The end of the Sacraments?


It has long been a fascination to me that Jesus tells us that “in the resurrection they are neither married nor given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:34-35). Marriage is fundamental to the building of a healthy society, which is one of the reasons that it is worth fighting for. It is a gift that God establishes in creation, most notably in Genesis 2:24, prior to the fall. So why would it be something absent from heaven? Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that marriage is an icon of the love between Christ and His Church. We are saved through our marriages — the one and only thing that the New Testament directly calls a Sacrament, musterion (Ephesians 5:32). If marriage imparts that kind of grace, why would it cease in the life to come where grace is to abound?

This question struck me anew this week in reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. The fourth book is entirely taken up with devotion to Christ in the Holy Eucharist, yet early in Chapter 11 Thomas says that for all its gloriousness, the Eucharist is but a temporary gift:

In truth, I possess and adore Him Whom the angels adore in heaven — I as yet by faith, they face to face unveiled. I must be content with the light of the true faith and walk in it until the day of eternal brightness dawns and the shadow of figures passes away. When, moreover, that which is perfect shall have come, the need of sacraments shall cease, for the blessed in heavenly glory need no healing sacrament. Rejoicing endlessly in the presence of God, beholding His glory face to face, transformed from their own brightness to the brightness of the ineffable Deity, they taste the Word of God made flesh, as He was in the beginning and will remain in eternity.

Thomas is saying that there will be no Mass in heaven because what the Mass gives us is only a foretaste of what heaven offers all the time. We need the Mass here and now because of our separation from God and our need for the merits of His Son to be applied to us. Once we are in heaven, there will no longer be any separation between us and God because we will have been washed clean and made holy. We will not need the Mass because every moment will be like the Mass, filled with the presence and gift of God.

To a certain extent, I see the point that Thomas is making. It applies equally well to all the Sacraments, including marriage. If the reason for marriage in this world is to draw us into the intimate life of family and reveal to us the love between Christ and His Church, than heaven need not have marriage because everyone will exist as one family and everyone will know the true intimacy of being one with Christ as His Bride. It is like asking whether or not there will be art in heaven.  What all great art points to abstractly will be there concretely. There will not need to be art because everything will be what art exists to point out to us.

Yet I cannot help but feel like this is an incomplete picture for reasons both personal and theological. The personal reasons are admittedly more pressing. The Mass is the most beautiful and holy thing there is. How can there truly be a heaven without it? Marriage, for all its hard work and its ups and downs, is an amazing adventure. I dare not imagine a heaven in which I will not know my wife as my wife, in which she will just be one more of an endless line of holy sisters and brothers.

The personal reasons are the ones that keep me awake at night, but the theological reasons are the ones that keep me from thinking my objections are merely sentimental. The Scriptures do not tell us as much as many people would think about what heaven will be like, but what they do tell us paints a picture that is hard to describe as anything other than sacramental.

Scott Hahn wrote a wonderful little book some years back called The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. In that book, he argues fairly persuasively that the complex picture of heaven and the life-to-come presented by the Book of Revelation is best understood in liturgical terms. There is a constant Eucharistic feast going on in heaven that will one day be translated back to earth when the two come together at the end. The Mass that we participate in now is more than just a foretaste; it is an actual participation in this never-ending heavenly liturgy.

The same argument, it seems to me, can be made for what marriage will be like in the age to come. There will be no new marriages contracted, but that does not have to mean that marriage itself will be swept away like a glass of water being poured into the ocean. Rather, the marriages of the faithful will be redeemed and perfected and thereby shown the part they have always played in the overwhelming reality of the married life of heaven in which Christ is constantly being made one with His Bride.

We can extend this out to the other Sacraments as well. I need not act as a priest in heaven since the great High Priest who is Our Lord will have it covered, yet the truth is that my priesthood here and now is a participation in His and I do not expect that to disappear once I am with Him. Baptism will not be needed in heaven, yet the mark of the Baptized will remain the sign of our citizenship in the Kingdom. Even Anointing of the Sick and Confirmation will have some place of crossover, though our faith will not need strengthening there nor will there be any more sickness to heal.

Heaven may be the end of the Sacraments, but in the here-and-now the Sacraments are the beginning of heaven. The Sacraments are not merely tools for the conditioning of our faith but real and true places of entry into the life of God. There may not be set Mass times on Sunday mornings in heaven, but that is only because all of heaven is singing the Mass all the time. There may not be weddings in heaven, but that is only because every marriage finds its perfect place in the marriage feast that is forever celebrated at God’s table.

Photo from Southern Orders here.


On the holiness of old ladies

779px-Giuseppe_Nogari_(attr)_Bildnis_einer_alten_FrauWhen I was a kid, my father would occasionally hint at what the Catholic Church of his youth was like. It was very different from the Catholic Church that I experienced. I grew up in a parish that met in an interfaith center. There were no pews, no stained glass, no incense, no statues. I understood very little about what it meant to be Catholic when I left the Church at age fourteen. I had never really grappled with Catholic identity. I did not know what it meant to have God as my Father or the Church as my Mother. The people around me showed up to Mass in soccer cleats and grass stains. I had no clue, really, that there was any difference between what we did during Mass and what the Methodists were doing up the hall or the Unitarians in the room right next door.

My father told me that when he was a kid, the Mass was in Latin. He said that there were always old ladies in the back of the church who could not hear the priest talking and would not have understood him anyway. They did not try to understand. Instead, they just took in the mystery and beauty of the Mass. They had rosaries in their hands and they spent the whole Mass “working their beads,” saying the prayers they knew by heart and trusting that God would do the rest. Growing up with the Mass in English, in an environment in which beauty and mystery were in short supply, I had trouble imagining this.

In my twenties, I became an Episcopalian, almost by accident. I practically fell over the parish church where I began attending regularly. It was an Anglo-Catholic parish with a liturgy that was much different than the one I had known as a child. I felt drawn to it though I did not know why. Eventually, I went to seminary. There, I discovered more Anglo-Catholic worship and drank deeply from that tradition. I began to see the beautiful mystery that lay at the heart of the Catholic faith. I fell in love with crucifixes and icons. I made my confession and learned to pray the rosary. Though I had been baptized a Catholic, it was as an Episcopalian that I actually learned what a Catholic is. It was as an Anglican that I became a Catholic.

I have been a priest in the Episcopal Church since 2006. As my church continues to push itself farther and farther away from the Catholic faith, I have repeatedly found myself searching for the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Since 2011, I have operated a blog called “The Conciliar Anglican,” the purpose of which has been to give me a place to explore what Anglicanism is and what my place is within it. Many people have benefited from that site. I treasure the interactions I have had there and the way in which it pushed me to learn about some of the great riches of the Anglican tradition. But these days, what I find that I am most passionate to know is the heart of Jesus. The French writer Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” As a priest, a husband, a father, and as a man, I must take responsibility not only for my own holiness but also for the growth in holiness of the people God has given into my care. The Catholic faith is where that holiness is to be found. The denominational labels and the historical structures are all secondary to that.

These days, I want to be like those old ladies my father talked about. I have a great devotion to the rosary and to Our Lady, but really what makes me want to identify with those old women is their humility in the face of the great and beautiful mystery of God. It is easy to get caught up in formulas and mental gymnastics when trying to understand what it means to be a Christian. Those old ladies were not worried about all of that. They quietly went about their intercessions. They did not know what the priest was saying, nor did they likely understand all the nuances of what he was doing, but what they got at a deeply visceral level was that on the altar their savior was present. In the midst of the beauty of the Mass, God comes and gives Himself to us. That is all they needed to know.

In this new space, I want to explore the beauty and mystery of the Catholic faith. I will likely meditate on the priesthood and the great privilege I have to celebrate the Sacraments. I will also likely speak about what it means to be the parent of two young boys on the autism spectrum and how that particular cross is making me holy, often against my will. Whereas the Conciliar Anglican was academic and focused on apologetics, this will be personal and focused on the journey of faith. If that is not your cup of tea, I understand. But if this is something that you think may be a blessing to you, as I know it will be to me, then pull up a seat beside me and grab your rosary. We can “work the beads” together as we witness the Sacrifice of the Cross becoming present again and again before our very eyes.