When I was growing up in Southern Indiana, the religious sisters (who had the unenviable task of teaching me & my 50 classmates), made sure we memorized the questions and answers from The Baltimore Catechism. Little did I imagine that I would one day hail from Baltimore and live in the house where the decision was made to publish that Catechism. If I had known, I’m sure I would have a more diligent student!
One question and answer that many of us remember is this: “What is a sacrament?” The answer: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Ask any Catholic of my generation what a sacrament is and it is likely this is how he or she will answer your question. The sacraments are powerful, effective signs. As signs they point to what God wants to do for us – to forgive our sins, to enable us to share in Christ’s life, to nourish and mission us. As effective signs, the sacraments are the bearers of God’s grace, they are the ways in which and through which God touches and redeems our lives.
And this makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? After all, our faith teaches us that God loves us so much that He sent us His Son. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Son assumed our humanity and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We might say, in fact, that Jesus’ human nature is the fundamental sacrament. Through Jesus’ humanity we could see and hear and experience God’s own Son. Through his humanity, God’s Son became present to us tangibly. The seven sacraments are really extensions of God’s mysterious love by which the Son of God, the Eternal Word was made flesh through Mary. They are powerful streams of God’s mercy and love that reach us through seven beautifully celebrated signs.
Yet, the Church in her wisdom knows that even this is not enough for us. We need further reminders, further helps so that we can embrace and make our own the grace and mercy which God in his goodness confers on us through the sacraments. So I am wondering if any of you remember the teaching of the Baltimore Catechism on what the Church calls “sacramentals”? In case this isn’t on the tip of your tongue, let me remind you. Question 1052 asks: “What is a sacramental?” And the answer is: “A sacramental is anything set apart or blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts & to increase devotion, & through these movements of the heart, to remit venial sin.” I’ll bet you haven’t heart that for quite a few years!
And why do I recall these definitions of a sacrament and a sacramental as we enter into this Investiture of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre? First, is that tomorrow, here in this beautiful Cathedral of St. Matthew, we will celebrate Holy Mass, Eucharist, as we welcome our new members. This will truly be the heart of our Investiture, the “source and summit” of all that we are and hope to do as members of this ancient and beloved Order. So it is good to reminded of the power, the efficacy, and beauty of the Eucharist during this Vigil Service meant to prepare us for the celebration of the Eucharist. And second, at the beginning of tonight’s service, I blessed the insignia of the Order and conferred promotions on the very worthy members of our Lieutenancy. These insignia, which bear the Jerusalem Cross, are not mere emblems of attainment destined for a drawer or a closet or even a safe. Rather, they are sacramentals – they are, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, “set apart and blessed by the Church to excite good thoughts and increase devotion…”
Good Thoughts and Increased Devotion
So let us ask ourselves what “good thoughts” they should inspire in us and sort of “devotion” they should increase in us.
First and always, the insignia of the Order remind us of the Cross of Christ. They remind us that the Incarnate Son of God suffered, died, and was buried and rose again, for us and for our salvation, on the third day. As we look upon these insignia let us see them not as marks of honor but rather as objects of devotion that draw us more deeply into the mystery of God’s self-giving love revealed in the Cross of Christ and made truly present to us in and through the sacramental life of the Church.
Second, these insignia remind us where Christ accomplished our salvation, namely, in the Jerusalem, on the hill of Calvary and in the newly hewn tomb in the Garden provided by Joseph of Arimathea. When we consider the land made holy by the earthly presence of Christ, we become more and more devoted the mission of the Order to support Church in the Holy Land where it finds itself in difficult straits as the Christian population shrinks and lives under tension and threats of violence. This naturally causes us to ponder the plight of fellow Christians in places such as Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Libya where Christian martyrdom abounds. Let our insignia link us to them in a powerful bond of prayer, devotion, & generosity.
Third, when seen as sacramentals, our insignia remind us of the Lord’s teaching: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” In the context of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, promotion means something other than what it means in ordinary parlance: promotion means growth in holiness, growth in the ability to see Christ in others, especially the suffering, growth in our readiness to serve the needs of others and to bear witness to the Cross of Christ. These are the “promotions” that all of us should seek in life. Nothing else stands the test of eternity.
Lastly, as we prepare for the tomorrow’s celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy, may we be accompanied by the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, more than anyone else, entered into and embodied the mystery of redemption. May God bless us and keep us in his love.