The modern world doesn’t quite know what to make of sacraments. On one hand, we take them seriously. Even the media take them seriously. They report, with a long face that betokens “news,” the latest nuances in church teaching, especially with regard to Matrimony and Holy Communion. They not only parse out papal documents but also papal airplane interviews, headlining “what could be” the ground-breaking implications of something the Pope said while fielding in-flight questions from the press. They follow up by interviewing theologians, prominent Jesuits, parishioners from New Jersey, politicos, talk show hosts, avant-garde clergy and anyone who fancies himself a prophet. For a 2000-year-old Church, possible “game changers” – momentous historical landmarks unfolding before our very eyes – are hot news. Apocalypse junkies seek the thrill of being among the first to call it. There’s nothing like a big moment to take our minds off of our real problems. “Could this be the big moment the world’s been waiting for since Jesus?” A similar sensation happens when an archeologist discovers a potsherd with an inscription suggesting that Jesus was married, had siblings or dated Mary Magdalene. Press accounts are bolstered not only by the testimony of Catholic scholars, but of Roman Catholic scholars. The adjective “Roman” adds majesty to one’s claim, as would a TV interview in front of the fountain in St. Peter’s Square. Personally, I don’t consider myself a Roman Catholic because I’ve only been to Rome twice. I can scarcely speak a lick of Italian. I find Verdi difficult to digest. And I have no plans to buy a Fiat. Being just a plain ol’ Catholic is good enough for me. That said, I believe that the Pope is St. Peter’s successor and that the gates of hell will not prevail against him. On my two visits to Rome, I found the town a bit heavy on the aesthetics, though beneath all that florid beauty rests the relics of martyrs. That’s impressive. Otherwise, I don’t have a Roman bone in my body.
On the other hand, modern man doesn’t take sacraments seriously, which is why he’s hoping that Jesus went with Mary Magdalene. Hence another reason for the fascination with churchy “game changers.” The modern world is seriously looking for reasons to take sacraments lightly. If proven right, on whatever point that itches, oh so many things could be vindicated. “God agrees with me after all!” We like easy access, especially when it comes to Jesus, just in case He really is the Son of God. Otherwise, we prefer to spend our time preparing for soccer tournaments, SATs and GMATs, college degrees, parties, trips, online shopping, online anything, vacations and careers, escapades and personal development – anything that helps us to forget the Four Last Things. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against diversions and personal growth. I occasionally indulge in these things myself. But there is the danger of falling into negligence. That is to say, we can preoccupy ourselves with these matters a too much. It’s called sloth. “Receive willingly and carry out effectively your loving father’s advice, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience” (Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue). If we like playing Pascal’s Wager, the sacraments will unwittingly devolve into superstitions. “God is love” doesn’t amount to “God is easy.” God is clearly not easy because life is difficult. There’s no use in swinging by the church to get spiritual favors from the priest just in case Jesus is real or just to please grandma’.
“Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees)
Of course, this is a load of nonsense. I’d rather take my money to Vegas. I see no affinity between Pascal’s (stupid) Wager and Christ’s Wager: "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41). Hmmm…. There is only one way to befriend God, just as there is only one way to befriend people: in good faith. Faith holds out the possibility of love. Wagers do not. Neither friendship nor marriage can be pursued on the basis of a wager. This is not only true with God, but also with the things that God gives us in order to transform faith into love: the sacraments.
St. Augustine gave us the classical definition of sacraments: “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification.” They are visible signs that give invisible grace. They are natural actions that have supernatural effects. The outward sign is the easy part because it’s visible and natural. People love outward signs, whether they’re religious or not. As for the priest, it doesn’t take a genius to perform religious rites. Given the clergy’s track record, it’s a good thing. Nonetheless, if the priest performs the outward sign you get the invisible Gift. The Church uses a fancy Latin term to explain this: “ex opere operato.” It’s means “from the work of the worker.” In other words, God gives the grace of the sacrament just by the very fact that the priest uses the correct form (i.e. he says the corrects words, which any third-grader can do) and matter (i.e. he uses the right stuff – like water, bread and wine, oil, etc – which any third grader can do). Ritual is not rocket science.
I did an “ex opere operato” baptism once. It was for my nephew. Little Jack, who was but a few days old, issued blood-curdling screams with a bright red face and protruding tongue during the entire baptism. I raced through the whole ritual in less than ten minutes, and there was nothing elegant about it. Come to find out, the baptismal gown that he was wearing, which has been in the family for generations, had been to the cleaners and the tag was still stapled inside the collar, stapling the sharp ends against his neck the entire time. “Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3)? When the gown came off, he was fine. He’s been fine ever since, and he’ll be confirmed January.
The hard part is the “invisible” part. It’s called grace. Grace is the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. I call it “the hard part” because hardly anything the Holy Spirit does is obvious, let alone on our own terms. We humans are constantly seeking signs, visible proofs or clear evidence. The only obvious part of grace is the suffering, doubt, charity and occasional peace that we feel. Grace purifies us, and purification is painful. It shatters our illusions. It requires patience. It puts us in touch with our emptiness and sinfulness, so we can encounter the Christ who makes us anew. When we encounter Christ, we can neither run nor hide. Nonetheless, some pious souls are constantly looking for miracles, apparitions and Blue Angel flyovers. Others are constantly seeking to hide behind excuses, which are nothing more than illusions. "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:4). This is not one of Jesus’ more endearing sayings. But it’s true. I am not saying that God doesn’t still perform miracles and that Mary doesn’t occasionally make an appearance. But for most of us, most of the time, we’re left in suspense, wondering “what next” or “what to do now.” "Again, it will be like a man going on a journey….” (Matthew 25:14). We must be content with touching base with God in the sacraments, that is, in the shades and shadows of an active and persevering faith.
“Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian's life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1210). The Sacraments do indeed cover all the bases. We sin. There’s the Sacrament Penance. We need spiritual food for life’s journey. There is Holy Communion. We have a mission in a perilous world. There is Confirmation. We marry. There is the Sacrament of Matrimony. We have kids. We baptize them, i.e. start again. We need real-deal religion. The Church gives us priests through Holy Orders. We get seriously ill and face death. We have the Sacrament of Anointing and the Last Rites.
Faith is the hardest part of our spiritual journey. The sacraments leave us “in faith” and they strengthen our faith. But faith is difficult. The modern world speaks rather blithely about “faith” because most people who use the word have no idea what it really is or what it’s really like to experience it. To be sure, faith is anything but sentimental. Sentimentality is about believing through feeling. Faith is about believing in what we cannot feel or see. Why? Because faith is a “blind” virtue. It doesn’t see or feel much, except through it’s own hidden eye which we might call “perception.” It’s a perception deeper than sentiment. It’s like a “Holy of Holies,” an inner sanctuary that nothing can violate, except a choice for mortal sin. Moreover, faith is a divine gift. It believes God’s testimony because God is credible. Hence, we need a Church – an infallible one at that, at least in matters of faith. Without an infallible Church, reliable faith is not possible. It would be a crapshoot. The Bible itself testifies to its own need for something beyond itself: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation….” (2 Peter 1:20). The Catechism puts it this way: “By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, ‘the obedience of faith’” (CCC 143).
The Catechism goes on: “To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to ‘hear or listen to’) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment” (CCC 144). The elf that wrote “The Letter to the Hebrews” put it this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). If we want sacraments to have an effect in our lives, now and in eternity, we should approach them with this outlook.