. Hearing about Jesus’ miracles, she found new hope—hope in God. Knowing where to find Jesus, she left her home, thinking: “If I but touch His clothes, I shall be cured.” (Mk. 5:28) She did, and she was healed. “Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from Him, turned around in the crowd and asked, ‘Who has touched My clothes?’” (Mk. 5:30) Then He said: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” (Mk. 5:34)
Jesus wants to be touched by faith! In the sacraments, He responds by touching us with His love. When Jesus asked, “Who touched Me?” His disciples pointed out that many in the crowd had brushed up against Him. But, to only one did He say, “your faith has saved you.” Only one touched Jesus with deep and intense faith! In the sacraments, Jesus dispenses the saving power of His love to those who approach Him in faith, fully aware of their great need and especially of His great love.
The Virgin Mary is the unsurpassed model of faith. At the Annunciation, God takes the initiative of love—”He first loved us” (I Jn. 4:19)—by coming to Mary through the Archangel Gabriel, who proposes God’s plan to her. In response, Mary says, “May it be done to me according to Your word.” (Lk. 1:38) God awaits such a response of faith in the sacraments: “May it be done to me according to Your word of love!” The Holy Spirit then overshadows Mary, transforming her to be the Mother of God. Christ dwells in her so that through her He can come into the world. Similarly, when we encounter Christ in the sacraments, His love transforms us. He comes to dwell in us (Jn. 14:23) by the gift of sanctifying grace so that He can work through us to bring God’s love into the world.
Jesus promised: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to Myself.” (Jn. 12:32) He keeps this promise by bestowing grace through the sacraments. The risen, glorified, and ascended Lord loves us still through the rites that He established and the men whom He appointed to represent Him. Through the grace conferred in the sacraments, Jesus brings us into communion with Himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, and with one another in the Church. In the power of His love and grace, we are able to live out our new life in Christ. In this way, the sacraments prepare us for everlasting communion with God and all the saints in Heaven.
In Baptism Jesus redeems us from all sin, which prevents us from receiving the Father’s love. Becoming one with Him, the Father speaks to us the words He spoke at Jesus’ baptism: “You are My beloved son [or daughter]; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22) The Father rejoices in the goodness of His Son that He sees in us. We become a new creation in Christ. (II Cor. 5:17) As God was pleased with creation and “found it very good” (Gen. 1:31), He says to us: “It is good that you exist.”
Confirmation deepens the bond of love with God and with the Church, as Jesus fulfills His promise to send the Holy Spirit so that we can bear witness to Him and be faithful in trial and persecution. (Jn. 15:26–27; Lk. 12:11–12) Confirmation equips us for the New Evangelization.
The Eucharist brings communion with Christ to perfection. In every sacrament, Jesus’ paschal charity, the love by which He loves us “to the end,” is at work. In the Eucharist, the Lord Himself is present in His great act of offering Himself to the Father for our salvation. Here, Christ makes us associates in His mission to save the world, inviting us to offer ourselves—through, with, and in Him—to the Father. This holy sacrifice removes every obstacle to God’s love as we make a total gift of ourselves to God in Christ. This is the summit of worship for God’s priestly people, and the fullest manifestation of the mystery of the Church, that is, the mystery of God’s love transforming those who believe.
In the sacraments of healing, Confession and Anointing, we say, with the leper: “Lord, if You wish, You can make me clean.” (Lk 5:12) He could not know how Jesus would respond, but in faith knew Jesus’ answer: “I do will it” (Lk. 5:13) By faith we know, in advance, that Jesus will forgive us, declaring through His minister: “Your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 7:48) As signs of His authority to forgive sins, Jesus’ miracles of healing make our hope certain: “that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” (Mk. 2:10–11) God’s word of love never fails: “My word that goes forth from My mouth … shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Isa. 55:11) Jesus is the Word of God, and God is love. (I Jn. 4:8) When He says, “I love you,” we are healed, transformed, and enriched, and we can say, with Mary: “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Lk. 1:49)
All He requires is that we desire this as well. Like the woman with a hemorrhage, faith tells us where to find Jesus. He does not hide. Through His bishops and priests, Jesus waits for us in the confessional as He once waited at a well for the Samaritan. (Jn. 4:6) As He responded to the plea of Jairus (Lk. 8:41–42, 49–56), when we are unable to come to Him, in His ministers He comes to us—“under our roof.” (Mt. 8:8)
Through Matrimony and Holy Orders, Jesus makes us His associates in special missions to love others. These sacraments confer the grace to grow in holiness by being conformed to Him Who “did not come to be served but to serve.” (Mk. 10:45) Through the ordained, Jesus continues to love us by teaching the truth, sanctifying through the sacraments, and guiding us as our shepherd. He says to men of every age what He said to the Apostles, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:18), and through this sacrament His words are effective. Those who are married receive a mission to grow in holiness together by seeking the Kingdom of God in the service of life and love in the family. In this sacrament, Jesus confers the grace to fulfill God’s first command: “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:28)
The sacraments make Jesus’ paschal charity active and effective in the world. Just as people of faith knew where to find Jesus to be healed and saved, we know that we encounter His love in the sacraments. Two desires converge in the sacraments: God’s desire to love us, and our desire to be loved by Him and to love Him in return. We, on earth, desire what Christ, in Heaven, desires. In the sacraments, God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven! (Mt. 6:10)
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Blessed John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.
This article was funded by the Venerable Pope Pius XII Chair of Writing sponsored by Fr. John Paul Erickson.