Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Find flavour in the extras

Homily Feast of St Blaise

Today, the Church observes the Memorial of Saint Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, of whom we know precious little, as if to testify to his simplicity of heart. The legend connected to his life and martyrdom, reads like a children’s tale, but we should never lose sight that St Blaise died the death of a martyr, and at the very end of his earthly life, gave his greatest teaching and homily through his own death. On the day following the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas, the Church’s Feast of Lights, this martyr stands before us a witness to hope, as one who lights the way to life with God, one of the many sign posts that God has given to us.

We know Saint Blaise best as the patron of ailments of the throat, whose intercession we invoke in times of illness. He seems to have been the son of wealthy parents and a physician who became the Bishop of Armenia. When the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian broke out, Blaise fled to a cave where he lived with the animals. He healed the wounds of the animals and they flocked around him. Hunters discovered Blaise surrounded by these animals and took him to the governor Agricolas. Refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Blaise was beheaded around the year 316, after having had his flesh torn apart by metal wool combs.

As the hunters took Blaise to the governor they came upon a poor woman whose pig had been carried off by a wolf. Recognising the Saint’s holiness, she begged him to restore the pig to her. Blaise commanded the wolf to give back the pig and it did. The pig was unharmed. In return for his kindness, the woman gave Blaise some food and some candles. Also, before his death, Blaise is said to have miraculously healed a boy who was choking on a fishbone, thereby saving his life. This event gave rise to his patronage of the sick, and especially of the throat.

The episode of the healing of the boy was combined with that of the wolf to give us the blessing of Saint Blaise with the candles. This blessing falls within the category of pious devotions called sacramental. The catechism teaches us that sacramentals are “holy things or actions of which the church makes use to obtain for us from God, through her intercession, spiritual and temporal favours.” Our crucifix, holy pictures, rosaries and other articles are examples of what we call sacramentals. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church to prepare us to receive the fruit of the sacraments and to sanctify different circumstances of our lives (no. 1677).

Practically speaking, the myriad of little things that are sacramentals are the parts of catholicity that jostle against us in our everyday life, those little extras that often tell others we are Catholic. They are the images, actions and blessings that are unique to our faith; those sometimes humble reminders of what the Catholic faith is all about, like the crucifix on our wall. The simplicity of these pious practices pose a challenge to our rational arrogance. In an intellectual and scientific milieu, such things are often dismissed as silly and superstitious. But for us Catholics, they provide an opportunity to express childlike humility in trusting of God.

For being Catholic is more than the bare bones: attending Mass, receiving Communion twice a year, going to confession, getting confirmed, married and buried in the Church. Sacramentals, by their very voluntariness, their apparent status as extras, can supply the externals that make the Catholic way of life singular, outstanding and exciting. That is the reason why sacramental are often the stuff of popular devotion. It addresses, not so much the intellect, as it does the heart and our affections.

The Seven Sacraments, instituted by Christ, and channels of grace, are necessary for salvation. The sacramentals, instituted by the Church, and which do not channel sanctifying grace, augment and give additional flavour and excitement to the celebration of the sacraments. One may use this poor analogy. Food is necessary for our survival, whether it be just a piece of unadorned bread and a cup of water, just as the Sacraments are necessary for salvation. But once in while you are treated to a certain delicacy or a buffet spread, which may not be necessary for our survival, but makes eating so much more exciting. The sacramentals thus serve to excite our faith to dispose us better to the reception of grace from the Sacraments.

Sacramentals are not superstitions, holdovers from pre-Christian days. There is a part of us that longs for something tangible we can hold on to, something to look at, something to touch, something to sing, chant or recite, something that interacts with the senses. What is the difference between correct use of the sacramental and superstition? It has to do with an inner attitude, for superstition is second cousin to magic. The superstitious person says, “If I sprinkle holy water here, say these prayers and cross myself, or have blessed candles held to my throat, I will make God or His saints do this for me.” But the person using a sacramental properly says. “I want to be closer to God—to be constantly and effectively reminded of the power of His love and glory, of His protection, forgiveness and mercy. So I will cross myself when I pass a church to remind myself of His passion. I will make a novena to ask God's saints for their prayers. I will do these things, not because I am strong and have the power to make God and His saints do my will, but because I am weak, distractable and forgetful, and need to remind myself of True Reality.” So Catholics use sacramental to remind them of God and His works.

What we need remember as we have our throats blessed today is that such a blessing and such a healing must have only two aims: to give glory to God, and to bring hope and encouragement to others. In a world where profanity has become an established second tongue, and speech peppered by expletives have become the norm, where our conversations have become opportunities for gossiping and slandering, today’s blessing remind us that we must use our throats, our voices in praise of God, giving him glory at all hours of the day and night; and we must use our throats, our voices to upbuild our neighbours near and far, giving them heaven-based hope for a better day today and tomorrow!

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