At the end of Mass the priest reads the first fourteen verses of St. John's Gospel. Because they come at the end of the service the verses are known as the 'Last Gospel'. Originally, it seems, the words were recited by the priest as he returned to the vestry. For this reason some modern liturgies leave out the Last Gospel but this is not the custom of the ACC. The Last Gospel reminds us of the central fact upon which our eternal salvation is secured-the Incarnation of the Son of God.
By Incarnation we mean that the Son of God, truly God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, also became a man, sharing fully our human existence, except for our sinfulness. Christians believe that a spiritual disaster which happened in the past has had a permanent effect on the whole of mankind. To this disaster we give the name of the Fall and its effect is seen in our sinfulness, our mortality, and our inability to attain to the spiritual fulfilment of our lives. Heaven, our ultimate and true home, is closed to us. The remedy requires more than the forgiveness of our sins, it requires an entirely New Life. It is this New Life which has arrived in our world through the Incarnation of Christ.
As a result of the Fall the whole of mankind lives out an existence dominated by physical needs, and limitations-this is the world into which we are born, a world dominated by sin and death. There is another world we sometimes glimpse in moments when we reach out in thought and wistful hope to something better than our present existence. The Incarnation makes these two worlds to be one. To understand this we have to overcome a kind of mental barrier.
We tend to think of this first world, the 'fallen' world so familiar to us, as the real world because of the needs and limitations it imposes on us. From this point of view the second world, the heavenly world, appears as unreal, idealistic. The word 'spiritual' is linked in our minds with this second world and also with our idea of God. God and the 'spiritual' seem to be the direct opposite of the 'material'. To make a firm link between the spiritual things of God and the material things of this world is difficult for this way of thinking-even idolatrous, because we seem to be confusing God with his creation.
We overcome this mental barrier when we stop thinking that this world is the only one that matters and get our priorities right. Grow accustomed to thinking of that second world as being the real world-the source of everything. This new attitude is at the root of what we call repentance-taking God seriously. In the Last Gospel God the Son is called the 'Word' who made all things. When he came to this world 'he came to his own', even though he was rejected by so many. Material and spiritual things, therefore, belong together because they have the same source in the 'Word'. It is the attitude of mind that separates these two worlds which rejects the Son of God also. Just as God became man, so the material things of this world can be filled with the spiritual power of God-or 'grace', as we say.
Although he is God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, was rejected by many. Some, however, received him, believed him, put their whole trust in him. To these, the Last Gospel tells us, he has given power (authority) to become sons of God, being born into a new kind of life. This is the New Life in Christ which opens to us our true home, heaven. This New Life comes to us along the same lines as the Incarnation. Just as the divine Son of God took on himself the material existence of a man in this world, being born of the Virgin Mary, so material things are used to transmit his New Life to us, and to transmit it now. These special means are the Sacraments of the Church.
The basic Sacrament is the Church itself, the fellowship of believers created when the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, filled the first followers of Jesus with their Lord's presence and power. The Church is not just a collection of like-minded people, an organisation-even though it may seem so to outsiders. The Church is 'the Body of Christ', since, by the Holy Spirit, believers are united with each other in the New Life in Christ. By a Sacrament, therefore, we mean something belonging to the created world which has been restored to its true purpose by being filled with the power of the New Life in Christ. This is a useful definition.
Traditionally there are seven Sacraments. These Sacraments use material things and human actions to bring us the New Life in Christ. Although the New Life in Christ is offered to us freely and unreservedly through the Sacraments, there needs to be a willingness on our part to receive that offer through a personal trust in and commitment to Jesus as God and Saviour-Sacraments are not some kind of magic which works whether we like it or not. What now follows is a brief description of the purpose of these Sacraments.
We enter into the New Life in Christ through Baptism and Confirmation. The outward act in Baptism is immersion or sprinkling with water, in Confirmation the laying of hands by the bishop, usually accompanied by an anointing with Holy Oil. Baptism is our personal dying with Christ and our rising again in his New Life, while Confirmation bestows the fullness of the Holy Spirit on each of us. The believer involves himself in all that Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost have achieved for us.
The Mass or Eucharist brings us, in a constantly repeated act of worship, to the fullest expression on earth of our New Life in Christ. Under the outward elements of consecrated bread and wine Christ feeds us with his Body and Blood. The Mass links us with Christ's sacrifice of himself upon the Cross to redeem the world and with his final and assured triumph at the end of this present age. The Mass links us also with every other member of the Church in heaven and earth so that we all become one in Christ. The different ministries and roles in the Church serve to emphasise that fact that we belong to one another and need one another in Christ.
While we remain members of the Church on earth there is a continuing need for healing and renewal of both soul and body. Two Sacraments, Penance (when we seek specific forgiveness for our sins) and Unction (when we seek the restoration of our bodies through anointing) provide for this need. Unction also acts as a preparation for that final release from the ills of our earthly body.
The Sacraments of Marriage and Ordination deal with the structures and obligations of family life. Sacramental Marriage is provided for the right ordering of the human family-in contrast with its secular counterpart. Ordination is provided for the sacramental unifying and perpetuation of the Church on earth as the Family of God as well as the Body of Christ. Those so ordained are brought within the ministry given by the Lord to his Apostles.
Over and above the Sacraments there are several traditional practices which are helpful in maintaining us within the New Life in Christ-the use of the Sign of the Cross and of Holy Water, the blessing of persons and objects dedicated to the service of God, the honouring of the Saints and their images-to name a few. To these and many other traditions is given the general (but rather confusing) name of 'Sacramentals'. They are constant and effective reminders of the renewing of the whole of creation through Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Catholic way of Salvation is not to divide everything into the 'material' and the 'spiritual', discarding the 'material' as unworthy. The Catholic way is to recognise that everything can be redeemed and renewed in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is also the 'Sacramental' way of understanding and redeeming the world in which we live. The 'two worlds' are one, they originated with Christ the Word and in him alone they find their fulfilment.