“Consider yourselves also dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The readings for today’s Mass hearken back to Holy Saturday and Holy Thursday, and speak to two Sacraments—perhaps the most essential Sacraments—Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. We learned from our Catechisms that “A Sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.” We might also consider that through the power of God, the Sacrament effects what is signified by the sign.
With Baptism, the outward sign is the washing with water, accompanied by the sacramental form: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Quite appropriately, we think of Baptism in terms of the “washing away of sin”—both original sin and actual sin—for by Baptism we are delivered from the sin of Adam as well as from any sins which we may have committed ourselves. Yet, we recognize that the outward sign, although physical (in this case, water), effects something that is entirely spiritual. Only metaphorically can we refer to the “stain of sin on the soul,” for the soul is spiritual and cannot be stained or disfigured in the physical sense.
What we call the “stain” of sin refers more to the lack of God’s grace, and to the radical inability of the person to do anything meritorious before God. With Baptism, God’s grace elevates us above the natural level, bringing us in the most important ways to the level of Adam and Even in their original state of innocence—what the theologians call the state of original justice. As we hear in each Mass, just before the offertory of the wine, “God established human nature in wondrous dignity”—the dignity of being adopted sons and daughters of God; that dignity which was lost with the sin of Adam—but then (through Jesus Christ) God “even more wondrously hast restored [that dignity].” Through the sacrifice of the Cross we may once again “become partakers of His divinity, Who humbled Himself to become a partaker in our humanity.”
What our Lord did on the Cross for the whole of humanity is applied to us as individuals through the Sacrament of Baptism. We become partakers of God’s divine life, and by divine adoption we become fit to do things pleasing to God in the future—our soul is permanently “marked” with a character that makes us capable of beneficially receiving the other Sacraments.
In writing to the Christians at Rome, Saint Paul describes the Sacrament with a slightly different interpretation of what the sacramental sign of Baptism effects. Where possible, the early Catholics baptized by immersion. The convert was led to a stream, where he was placed briefly under the water. The symbolism that Saint Paul was referring to here is the similarity between being lowered into the water and being lowered into the grave. For a brief moment, during the reception of the Sacrament, the convert appears no longer to be among the living, but then, with the utterance of the sacramental form, a newly born Catholic is drawn up out of the waters. Paul points to the similarity of the Sacrament to dying with Christ on the Cross, and then rising with Him in the Resurrection. Indeed, the Sacrament of Baptism is a pledge that those who have received it and remained faithful will be resurrected to the eternal life of heaven on the last day. If, with Christ, we die to sin, we will again rise with Him at the time of judgment.
Baptism is, of course, the beginning of the individual Christian’s spiritual life—but, under most circumstances, life on earth goes on for many more years. God does not ask us to go through those years with only the initial grace of our conversion. We gives us, so to speak, “food for the journey.”
The Gospel describes the second of the two times when our Lord multiplied a few loaves of bread in order to feed a few thousand people. Perhaps they are coincidental, but the numbers are interesting. On this occasion, our Lord had seven loaves to start with; the number of the Sacraments He would eventually establish. On the earlier occasion there were five loaves and two fishes; the number of the Sacraments of the living plus the Sacraments of the dead (Baptism and Confession are called Sacraments of the dead because they bring a figuratively “dead” soul to life).
In Saint John’s account of the first multiplication of loaves (the sixth chapter) it is almost exactly a year before the Last Supper. After feeding the crowd, our Lord explains to the crowd that just as their Fathers ate bread from heaven (manna) as they crossed the desert in the Exodus, He would give them the Bread of Life for their journey. Quite explicitly, He explained that this Bread of Life would be His Body and Blood, and unless they were nourished with it, they would not have life in them. It is extremely significant that, on this occasion, a number of people in the crowd abandoned Jesus because they just could not believe that even He could give them His Body and Blood—Yet, He did not call them back; He did not call after them, saying, “You misunderstood what I said.” He did not try to entice them back by saying that He meant only a symbol of His Body and Blood. He did not call them back because He meant just what He said: “I will give you my Body and my Blood ... if anyone eats of this Bread he shall live forever, the Bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Again, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, at Holy Mass, we have an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace. The outward sign is bread and wine, which the priest gives to us, acting in the Person of Christ (in persona Christi, we say in Latin), making Christ’s words his own: “For this is My Body.... For this is a chalice of My Blood ... which will be shed for you and for many in remission of sins.” Through the power of Christ the sacramental sign again effects what it signifies. The appearances remain but the bread and wine have been replaced with the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ. By their separate consecration we are privileged to be present at the foot of the Cross as Jesus’ Blood is poured out from His Body. And, once again, if, with Christ, we die to sin, we will again rise with Him at the time of judgment.
You all know that there are five other Sacraments; we have mentioned only the two most important. It will have to suffice today to say that the Sacrament of Penance is “up there” with these two, so it is vitally important to our living in the state of grace to make a good sacramental Confession with some degree of regularity. We receive the other Sacraments when it is appropriate. But all of them work in a similar way: instituted by Christ, with the power of God, these outward signs in reality effect the graces which they signify.
And in all of their cases we can truly say: If, with Christ, we die to sin, we will again rise with Him at the time of judgment.