by Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

Over two thousand years ago in the Mediterranean town of Peñíscola located near present-day Valencia in Spain, a drama played out that was to have enormous ramifications for the Ancient World. One of the world’s greatest generals and military minds – Hamilcar Barca, the leader of the Carthaginians, was walking up the steps toward a sacred altar, on which a calf, still living, had been placed. In his left hand he held a dagger, and in his right, the small hand of his son. Reaching the altar he let go of his son’s hand, and taking the dagger now with his right – cut open the calf.

Blood spilled out from the dying calf. Placing the dagger on the altar, Hamilcar Barca, grabbed his son’s right arm, and thrusting it into the belly of the calf, commanded his son: “Swear to me now, swear before the people, and before our god – undying emnity to the army of Rome”. With his hand in the calf’s belly, the eight year old boy turned to face an enormous throng of soldiers. In a bold – confident, unabashed voice – he cried out to his audience:  “I swear so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.” So forsworn this young boy would grow in time to become the greatest nemesis that the army of Rome would face. He would become known as one of the greatest strategists of military history – esteemed two thousand years later by Napoleon Bonaparte. His ingenious attack on Rome in 218 BC by crossing the Pyrenees with an army of 46,000 men as well as 37 elephants has become legend and the staple diet of every young man’s childhood. Everything that Hannibal would become stemmed from his living out the pledge and commitment of a vow, made beside his father decades previous to his military conquests. Importantly Hannibal was forsworn not only to his father – but to his god – and to his people. To the collective memory of the Carthaginians – Hannibal was their unwavering, unquestionable, indefatigable – defender.

The term ‘Sacrament’ derives from the Latin, ‘Sacramentum’, which means a bond or seal. The Carthaginians were not the only people of the Ancient World, who appealed publicly to call on the gods to witness a sacred pledge. The Sacraments of the Western Catholic, and the Mysteries (as the Sacraments are known in the Christian East) of the Eastern Catholic Church – have many dimensions; each of them – speak of a sign pointing toward God; they also use symbols – so as to give a voice to that which is beyond full comprehension of the human intellect; and finally they involve, the Real Presence of God.

The celebration and participation of the individual in the Sacraments/Mysteries requires that a community hold as important a sense of reverence in the participation of a life in God. This ‘in’ God, is critical – for the life of the Sacraments/Mysteries demands a life submerged in a relationship with the Divine. Of course it is quite possible for an individual to be ‘nominally’ Catholic – but this ambivalence of the individual to his or her Divine calling – is nothing short of choosing to live a life half-lived. Pascal teaches us that the only way in which one can lose with God, is to bet against God – and as such, the only way one can lose with God, is to throw away the Treasures that are so freely offered.

In a world so filled with distractions – and where money or technology has replaced the importance of God for many – the Sacraments/Mysteries, each time we participate in their celebration, call us back reminding each and everyone one of us – as to our core values in life. Each Sacrament/Mystery is about commitment – the undying commitment of God to us, and of us to God. Each Sacrament/Mystery when it is celebrated has the ability to awaken our senses to think once again as to what are priorities are in life. Each time we participate in the Sacraments/Holy Mysteries, we meet God in a manner that is unique to the spiritual age we occupy in time. What do the Sacraments mean? Each time we take the Eucharist – is a new awakening into our Spirits – a meeting with a new, and simultaneously ancient Christ. It is a new absorbing of God into our beings, but it is the nourishment of a Beauty ever ancient but still new. Every time we see a person Baptised – we ourselves are reminded of a common journey to salvation – that we, no matter how comparatively old, or young, share an odyssey from birth, from this life to eternal life. We consider how unsullied we have kept our baptismal garment – and what part of our lives we allow the light from our baptismal candle to illuminate; and what part of our lives, we would be too ashamed for this light to strike. Every time we witness a Confirmation/Chrismation we recollect that the Spirit is in Creation – in us – so as to renew the face of the earth. We consider that the gift has been given to empower – but perhaps that this power has not been used, for we are afraid of being too different – of marching to the beat of a drum distinct from our peers. We choose to be the Common Man, for there is safety in numbers – and why should I be any different, from the great mass of humanity that mindlessly moves in this direction then the next. Every time we witness the Marriage/Crowning of a couple so deeply in love that they wish to spend the remainder of their lives together – we marvel and our joyful, at the possibility that love is eternal. Yet how often the conjugal act – in all its passion and ecstasy is polluted by those who see the physicality between spouses, as only a physical act – rather than a profound speaking of man and woman to one another – a rejoicing in the Creation of God – and the bonds of commitment. How little times is spent thinking about God’s granting us the role of co-Creators. At the Ordination to the Priesthood we witness the spiritual transformation of an individual – a taking on of a commitment no less than the Sacrament/Mystery of Marriage/Crowning – no less a dying to self. We ponder at its celebrating the love that an individual has for the Great – Unseen – God. We come to understand that Faith is not a conjecture for some – but a certitude – and we question our lives for its too often, incertitude. Each time we receive absolution through the Sacrament/Mystery of Penance, how often do we wonder that we have the potential through the Divine Grace given to us by God – to begin our lives anew – to move from self-hood, to sainthood. Nothing is more fresh than an early morning – with its breeze and its purity of air – as such, nothing – is more pure than the moment after which we walk from the Sacrament/Mystery of Penance – spiritually reconciled – truly a new creation, with the power, if taken hold of, to be as a  Refiner’s Fire, to the world that one walks into as a pilgrim. Finally, our God is not a God of the strong and prosperous, our God is a God of the weakest of the weak – and each of us, whether we realize this Truth or not – is called to God at the close of our lives. Physical death is inescapable – but spiritual death is far more fatal – it is the fate worse than death. Through the Sacrament/Mystery of the Anointing of the Sick, we are able to place the physicality of our lives in context, in the context of a salvation of soul and body.

The Sacraments and Mysteries of our Church – call us daily to centre our lives on the Rock of Faith – for on this Rock our lives are given purpose – they are are given meaning; birth, illness, sexuality, service, the process of maturation – all have greatness added to them, a greatness illuminated on them by the Light that came into the world, so that we might not stumble in darkness.

The leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Illich Ulyanov once noted that had he been given but a handful of men of the same inspiartional calibre as St. Ignatius of Loyola’s first Jesuits – he would have conquered the world. The great tragedy of the Christian in the modern world is not that he finds himself in a world contrary to the Gospels – but that he allows himself to believe that the Gospels through his life, are not capable of changing the world. It is the extent of commitment that one has to core values that determines what the Ages will say of us. What is better to be said – than that if we were People of the Gospels – People of Love – People of Truth – a People of God. For kingdoms and military victories are built, are won, are destroyed, and are forgotten but: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, KIndness, Goodness, Trustfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control – are these not for Ages upon Ages.

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