My friend Ludwig was troubled again. We had talked before about the Catholic understanding of grace, but he still found the notion of sacraments uncomfortable to his Evangelical bones. Ludwig said to me, “It seems to me that the Catholic image of grace is vaguely magical, as though grace is some sort of substance God “pours out” through baptismal water, Eucharist and the like. But I thought the biblical reality is that grace was God’s attitude of unmerited, forgiving favor toward us, not some magical something or other that must be bestowed like a charm or “good medicine.” Why does grace require matter to get the job done in the Catholic scheme of things?”
To answer this, we must first acknowledge something. Namely, Ludwig was partly right. Grace is unmerited favor and it does forgive sins. But it is (and does) more than that.
However, before we can say what that “more” is, we have to get something very clear. In discussing, not only grace, but any intangible thing from evolution to democracy to quantum physics, we are forced to use images in order to describe what we mean. Why? Because that (and no other way) is simply how language works when discussing what we cannot see or touch.
Why stress this? Because Ludwig has forgotten it. Note his words: he wants to know why the Church uses this “image” of grace as a “substance poured out” (like water into a bucket) when the “reality” is that it is unmerited favor. What has happened here? Ludwig has forgotten that “unmerited favor” is just as metaphorical as “substance” to describe grace. The only difference is that it is borrowed from our experience with human parents instead of from our experience with garden hoses. In contrast, the Church does not limit our understanding of grace to the single image of unmerited favor (valuable as it is). Rather, She uses other images as well–and all of them rooted in Scripture too. Thus, there is no question of saying that Catholic theology uses images to describe grace but the Bible talks about the “reality.” Rather, both Bible and Church use images since there is no other way to talk about grace. And all of those images are images of the invisible reality.
But the question remains: Why sacraments? And why are they seen as something more than mere images? For Ludwig is quite right. The Church does see sacraments, not merely as images of grace (though they are that too), but as things which actually do something to you–real agents through which grace comes.
To understand this, we need to think of a kiss. A kiss is both physical and spiritual. Through a kiss we give, not merely an invisible reality, nor yet a merely physical gesture without spiritual content, but a sort of combination: an incarnation of love. A kiss is both physical and spiritual, like a human being.
Now sacraments are the kisses of God. Through them God not only symbolizes His love, He enacts it. Something happens to us through sacraments. Something is given. Something of the “stuff” of God is poured (“infused” to use theological technobabble) into the human soul like water into a bucket. Thus, when the Church speaks of grace infused, She speaks of God himself as if He were made of “stuff.” In particular, She is recalling us to the language of the Creeds, which describe God himself as a substance when they say that the Three Persons of the Trinity, while distinct, are “one in being.” They are made of the same substance, the same “God stuff” if you will.
To many, this seems crude. But then Jesus never shied from “crude” images (like comparing God to a mother hen) if they got His point across. And this is for a very good reason: Jesus Himself is a physical image–the Physical Image–of the ultimate spiritual reality (Hebrews 1:3). He is God in human flesh (John 1:1). And as God in human flesh he both symbolized God and carried to us His very Life–like a sacrament.
Which this leads us directly back to the Catholic image of grace as a “substance.” For according to Scripture, the new life of grace is nothing other than the new life of God himself coming to dwell in a human personality. Thus, when the Catholic tradition describes the bestowal of grace as an “infusion” it is being thoroughly biblical, for it is relying directly on what our Lord himself said when He described the new life as “living water” welling up in the soul of the one who believes in him (John 7:38). Elsewhere, he put the same idea a bit differently and promised, “Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him; we will come to him and make our dwelling place with him” (John 14:23). Or to use an even more shocking biblical image, grace is that “seed” which impregnates our souls with Christ as it impregnated the womb of Mary.
The idea, then, is that grace (that is, the very substance of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is something which really enters into our being and radically alters it, generating new life. This is in contrast to the idea held by some Christians that grace is merely a sort of legal fiction by which sinners (who remain objectively bad) are simply declared legally “not guilty” and “covered with Christ’s righteousness as snow covers a dunghill.” To be sure, we are pardoned by the sacrifice of Christ, but this is the beginning, not the end of the Christian life. The rest of the story, which all believers live every day, is the fact that God causes us to “grow in him” to be changed by an increasing “infusion” of his grace into more and more areas of our being. We don’t merely stop being sinners and have the heavenly account books zeroed out so we can squeak into heaven. We start being saints and go from grace to grace and glory to glory.
But why then, since this is all image and metaphor, do we need physical sacraments? What good is all this water and oil and laying on of hands and bread and wine and smells and bells if they are only pointing us to the purely spiritual reality? Why not cut to the chase and avoid all this clumsy paraphernalia?
In a word, says the Church, because we are not disembodied angelic spirits. As God reminds us every time we use the restroom or make love or eat a sandwich, we are a peculiar combination of dreams and bones, part angel and part alley cat. So if sanctity is to really permeate our total being (body, soul and spirit, as Paul points out in 1 Thessalonians 5:23) it must be addressed to our total being. As the child said to his mother, curling up to her side during the lightning storm, he couldn’t just pray to God in his spirit because “I needed someone with skin on.” So do we. Thus, the grace of God is given to our entire being, not just the spiritual part, in the sacraments which are both physical and spiritual “means of grace.” We experience, not just a legal “not guilty,” not merely a divine attitude of “unmerited favor,” but a physical touch and, through it, power from the grace of God so that we may be like the Man (not the disembodied Ghost) Christ Jesus and love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength: that is, with our total being. For Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the Original Sacrament. He came to give us “life abundantly.” And that life comes to us, not merely in spirit, but “in spirit and in truth” through his very physical flesh, which He gives for the life of the world. (John 6:51).
When viewed in this way, it become apparent that sacramentality is not a “magical” Catholic thing. Rather, it is a Christian thing since a) all Christians believe that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the earth through the veil of Christ’s very literal, very material, very human flesh (Hebrews 10:20) and b) all Christians believe that the body, (not just the spirit) belongs to the Lord and is holy to him (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Likewise, all Christians believe that the heaven and earth are full of God’s glory (and are intended to show forth that glory). Indeed, it becomes apparent that (when we aren’t talking about Catholic theology) even those Christians who find the idea of Catholic sacramentality magical see no difficulty at all with it in other areas. That is why a “Bible-believing Christian” feels no strangeness when he picks up a book (made of nothing more than paper, ink and glue as baptismal water is “only” water) and declares with perfect faith (as any Catholic would) that this mere creature is, in very truth, the Word of God that can bring us to salvation. The principle is exactly the same: God communicating his life through a physical book called the Bible and God communicating his life through the physical waters of baptism. The only difference is that in the former, his life is communicated verbally while in the latter it is communicated non-verbally. But both are sacramental for both draw their life from the spiritual Word made matter in Christ Jesus. That’s not magic. It’s just the way things have been ever since Bethlehem.