The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Presence and Sacrifice in the Eucharist

In his popular blog, Fr. Dwight Longenecker asked, “What do we mean by ‘Real Presence’?” The question is useful for initiating ecumenical dialogue. Fr. L. understands the term “transubstantiation,” which he prefers as an alternative to “real presence,” to entail the claim that, unlike Protestant doctrine, Christ is present in the Eucharistic elements in a physical or corporeal way. In support of his position Fr. L. quotes Pope Paul VI’s 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei.

Pace Fr. L., the essential dimension is not “corporeal” reality but rather “sacrifice.” I would like to make two brief points: (1) “real” does not necessarily imply “corporeal” or “physical,” and (2) what is made present in the Eucharist is the reality of Christ’s spiritual sacrifice on the cross under the signs of bread and wine. Bread and wine are the corporeal dimension of the sacrament.

The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation certainly requires a belief in the reality of Christ’s presence but that presence is not “corporeal” if the word means physical or material sense data. Our senses encounter the appearances of bread and wine, not the reality made present in the sacrament. In Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul comments that the real presence is “a substantial presence…” But what does “substantial” mean here? The Pope makes a critical distinction: Christ “is bodily present, although not in the same way that bodies are present in a given place” (my emphasis). Therefore the word “substantial” should not be understood in the context of Eucharistic theology as referring to a body in space and time.

The saving power of the cross, inseparable from the indivisible Christ (Body, Blood, soul and divinity) is the “substance” that is present “in a sacramental form” under corporeal appearances of food. Only the appearances of bread and wine appear “in the same way that bodies are present in a given place.” The Body of Christ is now glorified, and so is a spiritual reality, not a localized one. The word “substance” is thus not to be understood as the outward form that looks, feels and tastes like bread and wine; it denotes the reality made present. Christ’s sacrifice, really present, saves us when received in faith, as he opens our hearts to the needs of immigrants, prisoners, the hungry, homeless, and victims of oppression and injustice.

David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

A Work of Missionary Discipleship

Pope Francis with UND coalition

Pope Francis with UND delegation

Recently, Pope Francis greeted a delegation from the University of Notre Dame.  He offered the following exhortation to his guests, but more broadly, to be received by Catholic colleges and universities everywhere.  He said:

In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions.  This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. 

This “missionary discipleship” is the impetus for Saint Joseph’s College Theology blog, which arose out of the desire on the part of the faculty for the Online Theology Programs to foster intellectual engagement among each other and in the wider arena of the Church in which our students and graduates live out their vocation of discipleship in many and various ways, such as religious educators, pastoral associates, hospital chaplains, college professors, campus ministers, just to name a few.  The topics discussed in this blog reflect the varied interests of the bloggers, and so the topic of our inaugural blog on this Ash Wednesday is Confession.

The Medicine of Confession

It is thanks to the medicine of Confession
that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.
Augustine, Sermon 82

It is fitting that a blog’s debut on Ash Wednesday be devoted to Confession.  It may, however, seem odd that a college sponsored blog kick off with sinAfter all, in the ever increasing competitive market, many universities are clamoring to attract students by highlighting the warts-free ideal.  It goes something like this:  You, prospective student, are terrific.  We, the college for you, are terrific.  Together, we are perfect.

Maybe so, but since this is a blog of Catholic theology, sin and redemption are foremost in our minds.  Catholics – theologians or otherwise – view those they encounter as souls in need of salvation.  That is to say we see others and ourselves as possessing an immortal soul and that human actions are for the good or the ill of others, not just here and now, but eternally.  When a teacher of Catholic theology remembers that core truth and teaches in sincerity and with humility and joy – all the while sensitive to the diverse needs and backgrounds of his or her students—the extraordinary happens.  The student who doesn’t “feel” terrific and may be on the brink of despair, experiences something wonderful:  hope.  For Catholic students, the Sacrament of Reconciliation may seem like a wonderful starting point, for in the confessional, “hope springs eternal,” as the saying goes.

After my son made his First Confession at age seven, he ran to me and blurted out, “Mom, I feel like I have never sinned in my entire life.”  While we are reluctant to speak of “feelings” in relation to faith—as feelings come and go–what he really was conveying was an experience of grace that involved his entire being.  When not even ten minutes later he started fighting with his brother, I was tempted to say, “So, do you remember now what it feels like to sin?”  Of course, I bit my tongue and refrained from sharing the proverbial parental “gotcha.”  It was well I did keep silent because that initial grace of the confessional stayed with him, and later when the experience of sin became more profound as one matures and grows, Confession was a home to which he could return, a respite from the crushing weight of sin and guilt, and a place of hope from which to set out on the path of True North again and again.

Patricia Ireland is the Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.