Basic Christian beliefs

May 22, 2011

This is an adaptation of a talk I gave to young adult leaders at Christ Our Light Parish, Cherry Hill, NJ in May 2011.

I want to begin by saying that my task, explaining basic Christian beliefs, is in fact a difficult one. The difficulty is not explaining them briefly; it is identifying them. What are the basic Christian beliefs? Christianity is a large and diverse system of thought so you’re likely to get lots of different answers. Because my time is limited, I can’t share them all. So I’m just going to share my answer.

There is no doubt in my mind that the most basic Christian beliefs are two: the Trinity and the Incarnation. If you don’t believe that there are three Persons in one God and that the Son of God became man, you are not a Christian. So I will explain these beliefs in the first part of my presentation. In the second part, I will explain the central event, the climax, of salvation history: the Paschal mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the third and final part, I will explain the sacramental economy of the Catholic Church.

The Trinity

Most Christians are puzzled by the doctrine of the Trinity. They’ve heard the old formula “three Persons in one God” but they have no idea what it means. If God is basically one, why bother with the Trinity at all? If you’re a Christian, the Trinity is unavoidable. In the Gospels, Jesus talks about God as his Father and he promises his Spirit to his disciples. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he explicitly commissions his disciples to baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19).

If it’s important to Jesus, then it’s worth understanding. The classical approach is to explain the Trinity in and of itself with the aid of theological and philosophical terms. I’ll do this briefly. In God there is a single divine nature. Nature answers the question, What is this? What is God? Pure and limitless existence. In God there are three divine Persons. Person answers the question, Who is this? Who is God? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The tricky part is reconciling the one nature with the three Persons. Each Person is fully God because each Person fully possesses the single divine nature. Because the single divine nature is common to all three Persons, they are truly one God, not three gods.

I believe the biblical approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is more meaningful. This approach explains the Trinity as Jesus himself describes it. He describes relationships. God is a father to him and he is a Son. Jesus’ love for his Father is so great that he and the Father are one. He even shared his Spirit with his Father. Yet the Spirit is a distinct person who will continue Jesus’ mission in the world after Jesus ascends to the Father. This approach is more meaningful for two reasons. First, we simply understand relationships better than abstract concepts. Second and more importantly, these particular relationships invite us to become involved.

Our destiny as Christians is Trinitarian. We are baptized into Christ. Therefore, we share Christ’s relationships. God is our Father, too, and his Spirit also dwells in us. By baptism, we are already sons and daughters of the Father, younger brothers and sisters of the Son, and living temples of the Holy Spirit. By prayer and the sacraments, we deepen these relationships throughout life so that they may be ours in eternity.

Everything we believe and do as Christians can be understood in this Trinitarian context. For the sake of time, I’ll mention just one example: the Mass. In the Eucharistic liturgy, the Holy Spirit gathers us, the assembly, as the body of Christ to offer sacrifice to the Father. Let’s hear how the words of the liturgy reveal Trinitarian activity. How does the body and blood of Christ become present at the altar? The priest prays to the Father, “Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” And for what purpose is the body and blood of Christ made present? So that we can offer it to the Father: “Father…we offer you his body and blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.” The whole liturgy, and its effects within us, is Trinitarian. “Father…Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.”

The Incarnation

There are lots of stories about kings and even gods who for various reasons disguised themselves among their people. Is the Incarnation – the doctrine that the Son of God became man – simply the Christian version of this universal myth? In the Viking version, the god Odin disguises himself in order to meddle in human affairs and start wars. In a Persian story, a king decides to share his food with the needy and in doing so discovers a plot to rob the royal treasury. How does the Incarnation compare to these stories? What were God’s reasons for becoming man? In the stories I cited, the Viking god only pretends to be human and the Persian king only pretends to be a commoner. They do not actually become one of their people. In the Incarnation, the Lord God actually becomes human, a real man, not a god in disguise. God chose to become man to save men and women from sin and death. That is my basic explanation of the Incarnation. Now I’d like to offer four deeper reflections.

Why is our religion called Christianity? Is it because it was founded by Christ? No doubt, that is the actual historical reason. But the name Christianity is also intrinsically fitting because Christ stands at the center of the whole system of our religion. You may think that God does – not the Son only, but the Triune God. Certainly, everything in Christianity is directed to the Trinity, a point that I made above. But Christ stands at the center. If the Trinity is the end of our religion, the Incarnation is the means. The goal of the Incarnation is the salvation of humanity, which is our reconciliation with God. Like the Trinity, the doctrine of the Incarnation is also defined with the terms person and nature. Christ is a single divine Person possessing both the divine nature and a human nature. Hence, Scripture calls him both the Son of God and the Son of Man. In Christ, therefore, God and humanity are already reconciled, salvation is already achieved. Christ is not only the Redeemer; he is also the Redemption. Christ’s mission is to extend the Redemption, of which he himself is the model, to the rest of humanity. Jesus Christ is what we hope to become: reconciled to God.

God sought to identify with humanity, but it was not out of curiosity. As the omniscient God and the Creator of men and women, he already knew what our lives were like. At the Incarnation, God entered into solidarity with humanity. At the end of the Scriptures, in the Book of Revelation, God declares, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men” (Revelation 21:3). The Incarnation is permanent. Jesus ascended to the Father with his human nature. A man who is our brother sits at the right hand of the Father, who is also our Father. There is more to this, though, than saying that we have friends in high places. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes about the Son of God, “For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect” (Hebrews 2:16-17a). God could have concerned himself only with the angels in heaven, those pure spirits that are so much more like him. He rather concerned himself with us, creatures of flesh and blood. He even became a creature of flesh and blood. We have to work for a living. So did the Son of God – he was a carpenter. We have trouble with family and friends. So did the Son of God – he was rejected by family and betrayed by friends. Millions of people are hungry and thirsty to the point of death, live without shelter, and suffer persecution. The Son of God fasted for forty days in the desert and had nowhere to lay his head (cf. Luke 9:58). He was arrested, tried unjustly, beaten. It is so consoling to me to know that the Son of God shares my human nature and, like me, has experienced the trials of human life.

Some people argue that humanity is so sinful and weak that salvation must be the exclusive work of God. I do not think they are taking the Incarnation seriously. God became human precisely in order to save us. Our Redeemer could only die for our salvation because he was human. St. Athanasius said, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Through the spiritual rebirth of baptism, Christ makes us sons and daughters of God. John 1:12: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” As Spider Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Whether good or evil comes our way, we have a Christian responsibility. We must accept the trials of life as tests of the genuineness of our faith (cf. 1 Peter 1:7). When good comes our way, St. Peter instructs us, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).

It is often asked if God is almighty and loving, why is there evil in the world? The acute presence of evil in the world and in our own lives sometimes makes us angry at God. Why did he let this happen to me? Why is he silent? Why doesn’t he act? These accusations are played out in the Incarnation. Jesus is arrested and tried because Israel was angry that God allowed the chosen people to suffer throughout its history and finally to be conquered by the Romans. You can hear the complaints against God in the words spoken at the Crucifixion: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (Matthew 27:42-43). Mysteriously, Jesus himself complained. On the Cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). It was true, God did not deliver Israel from suffering but neither did he deliver his own Son. The good thief crucified alongside Jesus recognized that his sins deserved his cruel fate. If we are honest, we will admit that our own sins deserve the evil that befalls us. Yet in other moments, we join those who mocked Christ and complain against God for the existence of evil. In the depths of the Incarnation, God experienced firsthand this anger of ours. “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21a). We can never again complain that God is unaffected by the suffering of earth. Even more, in the light of the Resurrection which reversed Jesus’ fate, we can never again complain that God has abandoned us to suffering and death because he has promised us a share in the Resurrection.

Before moving onto the next part of my presentation, I want to share a final reflection on the Trinity and the Incarnation. I think it is significant that both beliefs are defined in terms of person and nature. I have already said that Christ stands at the center of Christianity. Christianity is focused on the life of this real man and, through him, on all of us who are his brothers and sisters. Christianity is about people, about God’s plan for a new humanity, inspired by the Holy Spirit, formed in the image of the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, and in harmony with God the Father. Meanwhile, the focus on nature suggests Christianity’s acceptance of the objective reality of the world. Things really exist and have a definite nature which we must respect all the while turning to God to repair the broken foundation of our human nature.

The Paschal mystery

As profound and unique as I think the Trinity and the Incarnation are, I do not want to give the impression that Christianity is just a set of doctrines to be believed. Primarily, it is a person to be loved and an experience to be shared. So it is fitting that in the middle of my presentation I explain the central event of the new covenant, the Paschal mystery of the death and Resurrection of Christ.

If you ask Catholics whether Christmas or Easter is more important, I think most will answer you Christmas. They are misled by the greater attention that Christmas receives in society, mostly thanks to consumerism. But on the Church calendar, Easter is the greatest feast of the year. The Easter Triduum, which stretches from Holy Thursday evening to Easter Sunday, celebrates the death and Resurrection of Christ. Christ was born on Christmas day in order to die on Good Friday and rise again on Easter Sunday. Although we give names to the individual days of the Triduum, they do form a single celebration named after the Latin for three days. In my explanation of the Incarnation, I emphasized that the Son of God experienced our human condition. What is more present in our condition than contradiction? Every one of us experiences loss and gain, condemnation and vindication, defeat and victory, sorrow and joy. We have both good days and bad days. Whenever we move or change jobs, we feel simultaneously the fear of leaving the familiar and the excitement of discovering the new.

If the Paschal mystery only represented this human experience, it would be meaningful and relevant but it would not change the fact that both loss and gain are part and parcel of life. In the term Paschal mystery, paschal is from the Hebrew for passover. Jesus passed over from death to new life. This passing over is the hinge of the mystery. Let’s listen to the words of St. John. John 13:1: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” How does Jesus love his own in the world “to the end”? By letting us share in his passover, so that we, too, can pass over from this world to the Father. John 5:24: “He who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

I will say more about how we share in the Paschal mystery in the last part of my presentation, concerning the sacramental economy. First, I want to clearly explain how Jesus himself was able to pass over from death to new life. The easy answer is that Jesus is God. He could raise himself from the dead. Indeed, in his sermon at the beginning of Acts, St. Peter tells the citizens of Jerusalem, “God raised [Jesus] up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Jesus needed to be human in order to die, but he needed to be God in order to rise from the dead. If this is the complete answer, then Jesus’ humanity was of no use in passing from death to new life. I believe, however, that the Bible gives us an additional answer, in which Jesus’ humanity does play a role. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul presents an Old Testament precedent for the Resurrection of Christ. In the fourth chapter, Paul recalls God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations even though he and his wife Sarah were too old to have children. Sarah’s barren womb is an analogy for the tomb of Christ. In each case, God promised life where common sense suggested it was impossible. Nevertheless, Abraham trusted in God’s promise – and Isaac was born. Likewise, Jesus trusted in his Father: “In the days of his flesh, [Jesus] offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear” (Hebrews 5:7). Jesus trusted as a man. He persevered in prayer. And he was raised from the tomb. If we trust in God as Jesus did, if we persevere in prayer as Jesus did, then God’s promises to us will also be fulfilled.

Let me now offer two specific reflections on the Paschal mystery. Christians, and believers of all religions, are sometimes blamed for a great deal of the violence in human history. Religion seems to divide more people than it unites and this division has been the cause of countless wars. Might these critics detect the seed of Christianity’s supposed violence in the Paschal mystery? Why is such a cruel death at the center of our religion? Why is the cross or crucifix a sign of our faith? I have always thought that making the cross a sign of our faith is incredibly honest. Sin is a part of us and uprooting it is painful. We could try to minimize this unpleasant business of the Christian life in our preaching of the Gospel, but we would be dishonest. Christ himself said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). But why did the sinless Jesus have to suffer and die? Although Jesus accepted his death, he did not orchestrate it. Jesus simply knew that his message of love would be rejected by sinful men who would finally put him to death. Likewise, our acceptance of that message and our growth in love is met with suffering. By accepting death, Jesus encourages us to accept suffering for the sake of good. He does not ask us to do anything which he has not done himself. Hence Scripture calls him “the pioneer of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). We must remember that the real story about Christ and ourselves is not a passion of violence but a passion of love.

I said above that Christianity accepts the objective reality of the world. Christianity proposes certain truths which we must accept. They are independent of our existence. I also said that Christianity is an experience we must share. Christianity calls me to discover the meaning particular to my own existence. How I share the Paschal mystery of Christ, which is to say, how I confront the challenges of my life with trust in God is unique to me. Christianity satisfies both my desire to know the truth about God and the world and my desire to discover personal meaning, the truth about myself. It is significant that Christianity links these two desires. John’s Gospel calls Christ “the light of men” (John 1:4). As the perfect Man, Jesus is the model for all men and women. We need this model because we can find in Christ the good lacking in us. The fact that he is the universal standard and source of human perfection does not mean that all humans must become alike. Human diversity is preserved and the uniqueness of the human person is enhanced because we each relate to Christ differently. We each imitate the model and share its perfection in a unique way. Consider the results of separating our desires to know universal truth and to discover personal meaning. If we look for meaning only within ourselves, if we never leave the boundaries of our existence, we ignore our nature’s openness to relationship and we fail to solve the problems which require outside help. Alternatively, if we look for truth only outside of ourselves, if we never look within, we ignore the uniqueness of our personality and we fail to solve our problems by not letting Christ’s light shine within.

The sacramental economy

At the beginning of the presentation, I made the point that the Trinity and the Incarnation are the two most basic Christian beliefs. Now I’d like to make a second point, that less basic Christian beliefs should flow from more basic ones. Our Catholic belief about the sacraments flows from our belief in the Incarnation. In the case of both Christ and the sacraments, what you see is not what you get. What you see is a mere man; what you get is the Word made flesh. What you see is bread and wine; what you get is the body and blood of Christ. God knows it is too much for us creatures of flesh and blood to receive his unseen grace without the mediation of the material. Hence the Redeemer becomes our brother and the tools he uses to save us are likewise the familiar: water, bread and wine, and oil. In Christ, there are two natures, the human and the divine. In the sacraments, there are two elements, sign and grace. The sign is what we see, hear, touch, smell, even taste. The grace is the spiritual reality working unseen. Each sacrament also has a minister, usually a deacon, priest, or bishop. There are two exceptions: there are two ministers of marriage, the bride and the groom, and in emergencies where no ordained minister is present, anyone can baptize.

Just as I identified the Trinity and the Incarnation as the most basic Christian beliefs, I’d like to identify baptism and the Eucharist as the most important sacraments. Scripture explains these two sacraments more than any others. Both involve us in the Paschal mystery. Baptism initiates us into the Paschal mystery; the Eucharist deepens our participation in the mystery. Hence we can be baptized only once but we can receive Communion frequently.

Let me say more about each sacrament, beginning with baptism. Baptism has several effects, but I will just mention two. The first is the forgiveness of sins. This includes original sin and, in the case of adults, all the sins of their past lives. The second the Bible calls “putting on Christ” (cf. Galatians 3:27) and some theologians call receiving a spiritual “character.” Whatever you call it, the newly baptized person becomes part of the people of God. As God’s people, we are the adopted children of God and members of a “royal priesthood” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). The basic biblical meaning of the sacrament is its connection to the Paschal mystery of Christ. Through the waters of baptism, we die to sin and rise to new life. This spiritual reality is best signified by full immersion baptism, in which the person goes into the water and then rises from it, like he’s entering the tomb and then leaving it. Even when someone is baptized by the pouring of water, the basic effect of baptism, new life, is still signified by the ritual washing. After baptism, we are forever shaped by the Paschal mystery and we commit to a life of trusting in God’s promises to bring life from death, gain from loss, victory from defeat.

Plenty of images have been used to describe the Eucharist. For instance, one emphasizes sacrifice, the other meal. There are also two ways of relating baptism and the Eucharist. First, the Eucharist can be a way of renewing our baptism. Baptism gives us new life and the Eucharist is the food that sustains us in this new life. Second, baptism can be the preparation for our participation in the Eucharist. Baptism makes us priests so that in the Eucharist we can offer spiritual sacrifices, namely our good works and our sufferings. Essentially, the Eucharist is the sacrament that weekly, or even daily, deepens our participation in the Paschal mystery as we grow and mature throughout life. Baptism introduces us to the Paschal mystery because going in and then out of the water signifies entering and then leaving the tomb. How does the Eucharist signify the Paschal mystery? Let me ask another question: when does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Most Catholics probably think it is at the epiclesis, when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit and blesses the bread and wine. In fact, the consecration of the bread occurs when the priest repeats the words of Christ at the Last Supper, “This is my body,” and the consecration of the wine occurs when the priest says, “This is my blood.” So the bread becomes the body and the wine becomes the blood a few moments apart. This separation of blood from body signifies Jesus’ death. Likewise, when the priest puts a small piece of the host in the chalice, the reunion of body and blood signifies Jesus’ resurrection. Another sign in the Eucharist, the fraction of the host, invites our imitation. Just before the consecration, the priest says, “He took bread and gave you thanks. He broke the bread [and] gave it to his disciples.” In order for each one of us to enjoy the fruits of Christ’s Redemption, he had to be broken. The words of consecration end, “Do this in memory of me.” As Christians, we too must be “broken” by the sacrifice of our time, talent, and treasure for the good of others. People sometimes ask how Communion is not cannibalism. When we receive Communion, we do not consume normal flesh and blood. We receive the body and blood of the risen and glorified Christ. Our flesh and blood has life; his gives life because it is the flesh and blood of he who is life itself. Communion by Communion, we experience more deeply Jesus’ Paschal mystery so that we are ever more conformed to him.

Just as our less basic beliefs flow from the more basic ones, the other five sacraments flow from baptism and the Eucharist. Confirmation is an extension of baptism, furthering our Christian initiation. Confession or reconciliation restores our relationship with God when we have seriously sinned so that we can be readmitted to the Eucharist. Someone must preside at the Eucharist, so the sacrament of holy orders provides us with deacons, priests, and bishops. The anointing of the sick strengthens the sick and dying especially as they consider their mortality and the promise of eternal life made to them in baptism. It is harder to see the connection with marriage, but I will attempt to make it in a moment. I will now offer a brief reflection about the sacraments of healing, which are reconciliation and the anointing of the sick, and the vocational sacraments, which are marriage and orders. Although as Christians our entire lives are a participation in the Paschal mystery, in these four sacraments two specific challenges and two specific vocations are singled out and specially blessed.

Even good Christians falter. Though we may be convinced of the truth of the Gospel, the fleeting concerns of the present moment sometimes distract us from the promises of eternity. When we seriously falter, we cannot return to the altar of the Lord to offer a pure sacrifice until we first reconcile ourselves to him. This we do in the sacrament of reconciliation. By confessing every serious sin since our last confession and expressing our contrition through a rote prayer or one from our heart, the Lord hears us and forgives us through the words of the priest. Like a wayward relative who has been reconciled to his family, we may then return to the Eucharistic table. Many people ask why they cannot confess our sins directly to God. The Catholic faith is an internally consistent system, so in answering this question I must refer back to our belief in the Incarnation. God was so concerned about humanity that he became a member of it. The eternal Son of God saved humanity as a human. His work of salvation continues today in the sacraments. Like the Redeemer himself, the sacraments contain a material element which belongs to our world. A system in which we name our sins in our mind and then expect God’s forgiveness without material mediation is inconsistent with Catholic Christianity. Confessing our sins to a priest is not always easy. It does allow us to enter into conversation with another Christian, who on the one hand understands our plight because he too is a sinner and who on the other hand has been ordained to continue Christ’s work of forgiving sinners.

Many of Jesus’ miracles healed the sick. In the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, Jesus still comforts the sick, always offering them grace to persevere in their illness and sometimes healing them. At death, Christ can also prepare us to meet him in eternal life. In the last rites, we can confess our sins, receive the anointing, and receive Communion for the final time.

Why is marriage a sacrament? Marriage is a natural institution, after all, which predated Christianity. But is it natural? I sometimes hear that it is unnatural for two people to be exclusively faithful to one another for life. While it does seem natural for a man and a woman to come together in marriage, it sadly seems just as natural for them to divorce. In the Scriptures, marriage is an image for God’s covenant with the human race. The covenant is often violated but, thanks to the grace of God, never withdrawn. In the sacrament of marriage, the permanent and exclusive union of man and woman is a sign of the permanent and exclusive union of God and humanity, of Christ and the Church. The grace of those spiritual realities overflows into the life of the couple, supporting their own union which is a powerful witness of fidelity in the world. The unity of the human race, which marriage helps accomplish, is also the purpose of the Eucharist. The unity of the human race, and the unity of a married couple, is only possible if we can learn to pass over from selfish concerns to the common good.

At baptism, every Christian joins the priesthood of the faithful. While they practice ordinary trades, they are to offer the pains of life as sacrifices to God and preach the Gospel most of all by their good example. Since the days of Christ, however, there have been disciples whose primary vocation is the offering of sacrifice and the preaching of the Gospel. At the Last Supper, Jesus made the apostles priests of the new covenant. In the sacrament of orders, Christ still ordains ministers to lead his Church. The first order is that of deacons, who baptize, witness marriages, and assist in a unique way at Mass. Priests constitute the second order. They preside at the Eucharist, absolve sins, and anoint the sick. The third order is comprised of bishops, who celebrate all the sacraments and, when assembled in Church councils, teach definitively in Christ’s name.

We should use our knowledge of the faith to invite others to become active Catholics. I hope I have demonstrated that our faith is beautiful, deeply meaningful, and personally relevant. These aspects of the faith are more significant than news stories about sinful priests and incompetent bishops, or tragic episodes in the history of the Church, or complicated and unhelpful rules that the Church itself sometimes imposes. If we can show this to others by careful words and confident actions, we can offer meaning for their lives on earth and the promise of eternal life in heaven.