There Is Nothing Magic About Christianity

With the coming of Christ, we began to experience God’s healing touch, the medicine of divine mercy.

“The Healing of a Bleeding Woman,” Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter
“The Healing of a Bleeding Woman,” Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

“There is nothing magic about Christianity. There are no shortcuts. Everything passes through the humble and patient logic of the grain of wheat that broke open to give life, the logic of faith that moves mountains with the gentle power of God. For this reason God wishes to continue to renew humanity, history and the cosmos through this chain of transformations, of which the Eucharist is the sacrament.” —Pope Benedict XVI

There is a famous fresco painting found in the catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, dating from the early fourth century, of a woman reaching out to touch the outer garment worn by Jesus. Her right knee is bent, while her right arm is shown stretching forth to lay hold of his cloak.

It is an arresting image as it captures the exact moment when the miracle takes place, freeing her at last from the flow of blood that for 12 years had resisted every medical effort to rid her of it. So dramatic is the depiction that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its treatment of the sacraments, uses it to illustrate the Church’s teaching. The caption beneath the fresco says it all: “The sacraments of the Church now continue the works which Christ had performed during his earthly life.” 

This is so stunning a mystery of grace that if one were only to understand it fully, it would explain the entire sacramental economy over which the Church herself presides as Mother and Teacher (Mater et Magister). Everything that happens in the order of sacrament, in other words, is reducible to that single revelatory moment of encounter with Christ, with the power and the mercy he came into this world to dispense. And the privileged place where it all happens is the Church herself, the highest exercise of whose life and mission is to administer the sacraments. 

Every sacramental action, therefore, is nothing less than a replication of that same power which went miraculously forth from his body, his sacred humanity. And all of it pursuant to two things, two desired outcomes: the remission of sin and the renewal of life in Jesus Christ. We need to be set free from the wretchedness of sin, from every trace of wickedness deriving from our membership in a fallen race. And, once liberated from the shackles of sin, we long for that increase of life which comes from membership in his body, the Church, the very setting for the promised glory to come.  

Until Christ came to cancel our complicity, relieving us of our status under the Law as reprobates before the Lord, we remained Children of Darkness. We simply could not effect our own escape. Caught in the grip of what St. John Henry Newman called the aboriginal calamity, we simply could not break free. But with the coming of Christ, and his determination to draw us into the light, into the freedom of becoming Sons and Daughters of God, we began to experience God’s healing touch, the medicine of divine mercy, elevating us into a life of unending fellowship with the Father. 

But for this to happen, one must evince some willingness to receive. Sacraments are not magic. They are not arbitrary or unilateral interventions from above — we too have a part to play. One has got to be able, like the bleeding woman, to reach out and actually touch that outer garment worn by Christ. Contact must be made. It cannot be virtual. If there is to be Real Presence, if the Absolute Other is to come among us, breaking us out of what St. Gregory of Nyssa describes as “the prison of finitude, the closed confines of the ego” — indeed, breaking himself to become our bread — it can only happen in an extra-mental world, one where concrete engagement with the senses takes place. Through those very windows, as it were, of the five senses, the higher life enters in, inserting us into the realm of the spirit so that real unity and wholeness may begin.

Our entire sensory apparatus turns, accordingly, on the ability to taste, touch, see, smell and hear. This means, therefore, that there simply has got to be a body in space and time, with weight and extension — not some disincarnate mind prescinded from the flesh and blood and bone that form the composite unity of our being in the world. 

There can be no “circumvention of the image,” as the poet and critic Alan Tate once put it, “in some illusory pursuit of pure essence or spirit.” That way lies madness, the nightmarish alienation of minds and bodies, flesh and spirit. If there is to be meaning to being human, there must be material mediation, lest we fall into sheer angelism, which is the absurdity of living as though we were not embodied beings at all. Like the character of Ellen in the novel by Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome, described by her husband as “a little Holy Spirit hooked up to a lusty body.” Only the two never come together. Who remains positively “horrified” by the Eucharist because eating the Body of Christ can only be pagan and barbaric. “What” she demands to know, “does the Holy Spirit need a body for?” Surely, they should each go their separate way. 

Yes, but if each of us is a psycho-somatic unity, then the sundering of the two will leave us metaphysically bereft, untethered from the earth on which God himself has placed us. That same earth, we mustn’t forget, on which God placed himself in the event of his coming among us. Where else did he choose to spend his human life? How else does he reach us, or make his grace available to us, if not through the body he genuinely assumed at his conception in the womb of his mother? And as the Church Fathers have never tired of telling us, “What he did not assume, he did not redeem.” 

God may well have made the human race, his spoken Word the designated instrument for doing so; but when he decided to come among us, it was we — planet earth, the Chosen People of Israel, his very own Daughter Zion — that made him as well.

The bleeding woman certainly thought so. She would not have taken the trouble, nor borne the awful humiliation of exposing herself, had she not first heard about Jesus, knowing in her very bones that “if I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.” Thus threading her way through the crowd, she will thereupon be made well. “Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction” (Mark 5:2).