How to Sanctify the World

Since 1584, the faithful have heard these words on Christmas before the Mass during the Night in the announcement of the birth of Christ according to the Martyrologium Romanum :

Iesus Christus, aeternus Deus aeternique Patris filius,
mundum volens adventu suo piissimo consecrare…

Rendered in the current English translation:

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence.

While the calculation of dates in the Martyrologium, formerly based on ancient ‘historical’ dating of events stemming from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, was adapted to the current state of knowledge with the renewed text of 2004, this key phrase remained the same: Mundum volens consecrare.

Wouldn’t “save” or “redeem” have been far enough? Consecrare (as well as the closely related sanctficare) derives from the Latin sacer, meaning “divine,” “justified,” “consecrated/cursed,” “sacral.” It means set apart for the sacred, reserved for God as the only possibility of encountering the Holy One. The “profane” (from the Latin pro fanum, meaning “before the sanctuary”), on the other hand, is the realm of the non-divine, the worldly, and ultimately of sin. So did Christ come into the world to make it a sanctuary as such? To transform it into a place where humans can draw near to God, where God can be recognized and honored?

According to Council theologian Herbert Vorgrimler, Christianity carries out its existence in the world, and thus does not need a sacred realm removed from the world in order to communicate with God:

“The central ‘cultic’ performance of Christianity, the Eucharist, in which the ‘profane’ life and death of Jesus are made present and impulses of the Holy Spirit are gained for life under the promises of God’s reign in the world, is not a sacral act in which a matter or persons become ‘worldless.’ All the less can ecclesiastical persons and institutions, which are always also shaped by the ‘spirit of the world’ and cannot deny this at all, become sacral. The two terms [cf. sacral and profane] can therefore contribute nothing to the clarification of the Christian understanding of the world and of itself.” [1]

Loosely translated into the poetry of Josef Philipp Neumann set to music by Franz Schubert, this reads, “In all places is your temple, where the heart devoutly consecrates itself to you.”[2] Yet we erect church buildings and reserve places, devices, and times ‘for’ God – or more aptly for us to appear before God as his people. Terms such as sanctify, bless, consecrate, etc., are familiar to us in the worship life of the church, as is the liturgical treatment of the sacred in sacramental celebrations. So where is the sacred to be found? In a world that is able to recognize it only as created people can do?

“In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) says Paul at the Aeropagus about the “unknown God.” Neither does the liturgy add anything to this omnipresence nor (and certainly not) does it dispose of it. Its proprium is that God makes himself perceptible to the celebrators in the here and now. This “special” presence[3] requires special creaturely conditions, for example the time: “distinguished” by God they are “holy/sanctified” (cf. Genesis 2:3); humans on the other hand “offer” (Latin offere).[4] That this offering (Latin oblatio) of gifts for blessing is also called “blessing,” “consecration,” or “benediction” reveals both the speech act and the effect of their (temporary or permanent) separation and offering, but not the power of disposal over them. The Jewish blessing (beracha) permits humans the use and enjoyment of God-thanked gifts; the Christian blessing in turn intends to consciously appropriate something or someone to God – the two sides of the same encounter event between giver and recipient. Moreover, consecratio can denote both the event of sanctification and the sanctified itself. “Sanctification” is thus an equivocal term primarily for God’s working of the Spirit both on elements and people and through them. The (not only in German) on the one hand imprecise terminology lets on the other hand many dimensions resonate.

Liturgy: God’s Sacred Dialogue with Humanity
As a place of encounter, liturgy is “holy ground” (cf. Ex 3:5) – not an exclusive, but a privileged place of knowledge and place of experience of the sacred, the sanctified and the sanctification:

“Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work [the Paschal Mystery] wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified … To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations … In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs” (SC 7).

In worship “the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God … is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (SC 10). In particular, “the purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God” (SC 59). And further “there is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God” (SC 61). In these and similar word pairings (sanctification-glorification, sanctification-praise, sanctification-worship, salvation-glorification, sanctify-glorify), the Second Vatican Council repeatedly affirms the dialogic-communicative basic structure of the liturgy, which, after centuries of cultic narrowness, again both allows and requires a broader and more comprehensive understanding. This also applies to the sanctifying acts of consecration (Eucharistic Prayer / “Hochgebet”) and communion.

Can one “increase” sacramentality?
Sanctification is accomplished in and through created things. The Bible testifies to the experience of God in and through his creation, which finds its climax in the incarnation of the divine Logos. Christ, in whom God has promised himself to the world, is the divine gift of himself, the sacrament/mysterion par excellence. It underlies the ecclesial understanding of sacramentality, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed into the sacraments (mysteries) of the Church” (Leo the Great in his Homily on the Ascension). This is especially but not exclusively true of the celebrations of the sacraments in the narrow sense (fixed since the High Middle Ages at the number of seven). Rather: “From the liturgy, therefore […] as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us” (SC 10), in that Christ gathers the faithful in his mindful presence to communicate himself to them, to bring them into his discipleship – and to make them similar to himself.

This happens verbally and non-verbally under material “sensual” signs (water, oils, bread, wine, ashes, light, etc.), whose interpretation as gifts of salvation is combined with thanksgiving (anamnesis) and the request for the coming and working of the Spirit of God (epiclesis). With Augustine, this speech act has received decisive importance: Not until the interpreting-thinking-petitioning word does an element become a sacrament. In a narrow understanding, however, the misunderstanding could spread (not only in the Middle Ages) that a correctly and permissibly spoken wording (of a blessing formula and also of the Words of Institution) would simply make “holy matter” out of things. The spiritual, and above all, the protective power, which was expected from it, led to the manifold use, and sometimes abuse, of blessed things (even the host). Such practices may be in the past, but the conception of the availability and feasibility of the sacred is still to be found.

On the other hand, blessed things want to reveal something of their hidden good origin (creation) and not-yet-finally revealed restoration (redemption) in a world experienced as contradictory. As symbols, they are “transparent” to the divine world and, by virtue of their material quality and properties, allow us to experience their own dimensions of God’s closeness and salvific activity. Whether being immersed, anointed, nourished, touched and clothed, whether morning light and evening star, fire, warmth or refreshment, whether sprouting, blossoming, harvesting and perishing, whether human being, element, living being, or any thing – in blessing (Latin benedicere, “to say well”), God is acknowledged as owner and giver of the blessed and the friendship with God is requested. Blessed things – as coming from God and belonging to him – are made explicit and become the “place” of his experience. This is how the Constitution on the Liturgy sums it up:

“For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in their lives … they are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power” (SC 61).

What follows from this?

“The goal […] is certainly not the abolition of the [cf. their] distinction […], but on the contrary the right – starting from the individual performance and corresponding to it – classification in a stepped cosmos of symbolic performances, which make the one great mystery/sacrament of God, Christ in his life, death and resurrection in history perceptible and experienceable: in the different situations of life and in the different areas of the world – above all also […] the material, bodily world, which is the only medium of the experience and encounter of God. In all ‘sacramental celebrations’ the transparency of the world as creation, that is, as the place of encounter with the Creator, Lord and Owner of the world, can be experienced symbolically, admittedly in graded spiritual density and intensity. At the center of this multiplicity of symbolic acts are the church-founding acts of baptism and Eucharist, from which and toward which all others are to be understood.”[5]

What is the aim of this encounter – the heart of any act of worship? It works no less than the sanctification, consecration, and transformation of our existence.

Consecrated by Baptism
The irreversible beginning from God for an existence as a Christ-shaped “saint” is set in baptism: “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood“ (LG 10). An interpretation of what consecrantur means here is given by Paul in Romans 6:5, when he literally speaks of “growing together with Christ in the likeness of his death and in that of his resurrection.” This sanctifying growing together with the divine (Latin con and sacer) determines and enables – “consecrates” – a paschal life in the Risen One and with Him: spiritually-open-hearted (“prophetic”), carefully-caring (“royal”), and ready to give oneself for the sake of others (“priestly”). Those “consecrated” in baptism are dedicated and appropriated to God.

Consecration by Eating the Lord’s Supper
“Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall …“ At the latest with these words, Catholic believers give their concentrated attention to the events at the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. Many honor the special presence of the Spirit of God by kneeling. It is the ecclesiastically identified (for doubtful emergencies) “moment of transubstantiation” when the assembly almost holds its breath in the face of the visualization of the mystery of its redemption. But what is the actually breathtaking? Far more than the sometimes almost miraculously reduced verba testamenti. Admittedly, the experience of the unity of the consecratory Eucharistic Prayer is difficult due to its usual ritual staging, that is disrupted several times.

Despite this, no longer (only) bread, no longer (only) wine, but in it “my body, my blood, for you” are prepared. The earthly gifts received with thanksgiving, set apart and prepared for the Lord’s Supper, offered to Him in the praising invocation of God, filled with His Spirit, and destined for consumption as “the Sacred to the Saints”: “Take and eat, all of you drink!” The Sacred, yes. But to “the Saints”?

“The Sacred to the Saints” (Latin sancta sanctis) is an ancient Church exhortation, common in the Eastern Churches to this day, which invites the faithful to Communion. It affirms what the Eucharistic Prayer asked for and what participation in the meal will redeem: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ … Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.” Although these two phrases – unlike the early church model of the so-called Traditio Apostolica, which asks the faithful to be filled with the Spirit by receiving the Spirit-filled gifts – are separated from each other in the contemporary version, the invocation of the Spirit (epiclesis) over gifts and faithful remains a single one.

The transformation of the gifts is to bring about the transformation of the believers; those who receive Christ in the bite of bread and a sip of wine do so in readiness to be conformed to him. This communion is realized in the flesh, i.e. “perceptible to the senses” (SC 7) –  gratia supponit naturam – in the very symbolic acts that signify it: Broken bread, not solitary “self-bread” means and brings about, as sharing in the one bread and the one cup, sharing in the one Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). To be shared in order to be eaten is the destiny (Latin substantia) of daily bread as basic food; the wine, on the other hand, is a means of enjoyment and a symbol of the feast. They stand for “life and life in abundance” (cf. John 10:10). In the breaking of bread and drinking from the one cup, both the devotion of Jesus, who allowed himself to be broken for the people and shed his heart’s blood, and the eschatological communion of life and meal in the Kingdom of God are realized. Going to communion is a commitment to the Paschal Mystery of Christ, through which he has won us back to God, so that we may follow in his footsteps as best we can: Like him, we are to be nourishing, tasty and filling for one another; like him, quickening, inspiring and thirst-quenching; like him, generous and unifying; ready to share what we are and have, and to pour out our strength; ready to do so, yet hoping not to come – like him – bent, broken and bled to our limits. Our Amen underwrites our consecration, for “your mystery is on the Lord’s table: you receive your mystery” as Augustine in a homily reminds the newly baptized before they go to the Lord’s table for the first time, exhorting: “Be what you see, and receive what you are!”[6]

Sanctification of Everyday Life
“In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims” (SC 8). Worship is that time set apart, sanctified for the sake of human beings, reserved for the ritual-symbolic encounter with the Holy One. It is a foretaste of what is accomplished, but not manifest. Creation, long-suffering men and creatures still groan (cf. Romans 8:22). The liturgy neither relieves those celebrating of their concrete needs or problems, nor does it send them back to them after the service. Rather, it sensitizes those who celebrate to the sacramentality of creation, its permeability to the encounter with God in everyday life, at every turn, in good times and in bad. Humans can become aware of it and will reveal it with thanksgiving and praise (“blessing”). Whatever people “sanctify” in this way, they connect with their Creator and Preserver. Times, places, things, living beings, elements are not charged with self-effective powers, so that they could be made usable as means of magic or banishment. Instead, they proclaim in their own way how “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.” (Ps 19) Not heard unless humanity understands creation’s message and makes it sound in its own languages.

[1] Neues Theologisches Wörterbuch, „Sakral“, Neuausgabe 2008, 6. Aufl. des Gesamtwerkes, Verlag Herder.

[2] As is still popularly sung in many Austrian parishes.

[3] Cf. Article 7 of the Constution of the Sacred Liturgy.

[4] Cf. Reinhard Meßner, “Sakramentalien,“ TRE 29, 1998.

[5] See note 4, 656.

[6] Augustinus’s Sermon to the Newly Baptized Sermo 272.

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