Sacraments: Introduction, Part 1

Evangelicals, like all orthodox Christians, vigorously affirm the doctrine of the Incarnation—the faith of all Christians that God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became man. Evangelicals, like Catholics, believe this doctrine with every fiber of their being. But there’s more to it than this. In Evangelical culture, “incarnation” tends to get prefaced with the singular word “the”—as in “The Incarnation.” It’s primarily seen as a single (albeit glorious) historical event, and its application to everyday Evangelical life usually has the character of a doctrine that is firmly believed. Catholics, while affirming the uniqueness of the Incarnation in the person of Jesus, also see Incarnation as an eternal reality to be lived and breathed by the followers of Jesus. They believe that God, in becoming human, was not simply performing an isolated miracle; he was establishing an eternal principle. In the Incarnation, Catholics believe, God was committing himself to continually revealing his power and grace in and through human things. And the unfamiliar ways that Catholics express this belief tend to make Evangelicals very nervous.

This nervousness only gets compounded when popular Evangelicalism meets popular Catholicism. For the emphasis on seeing the Incarnation as a single event two thousand years ago on the other side of the earth often makes Evangelicals to view it as an episode that ended with the Ascension of Christ into Heaven. Many Evangelicals speak as though the grace of God now reaches us only in “spiritual” (read: “disembodied”) ways. Enfleshing that grace in people today is too much, too close.

This pattern of “that was then, this is now” can often be observed when Evangelicalism and Catholic faith meet. For example, it’s not hard for Evangelicals to grant that God could unite himself with matter in the physical body of Jesus Christ, but the notion that he continues to do so through the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is rejected as unbiblical and even magical or idolatrous—despite the fact that Jesus declared “This is my body, this is my blood” as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul all record. Evangelicals find private confession of sins to God acceptable and even approve (generally) of accountability and discipleship. But the idea that a flesh-and-blood human being could have authority and power from Jesus to forgive sins in his name is typically declared unbiblical—even though Jesus conferred exactly this power on the apostles with the words, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). Similarly, Evangelicals delight in the biblical picture of Jesus healing at the pool of Siloam by means of water (cf. John 9), but fret at the Catholic idea of holy water or blessed salts, since these seem somehow magical or fleshly. So do various other Catholic physical acts such as lighting candles to pray, or the gestures and prayers of the liturgy, which can strike some Evangelicals as mere rote.

Because Evangelicalism tends to see the Incarnation solely as an isolated historic event, not as the establishment of an eternal principle, the Evangelical tends to reply to the Catholic’s confidence that God will use matter and people to communicate his grace by saying “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The assumption is that spirit is spirit and matter is matter and never the twain shall meet (after the Ascension).

But for Catholics, the fact remains that when the Word became flesh, he established the sacraments so that we might continue to know him present among us on earth, even as he is in heaven.

Of course, we Catholics can also have mistaken ideas about the sacraments too. One of the more common ones, especially popular among woolly-minded folk infected with the so-called ‘spirit of Vatican II’ is the notion that since God joined himself with creation in Jesus “everything is a sacrament”. The reply to this misconception is that, while creation is sacramental and shows forth the glory of God, it does not follow that my grilled-cheese sandwich is indistinguishable from the Eucharist. That’s because, just as there are many different modes of God’s union with creation, so there are many different degrees of sacramentality. God is present everywhere, yes. But he is not present in creation as he is in human beings, not present in all human beings as he is, for instance, in the saints or in “the least of these”, not present in saints as he is in the God-Man Christ Jesus—and not present in any created thing as he is in the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist.

In addition to this misunderstanding there is an equal and opposite one, which we shall consider next week.


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