Jul 15, 2010

Matter — The Vessels of God’s Action upon Us

Online Edition: July-August 2010

Vol. XVI, No. 5

Matter — The Vessels of God’s Action upon Us

by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

“Matter” is the final section of the last chapter of Cardinal Ratzinger’s foundational book, The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000, Ignatius Press). In this section, which concludes the chapter,”The Body and the Liturgy”, the author, now Pope Benedict XVI, comments on the sacramental use of “matter” — that is material elements or objects — as “the vessels of God’s action upon us”. Liturgy is “cosmic”, drawing all creation into union with God; and it is bound to actual history. (Textheads added.)


The Catholic liturgy is the liturgy of the Word made flesh — made flesh for the sake of the resurrection. And, as we have seen, it is a cosmic liturgy. Thus it is clear that not only do the human body and signs from the cosmos play an essential role in the liturgy but that the matter of this world is part of the liturgy. Matter comes into the liturgy in two ways: first, in the form of many kinds of symbols — the holy fire of Easter night, the candle and the flame that burns on it, the various kinds of liturgical objects such as the bell, the altar cloth, and so on.…

The second, even more important way in which matter comes into the liturgy is in the sacraments, the sacred actions that go back to Christ Himself, which in the strict sense constitute the liturgy — precisely because they were not invented by men but were given to us in their substance by the Lord Himself.

Three of the seven sacraments relate directly to man as a person at very particular points in his life and consequently do not need any other “matter” than man himself in the situation to which the sacrament is ordered. First there is Penance, in which as sinners we beg for the word of forgiveness and renewal. Then there is Holy Orders, in which the Lord, by the bishop’s laying on of hands, gives a man mission and authority in succession to the ministry of the apostles. Finally, there is Matrimony, in which two human beings give themselves to each other for a lifelong union and thereby become a real, living, and tangible image of the covenant between Christ and His Church (cf Ephesians 5:27-32).

Water, Air, Fire, Earth

But then there are four sacraments — Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick — in which material things become the vessels of God’s action upon us. It is not for this little book to develop a theology of the sacraments. I should just like to highlight the elements that come into the liturgy here as a mediation of the divine action. For these elements, which the Lord Himself chose, are full of meaning. We need to meditate on them as such if we are to understand the spirit of the liturgy better. They are: water, (olive) oil, (wheaten) bread, and wine. Let us remember in parenthesis here that of the four elements in antiquity — water, air, fire, earth — the first three are all symbols of the Holy Spirit, while the earth represents man, who comes from the earth and to the earth returns.

Fire and air in the form of breath are present in many ways in the symbolism of the liturgy, but only water, which comes from above and yet belongs to the earth, has become, as the primordial element of life, sacramental matter in the strict sense.

The Church’s Tradition discerns a twofold symbolism in water. The salt water of the sea is a symbol of death, a threat and a danger; it reminds us of the Red Sea, which was deadly to the Egyptians, though the Israelites were rescued from it. Baptism is a kind of passing through the Red Sea. A death occurs within it. It is more than a bath or washing — it touches the very depths of existence, as far as death itself. It is a crucifying communion with Christ. This is precisely what is signified by the Red Sea, which is an image of death and resurrection (cf Rom 6:1-11).

On the other hand, water flowing from a spring is a symbol of the source of all life, the symbol of life. That is why the early Church laid down that baptism had to be administered by means of “living water”, spring water, so that baptism could be experienced as the beginning of new life. In this connection, the Fathers always had at the back of their minds the conclusion of the Passion narrative according to Saint John: blood and water flow from the opened side of Jesus; Baptism and Eucharist spring from the pierced heart of Jesus. He has become the living spring that makes us alive (cf John 19:34; I John 5:6). At the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus had prophesied that streams of living water would flow from the man who came to Him and drank: “Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive” (John 7:39). The baptized man himself becomes a spring. When we think of the great saints of history, from whom streams of faith, hope, and love really came forth, we can understand these words and thus understand something of the dynamism of baptism, of the promise and vocation it contains.

Oil, Bread, Wine

When we look at the three other elements in the sacraments of the Church — olive oil, wheaten bread, and wine — we are struck by the characteristic that distinguishes them from the gift of water.

Whereas water is the common element of life for the whole earth and is therefore suitable in all places as a door of entry to communion with Christ, in the case of the other three elements we are dealing with the typical gifts of Mediterranean culture. We encounter this triad in explicit association in the glorious psalm of creation, Psalm 104, where the Psalmist thanks God for giving man the food of the earth and “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (v. 15).

These three elements of Mediterranean life express the goodness of creation, in which we receive the goodness of the Creator Himself. And now they become the gift of an even higher goodness, a goodness that makes our face shine anew in likeness to the “Anointed” God, to His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, a goodness that changes the bread and wine of the earth into the Body and Blood of the Redeemer, so that, through the Son made man, we may have communion with the triune God Himself.

The Priority of History

At this point comes the objection that these gifts have a symbolic force only in the Mediterranean area and that in other growing regions they ought to be replaced by elements appropriate to those regions. This is the same issue that we encountered when we were discussing the inversion of the cosmic symbolism of the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. The answer we gave there applies again here: in the interplay of culture and history, history has priority. God has acted in history and, through history, given the gifts of the earth their significance.

The elements become sacraments through connection with the unique history of God in relation to man in Jesus Christ. As we have said before, Incarnation does not mean doing as we please. On the contrary, it binds us to the history of a particular time. Outwardly, that history may seem fortuitous, but it is the form of history willed by God, and for us it is the trustworthy trace He has imprinted on the earth, the guarantee that we are not thinking up things for ourselves but are truly touched by God and come into touch with Him.

Precisely through what is particular and once-for-all, the here and now, we emerge from the “ever and never” vagueness of mythology. It is with this particular face, with this particular human form, that Christ comes to us, and precisely thus does He make us brethren beyond all boundaries. Precisely thus do we recognize Him: “It is the Lord” (John 21:7).



Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI served as Pope from 2005 until his resignation in 2013.