Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 2014
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
In today’s 2nd reading, St. Peter tells us:
“Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”
Don’t raise your hand or anything,
but how many times has someone asked you
why the Church teaches this or that doctrine,
and you struggled to give a coherent response
—maybe you even had no answer at all to give them.
I don’t mean to pick on you: I know you do believe,
and that you probably know the faith better than most Catholics.
But the sad fact is, most Catholics just don’t know their faith very well.
So is it any wonder that so many Catholics don’t come to Mass,
or even leave the Church altogether,
or perhaps even stay in the Church and go to Mass
but don’t live life as real Catholics.
Much less, is it any wonder that more people don’t become Catholic,
if we can’t even explain what we believe?
Now, we don’t have time today to go through all the Church’s teachings,
but let’s look at one example of how we could begin to
explain the reasons for our hope.
Let’s look at one of the most important parts of our faith: the sacraments.
The Catholic life flows from, is nourished by and revolves around
the 7 sacraments:
Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage,
Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick.
They are absolutely essential to the Catholic life and hope,
but who here is “ready to give an explanation” of them?
Maybe you could begin by defining what we believe a sacrament is,
giving a very simple definition:
“an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”
What do we mean by an “an outward sign”?
We are physical creatures, and everything we learn and understand,
everything we communicate to others,
comes to us through physical things, and through our physical bodies:
we talk, we listen, we see, we touch, etc.
So, when the God who made us this way, decided to reveal himself to us,
he came to us physically,
and used physical signs to explain himself to us.
The main physical signs he used was “the word.”
If you think about it, words are just signs that point
to some meaning and reality that our minds understand.
And yet they are absolutely essential to all human beings,
especially when it comes to knowing and worshiping God, Jesus Christ
Who would deny that?
And so when Christ left the world he left these signs called “words”
—words grouped together to form his “Gospel” and his “teachings.”
But he also left other physical signs to communicate to us.
Signs that are also absolutely essential, according to His plan,
for us to know and worship him.
Signs that were not meant to communicate his teaching,
but to communicate his grace.
And so, for example, the Sacrament of Baptism comes to us
in the outward sign of the pouring of water, and the words,
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit.”
As St. John tells us, Jesus told Nicodemus,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit,
he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
And then John concludes:
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea;
there he remained with them and baptized.”
Some will say to you, well, these so-called sacraments, even baptism, is optional
—they might say something like “it’s faith alone that saves,”
or maybe “as long as we don’t hurt anyone, that’s enough.”
So, if the sacramental signs of Jesus are optional,
are the words of Jesus optional?
How could they be—they are signs communicating to us his teaching?
That can’t be optional for Christians.
So how could the other signs he left behind be optional: the signs of his grace?
Could he have communicated to us in some different way?
He could speak directly to you, in some sort of vision or locution.
And sometimes he does.
But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the words he left behind with his apostles.
And in the same way he can give us grace any way he wants
—he is God after all.
But he chose to give the apostles the sacraments as the normal means
of giving us particular graces that are essential to living the Christian life.
Why would we, how can we, ignore them or refuse them?
Especially when he says things like:
“unless a man is born of water and the Spirit,
he cannot enter the kingdom of God”;
or “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man…you have no life in you.”
As I said, a sacrament is outward sign, instituted by Christ.
For many, the main question is where or how Christ instituted the sacraments.
Some are harder to see than others, but some are obvious.
Baptism and the Eucharist seem pretty obvious,
considering Jesus specific commands in their regard.
But some are not so obviously instituted by Jesus,
at least to the extent that the Gospel doesn’t specifically say he
actually administered the sacrament himself,
or commanded the apostles to do so.
But the thing is, we can also see that he instituted the sacraments
by looking at the actions of the apostles after he ascended to heaven.
We believe that they did what he taught them to do.
So, for example, the Acts of the Apostles tells us
that the apostles baptized 3000 people on the first Pentecost day.
And the rest of the New Testament makes it clear
that they kept baptizing people:
today’s first reading tells us about the new Christians in Samaria who
had “been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
We see this also in the sacrament of confirmation.
Even though the Gospels don’t record Jesus
ever specifically talking about confirmation,
we see the apostles clearly confirming people in the New Testament.
We also read about that in today’s first reading from Acts.
It says that after the deacon Philip had baptized the Samarians,
“the apostles in Jerusalem…sent them Peter and John,
…that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them…
Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
This is clearly the sacrament of Confirmation.
Note that that the apostles themselves
had to travel all the way from Jerusalem to Samaria
because only they—the first bishops and priests—
could give the sacrament of Confirmation—
never a deacon, like Philip.
That’s exactly what we believe today.
Now, clearly Jesus had told them that he would send the Holy Spirit to them,
as we read in today’s gospel:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate
to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”
And even it wasn’t recorded in the Gospel, it seems clear
that he also told them how to share that Holy Spirit with all of us.
How else did the apostles figure it out,
and how to do share it by laying on of hands,
and that only they had the power to do that?
They wouldn’t just invent that—they only did what Jesus taught them to do.
So what if the specifics weren’t mentioned in the Gospel:
St. John goes on to tell us at the end of his Gospel:
“there are also many other things which Jesus did;
were every one of them to be written,
…the world itself could not contain
the books that would be written.”
And St. Paul tells us in 2nd Thessalonians:
“hold [on] to the traditions which you were taught by us,
either by word of mouth or by letter.
Catholics believe that the teaching of the apostles
is handed down to us in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition,
or the oral traditions handed down by word of mouth.
And it is clear from that Tradition, and totally consistent with Scripture,
that Christ himself instituted the sacrament of Confirmation.
Now, some clever skeptic might ask: doesn’t the Church say
you have to lay on hands and anoint them with the oil of Chrism?
Where does that come from?
That’s not even remotely alluded to in Scripture.
But remember: the letters of the New Testament weren’t written to be ritual books.
For example, notice it says they “laid hands on them,”
but it doesn’t say where they laid their hands?
So obviously details are missing.
We assume they laid hands on their head because of 2 things:
first, because that’s what the first written rituals
dated from the 2nd century tell us,
and second, because the Old Testament explains
that that’s how the Jews gave special blessings.
And those same 2nd century rituals tell us
that not only did they lay hands on the head,
they also anointed the head with oil.
And that same Old Testament tells us that
when someone was anointed a priest, prophet or king
they were anointed on the head, symbolizing that “a portion of God’s spirit”
had been poured out on them.
So did the Peter and John lay hands on and anoint the heads the Samarians?
Once again, that’s what the very early church believed,
and it’s totally consistent with the Scriptures.
And so that is what we believe.
Now, we can go on like this through the other 4 of the 7 sacraments.
But my point is, as I began, we must, as Peter wrote:
“Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”
Today, I’ve tried to help you to do that—or at least see how it can be done.
There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the “New Evangelization.”
But what we forget is the New Evangelization begins with us.
Before we can share the faith with others we need to learn our faith ourselves.
And the thing is, it’s not that hard—there’s all sorts of resources:
there’s classes and lectures in the parish,
or you can read the Bible, the Catechism, and other catechetical books.
And there’s CDs and the internet.
It’s not that hard, and it’s interesting, and logical and beautiful.
And it’s absolutely necessary–if you want to be a better Catholic,
and if you want to share your Catholic faith with others.
As we now enter more deeply in this Holy Mass, let us thank the Lord
for the many signs he has given us so that we can know him:
the words of his teaching and the sacraments of his grace.
And let us pray that the sacramental grace we receive in this Holy Eucharist,
will help us to understand what he has taught us,
so that we may grow stronger in faith, hope and love for him,
and “always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for [our] hope…”