The true religion is not a book. It is a communion — a mystical body — by which man is united to God and therefore made holy, beginning in this life a relationship that is meant to continue for all eternity in beatitude. Yes, the true faith is a revelation from on high. Yes, a portion of that revelation has been transmitted to us in the inspired canonical scriptures. But what those scriptures and the rest of that revelation declare to us is how to enter into vital communion with the Holy Trinity through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ.
We aspire to the direct vision of God in eternity, and we achieve that by seeing and hearing Him in time through faith and charity.
Saint John the Beloved said it this way: “That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
Christ, the Son of God, testified to what He had seen and heard in the bosom of His eternal Father: “And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth…” (John 3:32). The Apostles were called to be unique witnesses of Jesus: “You shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This is how the revelation of the Son of God — the manifestation, or “epiphany,” of the Word Made Flesh — was made to all of mankind. When forced to defend their preaching, Saints Peter and John declared: “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Even Saint Paul, the Apostle “born out of due time,” was instructed to do the same by Ananias the prophet: “For thou shalt be his witness to all men, of those things which thou hast seen and heard” (Acts 22:15).
The Apostle to the Gentiles twice speaks of handing on to others those things which he himself received. One of those things was the Death and Resurrection of Christ (I Cor. 15:3-4); the other was the Eucharist (I Cor. 11:23ff). Like Jesus, and like the Twelve, Saint Paul passed on what he had received, what he saw and heard.
This is called “Tradition,” the handing over, or handing down (tradere), of something received. It is by tradition that the Church receives her doctrines, her scriptures, her sacraments. Having received this infallible and indefectible tradition, she makes them present to the faithful in every age. This time of year, Holy Mother Church is making present to us the reality of Christ’s Incarnation, Nativity, and Infancy; that is, she renews the manifestation of the Man-God to the shepherds, the Magi, and the rest. She does this by her choice of scriptural passages and other liturgical offerings used in the sacred cycle at Christmas and Epiphanytide. Consider, for instance, the Epistle for Midnight Mass, which begins: “Dearly Beloved, the grace of God our Saviour hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). The Introit for Christmas Mass at Dawn tells us that “A light shall shine upon us this day.” The Epistle of that same Mass declares that “the goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared…” (Titus 3:4).
A particularly sublime liturgical piece is the Magnificat Antiphon for the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1):
Mirabile mysterium declaratur hodie,
innovantur naturae; Deus homo factus est;
id quod fuit, permansit,
et quod non erat, assumpsit,
non commixtionem passus neque divisionem.
A wondrous mystery is declared today,
natures are renewed; God has become man;
that which he was, he remains,
and that which he was not, he has assumed,
suffering neither mixture nor division.
(I recommend the rich musical setting of this text by the Slovenian composer, Jacobus Gallus.)
The Mirabile mysterium is a concise liturgical expression of the orthodoxy of the Council of Chalcedon, the doctrine of Saint Leo the Great, and that of the Catholic Church. But note: Mirabile mysterium declaratur hodie: this wondrous mystery is declared today. That’s in the present tense. Similarly, on Christmas day and its octave, we sing “a Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us.” This signifies the fact that the Church’s liturgy makes present these mysteries. It is not, as in the Protestant denominations, a mere repetition of a narrative, or even a preaching of doctrine. It is, rather, the making present here and now of historical and eternal divine realities.
The one Christian Church does not limit herself to the proclamation of the word. She does proclaim the word, but she also makes present to us the saving events of Christ’s mysteries by her liturgy: her sacrifice, her sacraments, and her divine office. In the official prayer of the Mystical Body the word hodie (today) is common on certain festivals, emphasizing that in this liturgical moment we mystically but truly enter into the mystery being celebrated (Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, etc.). In a liturgical act, the Catholic enters into the eternal now of God. To explain this, our Eastern brethren use the conceptually rich pair of words that each mean “time” in Greek: Chronos (time that is measured, successive, whence comes chronological), and Kairos (a fixed moment of special importance: the “acceptable time” [καιρὸς εὐπρόσδεκτος ] of II Cor. 6:2), the latter concept being an image of God’s eternity. When, at the beginning of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the deacon tells the priest “Καιρός του ποιήσαι τω Κυρίω” (“It is time [kairos] for the Lord to act”), he indicates that, in the Liturgy, our time is intersecting with God’s eternity.
In the sacraments, it is Christ who is the minister, therefore these signs effect what they signify. In each sacrament, as Saint Thomas teaches, there is a past, a present, and a future reality: the Passion, which is the meritorious cause of grace; grace itself, received here and now; and the future life of beatitude, of which the present grace is a pledge. Saint Benedict called the divine office the Opus Dei (work of God). Not only is it the work we do for God (to render Him worship); it is also the work the eternal God does in us. We see and hear God in the Church, especially in the liturgy, which is the social worship of the Church.
What the Apostles saw and heard of the word of life — of Jesus — is something we, too, see and hear. We hear his voice in the Catholic Church, in the infallible magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, whom Saint Catherine of Siena called “Sweet Christ on Earth.”1 We also see the Lamb of God in His sacraments, that same Lamb whom John the Baptist announced on the banks of the Jordan. This is why the priest proclaims the Baptist’s very words while holding the Eucharist aloft: Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. When beholding It, we can say with Holy Simeon, “my eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:30).
For this reason, our Medieval forebears called “going to Mass” by a more graceful name: seeing God.
Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? If so, then gratefully imitate the shepherds, who “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20); for “many prophets and kings have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them; and to hear the things that you hear, and have not heard them” (Matt. 10:24).