Nebraska, my home state, has many farmers who grow lots of corn. A friend of mine, many years my senior, once made an interesting observation about our fellow Corn Huskers as we drove into the state’s capital of Lincoln.
“When a Nebraska corn farmer drives into the city and sees the tall buildings,” my friend said, “his first thought is ‘I wonder how many bushels that building could hold.’”
He didn’t say this to disparage farmers, but only to make the point that each of us sees the world according to our own upbringing, culture, and formation.
My own formation, at least in part, is that of a liturgist. (OK, keep those liturgist jokes to yourself!) I have been trained to see things through liturgical lenses, or with a sacramental sight. What does this mean?
A very basic definition of a sacrament is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” Or, put another way, a sacrament or sacramental thing has one dimension that can be sensed and another hidden dimension that, ultimately, is the divine life of God.
One thing is seen; another is made present. An earthly symbol is encountered, a heavenly reality made manifest. The natural sign bears a supernatural truth.
It was with these eyes that I first read Pope Francis’ “Prayer for the Year of Mercy,” and I found it also to be rather sacramental in nature.
The Holy Father prays, “Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees him. Show us your face and we will be saved.” Like this verse from John 14:9, St. Paul says that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Based upon these texts, the tradition will even call Jesus the supreme sacrament. St. Augustine claims that ultimately “there is no other sacrament of God except Christ” (see CCC 774).
Today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Christ’s “humanity appeared as ‘sacrament,’ that is, the sign and instrument, of his divinity and of the salvation he brings: what was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission” (CCC 515). Later, after calling Christ “the visible face of the invisible Father,” the Holy Father asks him that the “Church be your visible face in the world.” This, too, is a sacramental relationship between Christ and his Church. In our present place in salvation history, Christ still works—as he always has— but he does so now through the Church and her sacraments. Again, from the Catechism: “Christ’s work in the liturgy is sacramental…because his Body, which is the Church, is like a sacrament (sign and instrument) in which the Holy Spirit dispenses the mystery of salvation…” (CCC 1111). The Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” relying on St. Augustine, likewise refers to the sacramental nature of the Church when it says that “it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’” (SC 5).
The Holy Father’s prayer, of course, is not meant to be looked at principally in an academic manner; and these present reflections are not meant to be those of a liturgy professor. To see devotional prayers—and, indeed, the entire world—as connected to the liturgy and sacraments is not some quirk of “professional” liturgists. Rather, to view the life of faith through liturgical lenses brings clarity, enlightenment, and insight. It lets us begin to see Jesus who comes to us in a privileged way in the Church and her sacraments. And it’s the type of vision that belongs to all Catholics.
This same sacramental perspective sets the course for our present issue. I’ll take a look at the use of “repetition” in the texts of the Roman Missal and show how the many poetic styles of repeating texts help the words of the Mass resound, reflect, and reveal the Word of the Trinity (to “sacramentalize” it, in other words). Benedict Nguyen will address some of the more frequently misunderstood aspects of Marriage, especially from the canonical and liturgical vantage points. The “rules” and “laws” governing marriage are not simply a litany of ecclesial disciplines but are meant in the end to help the marriage between man and woman manifest (read: sacramentalize) that ultimate marriage of Jesus to his own Bride, the Church. Adoremus’s managing editor Joseph O’Brien will show us in his review and excerpting of David Clayton’s book The Way of Beauty how beauty is a constituent element of faith, evangelization, culture, and liturgy, and that beauty—like Christ—has the power to attract and save.
May the Year of Mercy—through the Holy Father’s prayer, the approaching Lenten season, the Church and our liturgies—give to us and to the world, the vision of Jesus, face of the Father.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.