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Sacraments, Part 2
BY Mark Shea
we noted that the Incarnation is not simply an isolated anomaly, but the
establishment of an eternal principle: God reveals himself to us sacramentally,
first in the body of Jesus Christ and, till he comes again, through the
sacraments of holy Church that Christ established.
We looked at one basic
misunderstanding of this principle: the false notion (popular among “spirit of
Vatican II” types) that “everything is a sacrament.” We noted that, while
creation is sacramental and is created to show forth the glory and grace of
God, this is not to say that my peanut butter sandwich is the same thing as the
body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, fully and truly present in the
most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. As G.K. Chesterton observed, it is one
thing to say, “The spirit of Jehovah pervades the universe.” It is quite
another to say, “Jesus Christ just walked into the room.”
In the seven sacraments, we are
having an encounter with Jesus Christ walking into the room.
That said, there is also the
possibility of falling into the opposite error of supposing that sacraments are
primarily designed by God as reducing valves to keep as many of the riff-raff
as possible out of heaven. This notion, particularly popular among rigorists,
tends to hold that anybody who dies without recourse to sacramental baptism,
holy Eucharist or confession is, perforce, damned. This is not, however, what
the Church teaches, nor has it ever taught. That’s because the Church, from the
get-go, venerates a number of saints, such as the Good Thief and the Holy
Innocents, who died without benefit of the sacraments, yet who are most
certainly in heaven — a fact vouched for, in the case of the Good Thief, by the
very highest authority.
Of course, what the rigorist fears
(and it is an odd fear when you think about it) is that this means “Guaranteed
heaven for all, including Hitler!” But, of course, it means nothing of the
kind. All it means is what the Church tells us it means: “God has bound
salvation to the sacrament of baptism, but he himself is not bound by his
sacraments” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1257).
What lies behind the confusion of
rigorists is the notion that the purpose of the sacrament is to limit
grace and make sure that it doesn’t get spread around too liberally. In this
view, sacraments are the only places God’s
grace is available. So if you are unlucky enough to miss out on baptism due to
some accident such as where or when you were born, well then too bad for you.
That’s the only way the grace of God can reach you because God himself is bound
by the sacraments and can’t (or won’t) save you without them. Such an approach
turns the sacraments from being a richly and fully human encounter with the
life, grace and love of God into a game of “Simon says” in which God is not
burning with passion to save a doomed race from destruction at the cost of his
own Son’s blood, but is instead a mere bureaucrat with a sticklish demand that
we observe proper procedural channels and fill out the correct paperwork.
A much more Catholic view of the
sacraments is that sacraments are the sure way God has
ordained to encounter his grace (which is why we — not God — are
bound by them and why it is nonsense to suppose that we can cavalierly dismiss
them and still hope for heaven). But to say, “Sacraments are a sure means of
grace” is not to say, “God is helpless to give grace in any other way” —
particularly since we know from revelation itself that God has
given saving grace to people who did not have access to the sacraments.
The whole point of Christian
revelation is that the God who is love burns with zeal to save us, not with
zeal to see as many people as possible damned on a technicality. In his love,
he refuses to remain a mere disembodied abstraction. He insists on becoming
We see the same thing even in our
own life. A lover rejoices at the merest glance from the beloved, just as God
will take the tiniest opening to grace. But the lover, like God, wants more
than a relationship of mere glances. He demands union with the beloved. Love
seeks incarnation in kisses, not in warm thoughts from far away.
The sacraments are the kisses of
God. They take the saving power of God out of the realm of abstraction and make
it touchable. Understanding them better is to understand who God is and to love
him more deeply.
Therefore, over the next several
months, we will be taking an extended look at the sacraments, beginning with
baptism. Stay tuned!
Mark Shea is the content editor