Sacraments: Where Heaven and Earth Meet In the Body
by Christopher West
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, no.
304). For most people, however, this textbook 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.
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 invisible. 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 salvation."
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 (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
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
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
column and explore some of the reasons that Christ revealed God
as his Father.
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