Christ is Author of the Sacraments

Many who value the name of Christian still find it reasonable to believe that he did just that; the priesthood, they will tell you, belonged to the Jewish covenant, to the old Law; when the mercy of God shone out to us in the face of Jesus Christ, the need for all ceremonies and sacraments was done away. But it is not so that the courtesy of our Lord Jesus Christ treats us. When he turned water into wine at Cana of Galilee, he used no word, no touch, no gesture, to claim the miracle as his own. “Fill the water-pots with water…. Draw out now, and bear to the governor of the feast”–the miraculous transformation should take its effect between the hands of the servants who were waiting on the guests; they should have the apparent credit for it. And so it was when he multiplied the loaves in the wilderness. He gave the loaves and fishes to the disciples to distribute; it was in their hands, it seems, that the multiplication took place. It is part of his courtesy, you see, that he will thus associate human agents with himself, just when he gives us the most startling proofs of his miraculous power.

And so it is with the Christian priesthood. Not only when he gives us, under the forms of bread and wine, his own Body and Blood to be our food; in all the Sacraments he is the true author, the true fountain of grace, yet he will suffer a human ministry to intervene. “Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins ye shall remit, they are remitted unto them, and whose sins ye retain, they are retained.” But most, and most characteristically, in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. When a priest baptizes or absolves, he stands there, sits there, only to unseal the fountains of grace to the faith, to the penitence, which knock to receive them. But when he stands at the altar, the priest does something more; he takes upon himself the Person of Christ, re-enacting in his name the ceremony which he performed on the night of his Passion. A priest clad in the sacred vestments (says the author of the Imitation) is the vice-gerent of Christ himself. He uses our Lord’s own words, identifies himself with the offering which our Lord continually makes before the Father, of his own Body and Blood. How is it that men can be found with the assurance, with the presumption, to do that?

The difficulty is solved for us by one golden phrase of St. John Chrysostom’s; we all know it. “When you see a priest offering the Sacrifice,” he says, “do not think of it as if it were he that is doing this; it is the hand of Christ, invisibly stretched forth”. The hand of Christ invisibly stretched forth – that is the picture we should conjure up to our minds if we are to think of the Mass as it really is. Aristotle, in defining the position of a slave, uses the words, “A slave is a living tool”. And that is what the priest is, a living tool of Jesus Christ. He lends his hands, to be Christ’s hands, his voice, to be Christ’s voice, his thoughts, to be Christ’s thoughts; there is, there should be, nothing of himself in it from first to last, except where the Church allows him, during two brief intervals of silence, to remember his own intentions before God. Non-Catholics who come to our churches complain sometimes, don’t they, that the ceremonies of the Mass seem so lifeless, so mechanical. But you see, they ought to be mechanical. What the visitor is watching, so uncomprehendingly, is not a man, it is a living tool; it turns this way and that, bends, straightens itself, kneels, gesticulates, all in obedience to the orders given it – Christ’s orders, not ours. We do not expect eccentricities from a tool, the tool of Christ. – from The Priestly Life