In our Gospel this weekend we hear the apostle Philip ask Jesus to show them the Father. And Jesus replies by saying something very significant: “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” A little earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus said something very similar: “Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.” (John 12:45)
This is an absolutely central tenet of the Christian faith – that in the Person of Jesus, God has shown us his face. Through his Incarnation, Jesus put an end to the Father’s invisibility. In Christ, Almighty God can be seen—he is now visible to us—and the face of God that we are shown is definitively revealed to be a face of love.
Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples, “though you cannot see the Father, you can see me, and you can see the Father in me.” It’s a beautiful example of how God in a sense condescends to our weakness, and gives us very earthy, human help for our faith. He knows that we struggle to be faithful to a God whom we cannot see, so he gives us his Son Jesus—God in human form—as someone who can be seen and touched.
But God doesn’t stop there. He knows that countless generations of believers will follow after Jesus who will not have the privilege of seeing the Son of God in the flesh, and who will similarly struggle to believe in realities that we can’t see with our own eyes, or touch with our own hands. And so to help us is our weakness of faith, Jesus has given us the sacraments. The sacraments are God’s chosen way of sharing his grace with us in a most concrete and powerful way.
If you think about it, God is all-powerful, and he could very easily just zap us from above to forgive us of our sins, or give us spiritual healing, or fill us with his grace. But instead, God has decided to use everyday material elements—things we can see, touch, feel, smell—as the means by which he shares his grace with us. And these worldly elements—bread, wine, water, oil, etc.—serve as the conduits of the invisible realities taking place.
As you may or may not know, most ancient religions essentially split existence into two – they tended to see the spiritual world as good, and the material world as evil. This is why the very idea of the Incarnation, the idea that God would come down and take on human form, that he would eat and sleep and have bowel movements, was—and continues to be—so scandalous to many people.
By taking on human flesh, and coming down to us in the form of a little baby—as we celebrate each Christmas—God was essentially affirming the dignity of the material world. He was saying that even this crude stuff of our material world, is worthy of being used by God.
And this continues in the celebration of the sacraments. The material elements of the sacraments—such as the bread and wine in the Eucharist—are not only symbolic of what is taking place, but they are actually the means by which it takes place. God so honours our material reality, that he lets this humble bread and wine be the means by which he enters into our very souls. God lets the water of baptism be the means by which a person enters into their new life with Christ.
So in this sense the sacraments could be called “sensory aids” to our faith. Instead of being just an invisible reality, we can taste the bread which has become Christ’s body, we can hear the priest absolving us of our sins in confession, we can feel the water of baptism and the oil of anointing. God lowers himself to our level, as it were, to make it as easy as possible for us to be able to receive with faith the gifts he offers us.
Given all this, what are we to make of the fact that, on the whole, we aren’t able to take part in the celebration of the sacraments at present? Does it mean that God is now more distant from us, or even that he has abandoned us? Far from it! Firstly, it should be emphasised that, while the sacraments are God’s ordinary means of sharing his grace with us, they are not his only way. The sacraments exist for our benefit, and they are a tremendous blessing, but God is not bound to acting within them alone. Furthermore, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which we have received in Baptism and Confirmation, continue to work within us, and ever prompt us to open ourselves to the Lord and to seek to follow his will. Even when we sin, our desire to be healed and to be at peace with God is itself a gift from him.
We should always remember that God does not force himself upon us. God is love, and love cannot be forced, so God’s offer of grace always requires a response on our part. We need to accept his love in order for it to take root in our soul and bear fruit in our lives.
And part of saying “yes” to God is disposing ourselves so as to be receptive to his offer of grace. This is why we speak of “practicing our faith”, because acquiring this disposition takes practice. It involves developing habits of regular prayer, of trusting God in the every-day little things, of taking opportunities to grow in virtue. It means following the Lord daily, in the simple actions that make up our day. And this path of striving to open ourselves to the Lord and his will remains available to us even in the midst of the present disruptions.
And so, instead of simply looking ahead to when things will return to how they were before, it may well be that the Lord is seeking to use this present moment to help prepare us in ever deeper ways for the life of discipleship that we are all called to. It may well be that this time of spiritual fasting from the Mass is an opportunity for us to purify our intentions and to desire it all the more, so that when public Mass returns as a possibility, we will not simply go through the motions, but may truly experience union with Jesus—and through him with the Father—in an altogether new and fruitful way.
As Saint Bonaventure once implored, “Open your eyes, lend your spiritual ear, open your lips and dispose your heart, so that you will be able to see, hear, praise, love, venerate, glorify, and honour your God.” This is a most worthwhile goal for us during this present time, and if we each commit to it, then we as a parish will truly be blessed through the current interruptions, and not just in spite of them.
A few notices and links:
– With some easing of restrictions on the horizon, there’s hope that we might be able to open up the church for at least private prayer before too long. We have no details on this yet, but I’ll keep you in the loop as things develop.
– We were planning to repaint the interior of parish offices last month, but had to put those plans on hold for obvious reasons. But with things looking to open up again soon, it seems like an appropriate time to get the job done before too much activity returns. Work will begin this coming Monday and will take most the week, so this may affect our parish office availability somewhat. We still aim to have the office open between 9am-12:30pm Monday-Friday, but it may be worth ringing ahead if you’re wanting to pop by.
– My piano song for this week is “Lean on Me”: https://youtu.be/WxHzx2qoLQI
– Catholic Youth Ministry is running an online young adults conference called “Sacramentum” next weekend, with an impressive line-up of presenters. Registration is free, and details can be found here: https://sacramentum.cym.com.au/
– There’s a faithful and well-made TV series on the life of Christ called “The Chosen”, which is available to watch for free on YouTube. Here’s the first episode: https://youtu.be/craeyJdrCsE
– And lastly, for a glimpse of the beauty of Catholicism for this week, here’s a look at the remarkable Holy Week processions that normally take place in Spain each year: https://youtu.be/N-EzhFOI5XU