Have you ever had the experience of going to a museum many times, yet finding something you hadn’t seen before — a painting you hadn’t noticed; an artifact from an earlier civilization you hadn’t paused to examine? Have you ever walked through a city you know well, but stumbled upon something you didn’t realize was there — a special shop, a statue or monument, a lovely park?
My experience with the sacramental nature of Catholic Christianity has been a bit like that. I knew from my earliest days in the Church that the seven sacraments instituted by Christ are the foundation of a Catholic Christian’s life: Baptism, Confirmation, and The Eucharist (Sacraments of Initiation), Penance and the Anointing of the Sick (Sacraments of Healing), and Marriage and Holy Orders (Sacraments of Service). God conveys grace through these sacraments.
The Electrifying Story
But only after some years in the Church did the sacraments begin to even more powerfully inform and strengthen my faith. Why? Because the sacraments are God’s ongoing expression of His electrifying engagement with us! The sacraments manifest His creating love, caring intervention, and constant presence to us, for our good.
What makes the sacraments so significant? This: God created us as enfleshed souls. We each have a body. Each of us also has an eternal soul, the part of us that will live forever. The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this truth more formally: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once [both] corporeal and spiritual.”¹ Moreover:
Spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature . . . every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not “produced” by the parents . . . it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.²
Deep concepts, yes, but in his painting, Divine Generation, the French artist Louis Janmot expresses this in a way we can understand. We see the recently born child being embraced by its parents. But simultaneously, the child and its parents are being embraced by Christ, as angels kneel in reverence at the birth of this newborn eternal being “created immediately by God,” in the words of the Catechism. This is why abortion is such a grave sin — not beyond God’s mercy, but extraordinarily serious — because God is directly involved in the unborn child’s coming into being.
The Significance of the Sacraments
So what’s the point? The point is that we are not simply spirits who are expected (and equipped) to relate to God abstractly — by precept and principle alone.
This sounds strange, even heretical, to separated brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on sola scriptura, scripture alone. God’s written Word is vitally important, as St. Jerome said and the Catechism reminds us: “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (paragraph 133). But we weren’t created as incorporeal spirits. We were created as enfleshed souls, both spirit and matter.
How Do the Sacraments Address Enfleshed Souls?
Therefore, God comes to us not by precept alone, but in the sacraments. This is not surprising. If we love someone, we try to express our love in ways she or he will understand. We say, “I love you.” But we also do things that show we care. We don’t limit ourselves to one or the other. Neither does God.
The sacraments are God’s ongoing way of conveying grace, in love, to us. In the sacraments the invisible touches the visible. Each sacrament consists of matter and form. Think of “matter” as the visible, physical part of the sacrament (bread and wine, for example). Think of “form,” as the words spoken by the minister of the sacrament, asking the invisible Holy Spirit to make the sacrament effective; to make it become what truly it is, not just a sign but a means of grace.
In other words, the sacraments are:
Efficacious [i.e., effective; they actually do something] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.³
The Importance of Preaching
In “The Renewed Understand of the Liturgy of the Word” (Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century), Fr. Allan White explains that while preaching is not one of the seven sacraments, preaching Sacred Scripture is a vital part of sacramental life:
. . . the everyday words of the minister, the everyday experiences of the congregation are fashioned by the Holy Spirit, operating by his power in the midst of the community, into a real presence of Christ the Word. Through the operation of His Spirit God takes up temporal, everyday realities to be transformed into the means whereby his supernatural grace is channeled.
Thus, sacraments are not “priestcraft,” as I was once taught in a strongly anti-Catholic sect. Nor is the power of any sacrament affected by the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister of the sacrament, although God desires holy priests. The sacraments are effective because God’s power flows through them. The Maronite Rite of the Catholic Church shows this vividly, as the priest’s hands flutter over the bread and wine — like the Holy Spirit descending as a dove at Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:16) — to remind us that it is the Holy Spirit Who actually changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Nor are the sacraments magic: go to communion, get the wafer, and all is well. No. Re-read the the final sentence of the indented paragraph, above: the sacraments “bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” The interior disposition — the heart attitude and intentions of the Catholic Christian — are vitally important. The sacraments are not get-out-of-jail-free cards, that permit one to live like hell, yet go straight to heaven.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
By addressing common misconceptions of sacramentality, however, we’ve digressed from the amazing grace offered to us through the sacraments; from their immense spiritual beauty!
Through the sacraments, God meets us where we are, as what we are. We are enfleshed souls, matter and spirit, on our individual life journeys. He is not indifferent to the needs of our bodies, any more than our souls. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) — eternally, yes, but temporally as well. “For the work of Your hands, I shout for joy” (Psalm 92:5).
Yet Christ also says, “Come . . . learn from me and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). We are flesh and spirit and God provides for both.
Thanks be to God for His almost inconceivable love in Christ, coming to us in both Word and Sacrament. That is Christianity Richly!
¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 362. Click the link to paragraph 362, by all means, but read on through paragraph 368 for a concise definition of what we truly are as women and men.
² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 365–366.
³ Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1131.
For Catholic friends who fear I’ve only scratched the surface of sacramentality, you’re right. A helpful discussion is here and the entire section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the sacraments begins here.
For sisters and brothers in Christ who find too few citations of scripture in this post, I encourage you to read this and this. You will find many more references to scripture, in the context of Christian reflection on the sacraments for millennia. For you — and also with you, I hope — I pray Pope Francis’ prayer intentions for January 2016: “That by means of dialogue and fraternal charity, and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Christians may overcome divisions.”