God became man (Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior). The incarnation was the event in salvation history that raised matter to heights never before unknown. All created matter was âgoodâ from the start (Gn 1,25), but was âglorifiedâ by the incarnation.
Ritual and âphysicalityâ were not abolished by the coming of Christ. Quite the contrary: it is the Incarnation that has fully established sacramentalism as a principle in the Christian religion. The latter can be defined as the belief that matter can transmit grace.
It really is that simple, basically, or in essence. God uses matter both to help us live a better life (sanctification) and to ultimately save us (regeneration and justification), beginning with the baptism itself.
Christ’s atonement or redemption (his death on the cross for us) was not purely “spiritual.” It was as physical (“sacramental”, if you will) as it could be, as well as spiritual. Protestants often piously refer to the âBlood of Jesusâ and rightly (see Rev 5: 9; Eph 1: 7; Col 1:14; Heb 9:12; 1 Pet 1: 2; 1 Jn 1: 7; etc..). It is an explicitly sacramental thought.
It was the very suffering of Jesus in the flesh, and the voluntary shedding of his own blood, that was the crucial and essential aspect of his work as our Redeemer and Savior. It cannot be avoided: âhe was bruised for our iniquitiesâ (Is 53: 5).
It is therefore curious that many Protestants seem to possess a pronounced hostility to the sacramental belief of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, since it flows so directly from the incarnation and the crucifixion itself.
It reminds me of an analogy with Jewish and Muslim contempt for the incarnation as an unthinkable (impossible?) Task for God to undertake. They view the Incarnation in the same way that the majority of Protestants view the Eucharist.
For them, God did not want, could not or should not become a man (such a thought is blasphemous, unthinkable!). For many (not all) Protestants, God did not want or could not or should not become substantially, physically, sacramentally present in the outward forms of bread and wine.
The dynamic or underlying premise is the same. If Christ could become a man, he might certainly want to be really and truly present in what was once (and still resembles) bread and wine when consecrated.
The New Testament is filled with embodied and sacramental indications: examples of matter conveying grace. The Church is the “Body” of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Eph 1: 22-23; 5:30), and marriage (including its physical aspects) is described as a direct parallel to Christ and to God. ‘Church (Eph 5: 22-33; especially 29-32).
Jesus even seems to literally assimilate in some sense to the Church, saying that he was âpersecutedâ by Paul after the resurrection (Acts 9: 5).
Not only that; in the teaching of Saint Paul, we can find a repeated theme of identification very graphic and literally with Christ and his sufferings (see: 2 Cor 4:10; Phil 2, 17; 3, 10; 2 Tim 4, 6 ; and above all, Col 1:24).
Matter conveys grace throughout Scripture: baptism confers regeneration (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet 3:21; cf. Mk 16:16; Rom 6: 3-4; 1 Cor 6: 11; Titus 3: 5). Paul’s “handkerchiefs” healed the sick (Acts 19:12), as did Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15), and of course, Jesus’ garment (Mt 9,20-22) and saliva. mixed with dirt (Jn 9: 5 et seq .; Mk 8, 22-25), as well as the water from the pool of Siloam (Jn 9, 7).
The anointing of oil for healing is encouraged (Ja 5:14). We also observe in the scriptures the laying on of hands for the purpose of ordination and commissioning (Acts 6: 6; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1: 6) to facilitate the initial outpouring of the Saint. -Spirit (Acts 8: 17-19; 13: 3; 19: 6), and for healing (Mk 6: 5; Lu 13:13; Acts 9: 17-18).
Even under the old covenant, a dead person was resurrected simply by coming into contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:21): which is also one of the direct evidence of the Catholic practice of the veneration of relics ( itself an extension of the sacramental principle).
Sacramentalism is a âproductâ of the Incarnation, as is the Church too. But we must also understand that the sacraments are not “magic charms”. The Church also teaches that one must have the correct âinterior dispositionâ when receiving them. Bro. John A. Hardon, SJ: The Great Catechist, wrote in an entry on âThe Sacramental Arrangementsâ:
Condition of soul required for the valid and / or fruitful reception of the sacraments. . . . With the addressee who has the use of reason, it is simply demanded that no obstacle be placed in the way. Such obstacles are a lack of faith or sanctifying grace or righteous intention.
(Modern Catholic Dictionary, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, 1980, 477)
Likewise, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in his section on ex opere operato (# 1128), note: âNevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.
The sacrament of the Eucharist, for example, will have no positive effect or grace if it is received by a person in a state of mortal sin (see 1 Cor 11: 27-30; CCC # 1415), and priestly absolution is null and void without the necessary condition of true repentance.
This is all the more true of sacramentals (things like holy water, scapulars, blessings, the miraculous medal, genuflection, etc.), which depend entirely on the inner state of the one who uses them or receives them. Intention, sincerity, motivation, piety and the like are all of supreme importance in Catholic life.
The scapular will not âworkâ for a person who neglects the pursuit of righteousness and obedience and views it as a âmagical charmâ (which is occult superstition) rather than a Catholic sacramental. A piece of cloth cannot nullify the normal duties of Catholic life.
God is not some sort of heavenly “vending machine” either. He wants our hearts; he wants we: no meaningless exterior obedience without the appropriate interior motivation, in love and by grace. The sacraments help us, but we must also do our part.