Recapturing the Incarnational Nature of the Sacraments
BY MARK C. MCCANN
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)
Since her beginning, the Catholic Church has been an incarnational institution, a Body of believers who act as the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of Jesus in the world. We are a people of sacrament and sign, who embrace Heaven through the things of this earth. In the waters of Baptism, we are washed clean of sin and reborn. In our encounter at Confirmation, we receive the Holy Spirit of God. In the confessional, our words of repentance give way to reconciliation with God and one another. At the Eucharistic table, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the One whose body was broken and blood poured out upon the Cross. In marriage or Holy Orders, we reflect the relationship of Christ to His Church. And when we receive the sacred oil of anointing, we find healing and strength for the journey to our heavenly home.
Sadly, some Catholics have forgotten the beautiful incarnational nature of the sacraments. In many ways, we have turned our holy rituals into mere routine. For priests, deacons, religious, and lay ministers, it is essential that we help the members of the Church to rediscover what it means to be a people who live out in the flesh the mysteries of our faith. We must move believers from the ritual to the flesh-and-blood reality of the sacraments. In this brief study we will reexamine the meaning of these sacred signs as expounded in God’s “Book of Signs,” the Gospel of John.
Heaven Revealed in the Earthly, Holy Signs
John’s approach to his Gospel truly captures the power and presence of Christ as the One who brought Heaven to earth in sign and sacrament. Jesus used the things of this world to impart the mysteries of eternity into the hearts of ordinary men and women. His encounters with His people were full of the sights, sounds, and situations around Him. His life was a sacred sign — a sacrament — of God’s grace to those He met.
It is these encounters, these earthy events in the life of the Savior, that can help God’s shepherds teach God’s people the incarnational lessons they need to relearn in order to more fully embrace the true sacramental life of the Church. These holy meetings, ordained in eternity and acted out in time, provide a rich and deep biblical theology to help with our understanding of the sacraments and their power to build up our lives and the life of the Church.
Baptism and Seeking the Light – John 3
Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, but deep down he was looking for the light. He began the conversation not with a question, but with a declaration:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” (Jn 3:2b)
Nicodemus revealed both his spiritual turmoil and his inner desire to understand more of what this Galilean preacher had to say. Jesus spoke not to the compliment, but to the man’s cry of need:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jn 3:3b)
Nicodemus thought Jesus was speaking of being born a second time, a confusion of the word Jesus used. Jesus was pointing him to a greater reality — new life in His name. He spoke of being born of water and Spirit, of the wind that blows where it wills, and of the serpent Moses raised up in the desert. Jesus was pulling back the veil to offer a glimpse of the day when he would be lifted up on the Cross for the sins of the world. He knew that all those who came to believe would be plunged in the waters of Baptism to die to their sins and rise up to receive the breath (wind) of the Holy Spirit. This was God’s great act of love for His creation:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. (Jn 3:16)
What began in the Incarnation would be completed at the Cross. This is the double meaning of the word gave in John 3:16. The same love that spoke the Word into the world would baptize the Son in death on the Cross and raise Him up again three days later so that all who believe in His name might share in eternal life. This was the light Nicodemus was seeking. It was the light that led him to return to Jesus after the Crucifixion, when he came with Joseph of Arimathea to lay the Savior to rest.
The Holy Spirit and light are associated with Baptism. When we are baptized we receive a candle to show how we are to take the light of grace into the world to share with those who come in darkness seeking salvation. The wind of the Holy Spirit (from the Greek word pneuma, which means “wind” or “spirit”) blows into the lives of believers, prompting us to reach out to the lost with the gift of redemption. Just as Nicodemus was drawn into the light through Christ’s perfect love, so too are we drawn by the love of God through Baptism, and called to share the light with a world blinded to the truth of life in Jesus:
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (Jn 3:21)
Eucharist: The Real Food that Sets Us Apart – John 6
It is difficult to understand how anyone can read chapter six of John’s Gospel and not be overwhelmed by the reality of the Eucharist. John brilliantly crafts his narrative to present the power and presence of Christ in the Eucharist throughout the story.
The chapter begins with Jesus feeding the five thousand with a little boy’s lunch. There are strong Eucharistic overtones in the story: gathering the people, accepting the offering of bread, pronouncing the blessing, distributing the bread to the people, and their eating and being satisfied though Christ’s abundant gift. Following the story, we find Jesus walking on the water, calling out to His followers, “It is I!” — or, more literally, “I Am!” This is a profound statement that connects this experience with the miracle of the loaves that had just taken place, speaking to the truth of Christ’s eternal presence in the Eucharist (see Jn 6:1–21).
When the crowds come seeking more bread, Jesus offers them the Bread of Life discourse. Just as God provided the manna in the wilderness, Jesus provides the true bread that has come down from Heaven. The people grumble when our Lord explains with strong language about eating His flesh (trogon, literally “to gnaw”) and drinking His blood. He challenges the people to focus on what is spiritual: not on physical bread, but on the deeper reality of His presence in the bread. This is the only time in the Gospels where people abandon Jesus for doctrinal reasons; yet our Lord never tells them that He is speaking figuratively:
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (Jn 6:60–63)
The Eucharist is the center of who we are as Catholics, the ultimate act of self-giving, the place where we experience the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Eucharist is the nourishment for our journey toward the fullness of our salvation. Through the celebration of the Eucharist we are drawn into intimate union with our Savior, strengthened for our Christian walk, and sent forth to love and serve the Lord and one another. It is this union that is at the heart of God’s plan of salvation: the eternal Son of God giving Himself to His people so that we may consume His life and carry His love to the world.
The Eucharist is more than a weekly ritual. It is our identity, our strength, and our real food and drink. In the Eucharist, we are one people, united in Christ:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:15)
Confirmation: The Living Water that Flows – John 4
Catholics receive the Holy Spirit at Confirmation. The Scriptures contain many word pictures of the Holy Spirit: images of oil, fire, water, and wind that speak to the refreshing, consuming, healing, and overwhelming power of His presence in our lives. Jesus lavishes His Holy Spirit upon us, just as He promised the night before He entered into His Passion:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (Jn 14:15–17)
The Holy Spirit is our advocate before the Father, our counselor who enables us to activate the truth of our salvation in our daily living. The Holy Spirit helps us to recall and grasp the truth of our faith, revealing the full meaning it has for our lives. He speaks also through the Church and declares the truth of salvation to the whole world:
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:13–14)
At the well of Samaria, Jesus went out of His way to seek out those who were lost in order to let His overflowing love wash over them. He wanted to offer His Living Water to the adulterous woman, and through her, to the people of Samaria. Jesus knew that the woman who was coming to the well was thirsting for what He had to offer. His request for a drink was the doorway to a deeper discussion on what was vitally important:
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” [The woman] said to him, “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the well is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:7–14)
Like the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives at Confirmation, this interchange between Jesus and the woman progressed to deeper and deeper levels as the relationship grew. The woman thought that Jesus’s offer of “living water” meant the clear, flowing water of an icy cool stream, rather than the abundant and overflowing life He wanted to share with her. Often the Spirit’s promptings in our lives begin as overtures of grace, and we are called to search out their meaning. Our thirst for more drives us to deeper understanding as the Holy Spirit reveals Himself to us in more profound ways.
As the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman continued, she moved from her desire for earthly water to her need for heavenly wisdom. As Jesus revealed Himself, she responded with greater openness, and Jesus poured out that Living Water into her life (see Jn 4:19–24).
This is the grace of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives. It moves us to seek truth. The woman came to understand that Jesus saw her sins, yet loved her anyway. She wanted to know more. Her desire grew into a thirst for righteous living, shown by her question about the correct place to worship God. Our Lord’s response was at the heart of what worship — acknowledging God’s “worth-ship” — is all about: Spirit and Truth. And so the woman was prompted to reach deeper into the well of Living Water that Jesus had given her:
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” (Jn 4:25–26)
At just the right moment, Jesus revealed His holy name — “I Am.” The woman had come to understand that she was speaking with the Anointed One — the Messiah! It is such a perfect picture of how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, moving us from faith to faith, as we grow in wisdom. The more we live out the grace given to us in Confirmation, the deeper our understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit and the more we are able to act upon His specific call on our lives. That is why the woman left her jar and ran to tell the village about the blessing she had received. She no longer cared about her past or how the world saw her. She only cared about taking the Good News of Jesus to others. She called the people to come see the One who had touched her life.
Jesus, full in spirit from His encounter with the woman, saw the multitude of approaching people, waving in the wind like wheat, all ready for reaping from the seed He had sown in the woman’s heart. So too, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, do we gather in others who are ready to know the power and presence of the Lord. Our Confirmation is the unfolding of what Jesus said later in John:
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says:
‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’”
He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. (Jn 7:37–39a)
Confession: Restoration of Broken Hearts – John 20
The Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession, has a long and rich history. The Catholic Church uses verses such as the one below to show that Jesus called His apostolic ministers to forgive sins:
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (Jn 20:22–23)
The current forms of Confession reflect our ever-deepening theology of the sacrament and have truly recaptured the relational aspect of forgiveness Jesus showed to those who came to Him in faith. Here, we bring our weakness, our sins, and our open hearts before the one who represents Christ and the Church in the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. In this sacred space, we give the Lord our brokenness and our lives. There can be no pretense, for we recognize that Jesus knows our every thought and sees through the masks we wear to hide our vulnerable selves from the world. In that little room, we kneel before the One who loves us as we are, yet calls us to become who He has made us to be.
Peter denied Jesus three times with cursing and swearing and rage. The man who had drawn the sword in the garden was now terrified at the reproach of these nameless faces around a charcoal fire. He knew the depth of his sinful action, and he realized that Jesus knew it too. Our Lord had predicted it hours earlier at the Last Supper (see Mt 26:34, Lk 22:34). This recognition of his failure was as cutting as the cry of the rooster reminding Peter of his shame. He wept bitterly for his sin, knowing he had sunk to the lowest place of his life.
And yet this was not the end of the journey for this strong-willed man of faith. John showed us, at the end of his Gospel, a touching and tender scene of reconciliation:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (Jn 21:15)
There, at another supper, on a beach after another great catch of fish, Jesus took Peter aside and three times reinstated their relationship. For every denial, Jesus sought a reaffirmation of Peter’s love; and for every affirmation, Jesus called for Peter to go forth in faith and love to shepherd the people of God.
Believers continue to struggle as we carry our cross daily on the road of salvation. Confession is a reaffirmation of our relationship with the Lord. It restores our friendship with Jesus and draws us back to the Body of Christ. No one who makes a good Confession can leave that little room without understanding more deeply the call to live out the promise and power of our Baptism. When we, like Peter, are ready to face ourselves and surrender to the Savior, we find new hope and new power for Christian living:
[Jesus] said to him, “Follow me.” (Jn 21:19b)
Anointing of the Sick: Sin Removed vs. Sin Remaining – John 9
The Apostle James wrote to the Church about the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, its purposes and power:
Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. (Jas 5:14–15)
Jesus’s healings were signs pointing to the Father who had sent Him to earth; and He showed this so powerfully in the healing of the man born blind. The disciples questioned whether the man’s sin or his parents’ sin had caused his blindness. Jesus saw it differently. He used this healing to teach the truth that He had been sent to bring His light to a blind world.
“We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see. (Jn 9:4–7)
Anointing with oil is a powerful physical sign that is meant to bring healing to the sick person — sometimes physical wellness, but, more importantly, spiritual wholeness. Though Jesus anointed the man’s eyes with mud so he could see, the final healing came in the man’s spiritual restoration:
When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.” (Jn 9:35–39)
We are called to live out what our new eyes have seen, because we know our sin is removed. For those who reject this great sign, there is a more bitter conclusion:
Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains. (Jn 9:40–41)
Marriage: Abundance, Roles, Blessings. . . John 2
Marriage is a sacred sign of Christ in the world. The words of Jesus in the Gospels bear this out (see Mt 19:4–6). Paul echoes this thought in comparing marriage to the union between Christ and His Church (see Eph 5:21–33). John shows us the beauty and sacredness of marriage in chapter two of his Gospel.
Following the selection of His disciples, Jesus attends a wedding. When the wine runs out, His mother says to him, “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3b). Jesus responds by saying, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). His mother then tells the servers to do whatever Jesus tells them. Jesus instructs them to fill with water six large stone jars used for ceremonial washings. The water is made wine and the first of Jesus’s signs is revealed.
This story illustrates three important truths about the Sacrament of Marriage. First, Jesus wants to bless marriage abundantly. Wine is a symbol of joy and God wants to fill Catholic marriages with overflowing joy. Second, this miracle illustrates a new chapter in the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Jesus reveals Himself as Savior and Mary is shown as the Woman (a title of respect), the one who would take her place in the salvation story at Golgotha with her Son. As Jesus is set on the path to the Cross, He will one day complete His marriage to the Church, the bridegroom to the Bride. Finally, in this abundant, joyful miracle, Jesus offers a messianic blessing for the marriage and provides abundant wine, a sign that points forward to the Kingdom to come:
 And the Lord of hosts shall make unto all people in this mountain, a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine purified from the lees. And he shall destroy in this mountain the face of the bond with which all people were tied, and the web that he began over all nations.  He shall cast death down headlong for ever: and the Lord God shall wipe away tears from every face, and the reproach of his people he shall take away from off the whole earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.  And they shall say in that day: Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord, we have patiently waited for him, we shall rejoice and be joyfull in his salvation. Isaiah 25:6-9
Marriage is the miracle of love between a man and a woman that mirrors the relationship of Christ to His Bride, the Church. The sacrament elevates the relationship of man and woman in a union blessed abundantly by God, and calls the couple to live out their marriage in unity as they minister to one another, their children, and the world in love. They are to live as Kingdom people, full of joy, striving toward purity, and bearing holy offspring. Their lives are to be a living sign of what it means to be Church. Their example should call other couples to do the same:
‘. . . and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. (Mk 10:8)
Holy Orders: The True Servanthood of Discipleship – John 13
Jesus called his apostolic ministers to carry out His work (see Mt 28:18–20). The story that best illustrates the true sacramental nature of priesthood comes from John 13, when Jesus took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around Himself, and began to wash His disciples’ feet. There was a playful exchange between Jesus and Peter, with its symbolism of Baptism and Confession — being clean but still needing to wash one’s feet (see Jn 13:10). But the most moving and beautiful truth that played itself out was spoken by Jesus when He finished:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it. (Jn 13:12–17)
Priesthood is a sacred vocation, a holy calling by God. Priests are leaders, teachers, confessors, and counselors; but, most importantly, they are servants who give their lives totally to the task of shepherding the flock under their care. They have been charged to carry on the sacred teachings of the Church and administer the sacraments with faithfulness and humility. They are to put their personalities and authority in a secondary position to their call to love sacrificially and completely, as they follow in the footsteps of the Savior. They are a powerful sign of Christ’s authority, set before the whole of humanity to see. The life of a priest must be holy and undefiled by the world.
Yet we know that these men are also frail human beings who struggle with sin. They walk the same journey of salvation as the people they serve. Their submission to Christ, the Suffering Servant (see Is 53) gives them the strength and holy example to carry out their mission. It is only through the power of the Savior that they live out their calling to priesthood in a broken world. They deserve our prayers, our support, and our love, for they desire a noble task and will be held to account for their work as shepherds:
Presbyters who preside well deserve double honor . . . (1 Tim 5:17a)
A Parable of Conclusion: Matters of Consequence
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, is a beautiful parable of life’s truest treasures, of what is most important and worthy. In the story, a pilot who crash-lands in the desert meets a Little Prince who lives on a small asteroid — his planet. On this planet, the Little Prince has a rose that he cares for. While the pilot is concerned with survival, the Little Prince continues to talk about “matters of consequence.”
At one point in the story, the Little Prince meets a fox who teaches him the importance of “taming” another. Once he has tamed the fox, the fox becomes important to the Little Prince. It helps him to see that the rose on his planet, while similar to a million other roses, is important to him because of his relationship to it. When he leaves, the fox imparts this wisdom to the Little Prince:
“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose—” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember. (Little Prince, 48)
Soon after this incident, the Little Prince meets a merchant selling “water pills.” The merchant is proud of the fact that these pills save people 53 minutes a week that they otherwise would have spent drinking water. The Little Prince finds this silly and replies:
“As for me,” said the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.” (Little Prince, 50)
The sacraments call us to view reality with the eyes of a child in order to see just what is truly a “matter of consequence.” As shepherds and ministers of the Gospel, we too are called to “tame” others, to “waste time” with them, and to walk with them at our leisure toward the well of Living Water that Jesus offers. Only in Christ can we see the invisible and essential realities of life — and then, only with the eye of our hearts. The sacraments are for Catholics, our matter-of-consequence realities. Through them we receive the grace to live out our faith in a fallen world.
About Mark C. McCann
Mark C. McCann is an author and ministry consultant with more than 30 years experience in ministry to children, youth, and families, having worked in schools, diocesan offices, and Christian radio. He newest book is To the Ends of the Earth, a 40-week study for Catholic men, published by Our Sunday Visitor. He currently lives in Connecticut with his Proverbs 31 wife and three incredible children and lives out his call each day to be a man of words. His ministry website is www.wordsnvisions.com.