When St. Peter finishes his Pentecost speech, the Jews ask Peter what they should do. His response: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38b-c) Notice that Peter's answer indicates that the interior attitude of repentance comes before the exterior confirmation of baptism. Both are necessary and the "horse" is placed before "the cart." The outward sign and ritual of baptism would be meaningless without the inner attitude of conversion and repentance.
Sacraments are not magic. They don't accomplish the reality of which they are a sign. Baptism is an outward sign of an inner reality. The same can be said for the other sacraments as well.
In today's reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saul and Barnabas are set aside by the Christian community for the work of preaching to the Gentiles. Through the laying on of hands, they are "ordained" to bring the Good News to "those who are far off," a common way of referring to the Gentiles of every nation. However, Saul and Barnabas have already been preaching to these people; they have already been baptizing them and bringing them into the fold of believers. Once again, we see that St. Luke goes to great pains to record that the sacraments confirm what has already taken place. The exterior actions of Saul, now known as Paul, and Barnabas are ratified by the laying on of hands. They are formally commissioned to do what they are already doing. The Holy Spirit which they have been given confirms God's choice of them as bearers of the Good News.
When we celebrate the sacraments, we ritually confirm realities that God has already accomplished. When we absolve, we proclaim that God has already forgiven. When we vow to love another until death, we publically acknowledge that these two have become one. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we once again acknowledge that God has chosen to live among the people.
This is not to say that sacraments do not effect some change. Yes, the Eucharistic bread is changed into the Body of Christ. Yes, the individual baptized is washed clean of sin. Yes, when we lay hands on someone, they are created anew. However, the interior attitude which is necessary for this change to take place must come first. Without faith, sacramental action is empty ritual just as when God did not accept the holocausts of rams and bullocks from people who had not repented in their hearts. So we pray, "Create in me a clean heart. . ." (Psalm 51).
Another point which today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes is that “ordination,” accomplished through the laying on of hands, is an act of setting someone apart. The origin of the word “holy,” means exactly the same thing. That which is holy is set apart, it is “other than.” Deacons, priests, and bishops are all set apart by the ordination of the Church. In the ordination ceremony, the presiding bishop asks the question: “Have they been found worthy?” Someone must answer that question before the bishop can proceed. Unfortunately, our sense of worthiness has been somewhat warped by the mistaken notion that someone who is worthy is close to perfection. Worthiness comes when the individual remembers who he/she is, and who God is. When one realizes that it is his/her relationship with God which sets him/her apart for a special purpose, then they are truly worthy. In the words of Pope Francis, the one who is worthy is the one who realizes that he/she is a sinner. Then and only then can God’s grace of salvation be at work in the person.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator