Encounters With Grace
Sacraments, Part 2
BY Mark Shea
July 12-25, 2009 Issue | Posted 7/2/09 at 1:25 PM
Previously, 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 flesh.
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
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