Our Faith is not an Abstraction: it is frighteningly concrete

Fr James V. Schall has an excellent essay on the Ignatius Scoop blog entitled “Heaven is not an abstraction”. I recommend it.

One of the things he does in that essay is quote Peter Kreeft’s statement that

“The teachers are terrified of the thought that they might really have something divine to teach. They are terrified of dogma, or Tradition, or of Divine Revelation, of Divine Law, of authority, of ‘Thus says the Lord.’”
—Peter Kreeft, Jesus Shock.

As an adult eductation teacher for Anima Education, I have at times felt that terror. I did last Wednesday night, for instance, when I went out to a local parish at the invitation of the parish priest to conduct the third in a series of catechetical presentations for the parents of children in the sacramental program of the parish school. These presentations were to be purposely based on the teaching of the Church as it is given in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Previously I had spoken on Reconciliation and Confirmation, and in the future I am due to do a presentation on Baptism. Last Wednesday’s presenation was to be on the Eucharist.

Where to start, I wondered. I couldn’t (unlike with the other subjects) even hope to give anything like a complete overview. What then? I decided to focus on two aspects only of the Lord’s Supper: a) it is the sacrament of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, b) it the sacrifice of the very body and blood of Christ. In my experience, it is usually these two aspects that are the most difficult to teach concerning the Eucharist, and hence the two aspects that are often actually omitted in any basic level of catechesis on this subject.

But I must say that I was rather frightened by the aspect of trying to even begin to explain these two aspects of the Eucharist, the sacramental and the sacrificial, to the parents who braved the wet and cold conditions (on top of finding baby sitters for their children) that night. In actual fact, compared to the sacramental aspect, it was the sacrificial aspect that I found most worrying.

First, what concept of sacrifice would these parents have? What concept of sacrifice had the Church given them in the past in their own formation? What sense were they to make of the statement: “The Eucharist is a sacrifice”? And finally, I was, as a teacher, leaving myself wide open to the very valid complaint that what I was teaching was “not relevant to their real life situation”. Why did they have to come out on such an awful night for this?

Well, I went for it anyway. And I chose to explain it by looking at the very real and concrete act of sacrifice in the history of God’s revelation to his people. That meant starting with what was wrong between us and God – as Ezekiel the prophet said “The person who sins will die.” Not a promising start. Not a message that was particularly “nice” or “easy” to convey. Then I went on to the story of the “sacrifice” of Isaac, in which God first seemed to demand and then definitively prohibited human sacrifice. But with what did he replace it? With animal sacrifice (the ram caught in the thicket). So that led to a discussion of the Old Covenant, based as it was on the practice of animal sacrifice, a bloody business without which no Hebrew could expect or hope to come into the presence of God. And so an explanation of the temple, the burnt sacrifices, the peace/thanksgiving/fellowship sacrifice, and, of course, the Passover Sacrifice. All this was background to what Jesus meant when “on the night on which he was betrayed” he instituted the sacrament of his own human sacrifice, his sacrifice which fulfilled the whole system of animal sacrifice (as according to the letter to the Hebrews in the NT), the sacrifice for our sin which continues to be present in the sacrifice of the Mass, so that “the person who sins” need not die, but might be reconnected with God through Christ in the Spirit and hence live.

I have no idea at all what those parents made of all this. After all, they were just there because they wanted their children to receive their first Eucharist in a few weeks time. They were probably not counting on talk of bloody (and ultimately “non-bloody”) sacrifices.

But the point here, and the connection to Fr Schall’s essay, is that sacrifice is not an abstract notion. It is a very concrete, very bloody, business. And the shock of it all is that the justice and mercy of God demands it. As Fr Schall concludes in his essay, “This is a frightening doctrine if it is true. But it is true. This is why we need and want to hear it, even when we do not hear it.”

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One Response to Our Faith is not an Abstraction: it is frighteningly concrete

  1. Paul says:

    thank you for this discussion of the concreteness of the Catholic Faith.
    I find myself in the position of filling in as scripture teacher for years 7 and 8 at the local high school, although I’m no teacher myself. It seems to me that a lot of the SRE syllabus material is very matter-of-fact (eg what colour vestments the priest wears, how sacraments are performed) While this is important, I think we have to realise that the students in a Catholic scripture class in a public school have only a vague idea of what the Faith is. In their minds it is a story, and ideal, a myth, a family tradition etc.

    I think we (actually, this means me, in a lesson tomorrow) have to challenge them to realise it is more than an abstraction, it is a shocking reality, as you say in this post. We seem to be in a period of the liturgy with lots of shocks at the moment (Trinity, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart).

    I hope tomorrow (and all prayers are welcome) to give them some idea of the concreteness of the faith. I would also like to talk (and hopefully hear them talk) about the saints and how this concreteness inspired them.

    As an aside… we had a visiting priest at Mass yesterday. He read a carefully written homily, which seemed to me to retreat from the concrete reality of the Eucharist. In his words, the Eucharistic meal was a “metaphor” for the way we live in communities and the Body of Christ demonstrated our share in the life of Christ. I’m no theologian, but I don’t think Christ was offering us a metaphor for anything. I don’t think a metaphor would have inspired the martyrs in the blood curdling days of the late Roman Empire.

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