In this spring and summer we are almost holding our collective breath as the pandemic seems to be slowly winding down here in the US. We wonder what normal will look like after having “worshipped” via Zoom for so long.
The Spirit is actively creating something new in this transition and return to the celebration of the Eucharist with our brothers and sisters, together, as a community in Christ, as Christ’s body. Those who have been waiting for Baptism can now receive that most important sacrament by which, as St Paul tells us, we die with Christ and rise with him.
Through the sacraments of baptism and the receiving of the risen Christ in the Eucharist at Mass, a deep and radical change takes place within us. In the words of Nicholas Cabasilas (a 15th-century Greek theologian): “O wonder of wonders! It is God himself we touch in the Eucharist and God becomes one with us in the closest union.” And again, of the sacrament of baptism, “When we come up from the water we bear the Savior upon our souls, on our heads, on our eyes, on all our members…. We have been stamped with Christ.”
These days can be a renewed experience for all of us of the life we receive only through Christ, in Christ, and in the sacramental life of the Church. This was a favorite topic of St. Paul, so I reached out to Sr. Margaret Kerry for some thoughts on this theme. She has such a rich experience of speaking with people both about the faith and about St. Paul to help us deepen this topic. For years she has been writing reflections on Paul’s letters for our lay Paulines (Pauline Cooperators) as an ongoing study. Her focus is on baptism, the sacrament that opens the door for all of the sacraments as we join the family of God. The following material is from Sr. Margaret.
Thank you so much for inviting me to explore the sacraments with you in the spirit of St Paul. I would first like to put this in context by recalling Paul’s words, quoted loosely, “Never stop running for the goal!” St. Gregory the Great wrote, “Jesus became incarnate so that he may be seen by us. And Jesus wants to be seen so that we may imitate him.” In relation to this, Blessed James Alberione exclaims, “How sublime this is! All baptized Christians are called to become one personality in Christ, to graft ourselves to Christ, so that truly Christ lives in us.”
St. Paul explained this imitation of Christ, this goal of becoming Christ, in terms of living in Christ when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:19-20). St. Paul imitated Christ so brilliantly that he could exhort others, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Through our baptism, this conformity with Christ is already a reality in us. We enter a covenant with God. On our part, we pray that the “grace of God will bear fruit” so that this conformity with Christ will attain fullness. We have been given the first fruits of the Spirit who helps us in our weakness. “With Christ in us we are a new creation!” (see 2 Cor 5:17).
Saint Paul, you lived in deep intimacy with Jesus and spent your life proclaiming him to all God’s people. Teach us to do the same.
By virtue of our baptism, we live in Christ; in him “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We are members of his Body, his dwelling place. Show us what it means to live out of this amazing reality: that, having encountered the love of God in Jesus, we are called to share it as his missionary disciples.
Baptism admits us into a mysterious and permanent communion with Christ. In the ancient church, baptism was also called “illumination,” because the sacrament gives light; it truly makes us see. This is clear from the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts Paul’s encounter with Jesus, his “conversion.” He had traveled to Damascus prepared to take any followers of the Way into custody to Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus appeared to him outside Damascus, calling out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Paul asked Jesus who he was, he was told to get up and go into Damascus where he would be told what to do. Paul waited three days in Damascus, unable to see anything. The darkness gave way to light when Ananias, sent by the Lord, baptized him so that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul was transformed by the irresistible presence of the Risen One. Once blind, he was now able to see. The illumination that Paul received on the road to Damascus is what happens for every Christian at their own baptism. Baptism admits us into mysterious and permanent communion with Christ. “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of [Jesus] Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).
Lord, illumine us, grant us an encounter with your presence in our world, open our eyes, grant us a lively faith, an open heart, and great love for all, love capable of renewing the world.
Even after such a tremendous grace as was this encounter with the risen Christ, Paul writes again and again in his letters about an ongoing “conversion.” In his letter to the Romans, he famously writes about his struggle: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom 7:15, 18-19).
The verb Paul uses for conversion is an active verb signifying “ongoing transformation.” Paul admitted that he was always on the road to conversion. “I strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). He depicts the ongoing struggle we all experience in our call to live fully our Baptismal commitment. “Creation waits in eager expectation for us to be revealed as new” (Rom 8:19).
Yet Paul also assures us that, through our baptism and our ongoing transformation, we are being transformed from glory to glory. “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Lord, grant us freedom in your Spirit so that, from this inner abundance filling our earthen vessel, we can say “it is no longer I who live, Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20)
Ultimately, our transformation takes place, not through our own power, but through the power of the Risen One. Paul invites us to glory in our weakness as the power of Christ is manifested in us. When Paul experienced what he called a “thorn in the flesh,” he begged God to take it from him. But Paul said that the Lord refused to take this suffering from him. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then glories in his infirmities, because the power of God is made manifest through them: “So I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (see 2 Cor 12:9).
Through our baptism, Christ confirms a permanent dwelling in us, the beginning of new life. “He will change our lowly body to conform to his glorified body” (Phil 3:12). Paul speaks of this permanent dwelling, this conformation to the glorified body of Christ, as living “in Christ.” In fact, Paul uses the word “in” over 164 times when he refers to life in Christ! By living in Christ through the graces of our baptism, by deepening our union with Christ through the Eucharist, Jesus restores us to the fullness of life in the Triune God in whose image we are created. In turn, we are sent as Christ for others.
God, in your mercy, transform us into your likeness so that we become way, truth and life for our families, our neighbors, our Church and for those who have not yet encountered you. Amen.