A little while back I was having an online conversation with a well-meaning non-Catholic Christian who was trying to “encourage” me to give up my Catholic faith for what he called was “the real Jesus”. He argued that I needed to give up the Rosaries, Crucifixes, Missals, etc. because they were distractions to truly knowing Jesus. Instead, he suggested that I take up the King James Version Bible, because it is only through the KJV that I will know Jesus.
Sadly, many “fundamentalist” Christians (like this particular gentleman) believe that “religion” is a hindrance to knowing God. They are often heard to say that “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship” – a relationship with Jesus. The below video entitled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus” provides a good example of what this kind of thinking entails.
My favourite response to the above video was this one by Fr. Claude Burns.
Unfortunately, what this kind of thinking (“Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship”) fails to grasp is that religion is not opposed to relationship. And neither are religious articles a hindrance to knowing God and growing in relationship with him. As an example, consider our everyday lives – we have families, and part of what it means to be a family is to have photo albums, heirlooms, and a plethora of other articles that give witness to the family bond. These articles don’t hinder our family relationship; rather, they exist as a testament that we are family; and they very often evoke fond memories reminding us of what it means to “be family”. In this way, these articles enhance our familial relationships. So for this man to suggest that I destroy all my “religious articles” would be like me asking him to destroy anything that reminds him of his family.
Ultimately, religion and relationship go hand in hand. Religion is ultimately about relationship, and because of this, the two cannot be separated. As Fulton J. Sheen so wisely put it:
“Religion is not what you do with your solitariness, but what you do with your relationships.” – Fulton J. Sheen; Seven Words of Jesus and Mary
When we consider religion in this context, the words of St. James and St. John in Sacred Scripture where they talk about religion comes to life in an amazing way:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” – James 1:27
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” – James 2:16
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” – 1 Jn 3:17-18
In a nutshell, religion IS about relationship; and a relationship with Christ cannot exist without religion. But I think it goes even deeper than this. As I was mulling over this, I came to realise that talking about having a “relationship with Christ”, even within the context of religion, is still grossly understated. I mean, when you really get down to it, what does it mean to have a “relationship with Christ”?
A “relationship” could mean anything – I have a relationship with my work colleagues; with my neighbours; with my friends; and also with my family. These are all relationships, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. What makes my relationship with my friends deeper than that with my work colleagues? And what makes my relationship with my family surpass all of these? And when you come down to it – how do I know that to have a “relationship with Jesus” isn’t like the relationship with my work colleagues?
You see, the depth of relationship is about depth of communion. The relationship that I have with my wife surpasses all other relationships because of the depth of communion that I have with her – a communion so grounded in love that in it two become one flesh. And our children form part of this intimate communion because they are the fruit of the love that my wife and I have for each other.
And that is where religion really comes into focus because religion is about communion – the creature seeking communion with the Creator; mortality seeking communion with immortality; man seeking communion with the Divine.
But this aspect of communion is taken to a whole different level when we speak of it in the context of the true religion and the fullness of faith found in the Catholic Church. This is because the Catholic faith is not so much about man seeking communion with God; but rather God seeking communion with man.
That is the whole reason for the Incarnation. God became man and dwelt among us so that He could restore us to communion with Him, and this is the reason that Our Lord cried out on the Cross “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). God-become-man thirsts for communion with His creatures; and God becomes man so that He can redeem us and restore us to communion with Him.
I have blogged before on the “transaction” that takes place in the Holy Mass (for example, see here, here, here, and here ). Like the intimacy of a marriage, the Holy Mass is about a mutual exchange of persons in love. The Eucharist involves us lovingly offering ourselves up on the altar in the bread and the wine; and Christ in turn lovingly giving Himself to us by changing the bread and wine into His Body and Blood. But when He does so, He is also changing us by feeding us with Himself.
So really, there are two Transubstantiations that take place in the Mass. The first, and most obvious, is when the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The second is when we, represented by the bread and the wine, are changed into the image of Christ.
To make the point in a better way than I ever could, I would like to quote the Blessed Fulton Sheen again:
“We are on the altar under the appearance of bread and wine, for both are the substance of life; therefore in giving that which gives us life we are symbolically giving ourselves. Furthermore, wheat must suffer to become bread; grapes must pass through the wine-press to become wine. Hence both are representative of Christians who are called to suffer with Christ, that they may also reign with Him....
“[In the Mass] I give myself to God. Here is my body. Take it. Here is my blood. Take it. Here is my soul, my will, my energy, my strength, my property, my wealth – all that I have. It is yours. Take it! Consecrate it! Offer it!...Transubstantiate me so that like bread which is now Thy Body, and wine which is now Thy Blood, I too may be wholly Thine. I care not if the species remain, or that like the bread and the wine I seem to all earthly eyes the same as before. My station in life, my routine duties, my work, my family – all these are but the species of my life which may remain unchanged. But the substance of my life – my soul, my mind, my will, my heart – transubstantiate them, transform them whole into Thy service, so that through me all may know how sweet is the love of Christ.” – Calvary and the Mass, A Missal Companion
As Catholics, may we never be ashamed to say that we love our religion; because it is through the Catholic Church that God has given man the best opportunity of being reunited in communion with Him.