This is the time of year we’re focussed on Christ’s coming. God has come close to us. In a quite new way, God has become God-with-us, Emmanuel. He has entered our world. He has made himself part of human history. He did this by taking on a human body and a human soul. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. He has become one of us. He has put himself alongside us.
But his goodness – his mercy – didn’t stop there.
He has ascended into heaven, beyond our touch, out of sight. But as St Leo the Great beautifully put it, ‘what was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into the sacraments.’ Through the signs and symbols, the words and actions, of the seven sacraments, he remains close to us. They are an extension through time, as it were, of his incarnation. They are powers going forth from him. And thanks to these sacraments he isn’t just with us. He is within us. He doesn’t just connect to the human race as a whole; he connects to each one of us. He’s not just linked to the people who shared his life on earth, like Mary and Joseph or Peter and John. He can touch anyone who approaches him through the sacraments of the Church. We may be baptised or confirmed, for example, along with others. We go up with others to receive Holy Communion. But we’re always baptised or confirmed or receive the Eucharist individually. It can’t be done by proxy. So the priest or deacon says, ‘Andrew, I baptise you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Or the bishop says, ‘Hermione Joan, be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ ‘I, Bernard, take you, Sophie, as my lawful wedded wife’, and vice versa.
And so through the sacraments, the Lord does more than walk beside us. He’s not just somewhere out there “on the web”, as it were. He downloads himself into the PC of our life. The river doesn’t just flow down our valley; through the seven channels of the sacraments it waters our very own garden. He gets into the car we’re driving. He enters under our roof, as we say, and comes into the house of our body and soul. He weaves himself into our very identity and life and personal story. He is not just God with us, but God within us.
Each of the seven sacraments has a particular grace. In baptism, it’s the grace of being a child of God. In confirmation, it’s anointing with the Holy Spirit. And in the sacrament that concerns us tonight, it is the gift of forgiveness of sins. The actual celebration of a sacrament is something passing and localised; it happens in a particular place at a particular time. And it can be very swift. But the grace is to last. The grace weaves itself into our life; it becomes part of the fabric. I imagine most of us here have been to confession before and will go to confession again. We’ll hope to make a good confession when death comes to us. We must be honest and thorough and call our sins by their names and be truly sorry for them. There are conditions to fulfil, especially if we have committed mortal sin. But the beautiful thing is this: that every time we bring our sins and our sorrow to this sacrament, the grace of forgiveness will be released in our life. Gradually it will permeate it fully. Being a forgiven sinner will be part of who we are. Being touched by the mercy of God will be part of who we are. Being able to show compassion because we’ve received it will be part of who we are. All the while, thanks to the grace of this sacrament, our hearts will be being purified with the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap of the Holy Spirit. We’ll be being winnowed, and the chaff and wheat in our lives separated. We’ll be entering into the experience of King David and Peter and Mary Magdalene and Paul, of so many Christians through the ages. Christ’s grace will be working in us, accumulating in us, making us holy and blameless for the day of the Lord, as the New Testament so often says and the Psalms so often pray. And the house of our body and soul will be a place where the Lord is happy to live. He will enter and sit down and eat with us, and share his thoughts and secrets with us, as he did in the Upper Room the night before he died. Our lives will become his life.
So what we are doing, rather clumsily probably, on a damp winter’s night in a draughty cathedral, will be a step on the way to the ultimate Christmas, his final coming. Then the Lord will come, not just to be beside us, not just to be within us, but to lift us, transform us into the likeness of his own glory.