Sacraments: Where Heaven and Earth Meet in the Body

By: Christopher West

heaven and earth

A recent story from Catholic News Service reported that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had issued a statement saying that baptisms performed “in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” were invalid.   This should come as no surprise to anyone with just a little knowledge of what sacraments are and how grace is communicated through them.  Harken back to your childhood religion classes and you may remember being taught that a sacrament is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace” (Baltimore Catechism, n. 304).   For most people, however, this text-book definition fails to capture just how wonderful and profound the sacraments really are.   Through these “visible signs instituted by Christ” we actually encounter the eternal God in the temporal world and ­become sharers in his divine life!

Sacraments: Our Bridge to God

There is an infinite abyss that separates Creator and creature.   The wonder of the sacraments is that they bridge this infinite gap.   Sacraments are where heaven and earth “kiss,” where God and man become one in the flesh.   God is invisi ­ble.   Sacraments allow us to see him through the veil of visible signs.   God is intangible.   Sacraments allow us to touch him.   God is incommunicable.   Sacraments are our communion with him. ­  This communion of God and man that the sacraments bring about has become a living reality in the person of Jesus Christ.   Thus, the sacramental life of the Church flows directly from the dynamism of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Word made flesh.   In Christ, God has forever wed himself to our flesh and impregnated the material world with his saving power.   Indeed, as Tertullian, an early Christian writer declared: “the flesh has become the hinge of salva ­tion.”

In contrast to authentic sacramental spirituality, there is a widespread but gravely mistaken (indeed, heretical) notion of spirituality that tends to devalue the body, view it with suspicion, or at times even treat it with contempt.   Catholicism, far from devaluing the body, is a deeply sensual religion.   That’s to say, it’s in and through the body (and it’s senses, hence ‘sensually’) that we encounter the divine.   God doesn’t communicate himself to us with some sort of “spiritual zapping,” but he meets us where we are as earthly, bodily creatures.  Sacraments are efficacious signs.   This means they truly communicate the divine gift they symbolize.   However, in order to communicate the divine gift, they must properly symbolize it — both in “form” and in “matter.”   The form refers to the words spoken and the matter refers to the physical reality of the sacrament.   Change either one, and you no longer have a valid sacrament.

The Form of the Matter

The matter of the sacrament of Baptism is the water and the person being baptized.   You can’t baptize an iguana or a squirrel.   The recipient has to be a human person.   And you can’t baptize a person with mud.   It has to be water.   Why?   Because the spiritual cleansing of Baptism will only occur if the physical sign is one of cleansing.   The physical reality communicates the spiritual reality in as much as it symbolizes the spiritual reality.   Mud is a symbol of making dirty, not of cleansing.   Baptizing someone with mud, then, would be a kind of “anti-baptism.”  The form of a sacrament (the words spoken) is just as important.   Baptism communicates the life of the Trinity in as much as each Person of the Trinity is invoked in his proper identity and eternal relationship to the other Persons — as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   Speaking of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier touches upon various roles of the Trinity, but not the eternal identity and relationship of the Persons within the Trinity.

The spoken word has a purpose and a power that must be respected in any situation, but especially in the sacraments.   For the words spoken in a sacrament — so long as they are the proper words — convey a divine power.   Change the words, and that divine power is no longer communicated.  It seems that some want to avoid the proper baptismal formula because of a reluctance (or even a steadfast opposition) to calling God “Father.”   We’ll address this reluctance in a future article and explore some of the reasons that Christ revealed God as his Father.

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