Monday, July 15, 2019

How the Seven Sacraments “Christianize” Us

Rogier van der Weyden's Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (c. 1450)
In this month of July, dedicated to the mystery of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, I wish to reflect on sacramental realism. For indeed the sacraments are as real, as tangible, as powerful, as cleansing, as the very lifeblood of the Savior pouring forth from His body, nailed to the Cross and opened with a lance.

For Aquinas the most basic function of the sacraments is to place man in vital contact with the crucified and risen Lord [1]; they are, in the words of Romanus Cessario, “graced instruments for restoring the image of God” [2] through assimilation to God’s Son, who is the Father’s perfect image and man’s formative exemplar. By virtue of the God-man’s sacrifice, each sacrament has power to originate, deepen, or repair a direct relationship between man and God, a communion of like-minded friends having a shared beatitude for its goal.

Each sacrament configures one to Christ in a specific way, according to a certain grace in the soul of Christ, connected with His deeds and sufferings on earth. This reference to the past may be seen in the sacraments as follows:
  • The Eucharist brings us into contact with Christ in the state of bloody immolation, though the mode is unbloody. [3]
  • Baptism unites us with Christ dying and rising.
  • Confirmation unites us with Christ as descended upon by the Holy Spirit.
  • Holy Orders fuses the candidate with Christ offering sacrifice.
  • Matrimony conjoins spouses to Christ in the act of uniting to himself mankind and the Church.
  • When the sick are anointed, it is Christ strengthening those who are struggling, he is the angel who visits them in their Gethsemane.
  • The penitent sinner is made one with Christ efficaciously making satisfaction for us — the sinner is nailed to an invisible Cross where the Savior meets him, and breathes out peace upon him. [4]
In every case, it is Christ Himself, in His sacred humanity, in His eternal divinity, who acts directly upon the recipient; it is He who bestows the healing and elevating effects of grace through the sacramental signs administered by others. “The man who baptizes provides only exterior ministry,” writes Thomas, “but it is Christ who baptizes interiorly, who is able to use all men for whatever He wills” (ST III, q. 67, a. 5, ad 1). In another text the point is made quite forcefully:
It is evident that Christ Himself accomplishes all the Church’s sacraments: He it is who baptizes; He it is who forgives sins; He is the true priest, who offered Himself on the altar of the Cross, and by whose power His own Body is consecrated daily on the altar. And yet, because he was not to remain bodily present to all the faithful, He chose ministers, that through them He might give that same Body to the faithful. (SCG IV, ch. 76)
Thus, in and through the seven sacraments, Christians re-live mystically the life Christ lived when He dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and the risen life He is now living forever: we enter into His earthly ministry, His passion and death, His resurrection and ascension.

The sacraments derive their efficacy from the Word-made-flesh; each has its power and operation immediately from Jesus Christ, whose glorified humanity is the inseparable instrument, the predestined channel, through which the divine Word pours out grace into souls. When a human being, properly disposed, receives one of the seven sacraments, he is at that moment in mystical contact with the Person of the Savior, who pours out as much grace as the soul is ready to receive.

This mystical contact attains an incomparable fullness and immediacy in the Eucharist, which both symbolizes and accomplishes the intimate communion of the Savior with the members of his body. Here the sacramental encounter is no mere contact, but the context for an unreserved, mutual gift of self that can attain a unity and fecundity only distantly hinted at in human marriage.

Thomas’s uncompromising sacramental realism is in many ways astonishing. Without denying that they are social, symbolic celebrations for calling to mind important truths, Aquinas holds the sacraments to be, first and foremost, a real participation in Christ’s own actions, sufferings, and glory, for the sake of receiving into one’s being the effect of those actions, the fruit of those sufferings, the vision of that glory. As Gilles Emery phrases it: “They bear the historical event of the Passion of Jesus, whence they procure the fruit of grace in the present moment, while announcing the fulfillment whose seed they possess.” [5] For example, when asking whether a man is freed from all guilt through baptism, Aquinas responds:
Through baptism one is incorporated into Christ’s passion and death, according to Romans 6:8, “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live together with Christ.” From which it is clear that Christ’s passion is communicated to every baptized person as a remedy, as though he himself had suffered and had died. Now Christ’s passion . . . is sufficient satisfaction for all the sins of all men. And so the one who is baptized is freed from the debt of all the punishment due to him for sins, as though he himself had sufficiently satisfied for his own sins. (ST III, q. 69, a. 2, emphasis added)
In baptism the death and resurrection of Christ becomes ours; it becomes our paschal mystery, the origin of a new life with Him. The effect is the same as if we, become unblemished victims, had hung on the Cross; as if we had suffered and died, though guiltless of all crime; as if we had risen again, forever beyond the reach of death and decay.

So much is this the case, believes Thomas, that it even dissolves the obligation of rendering the marriage debt in a certain case:
Now he who goes over to the religious life dies only a spiritual death, not a bodily death; and so, if the marriage be consummated, the husband cannot go over to religious life without his wife’s consent (whereas he can do so prior to there being a carnal joining, when there is only a spiritual joining).  But the one who undergoes baptism is even corporeally buried with Christ in death; and therefore he is freed from paying the marriage debt even after the marriage has been consummated. (In IV Sent. d. 39, q. 1, a. 4, ad 2)
This “as if” is not the als ob of Kantian philosophy — we must behave as if there is a God; we must view nature as if there is teleology; we must approach the beautiful as if beauty is an objective trait.  It is the mystical “as if” that means: we have really done and suffered these things because we have been joined, even identified, with the One who really did and suffered them. Being true man, Christ could act and undergo as a creature acts and undergoes; being true God, he can, in the power of the Spirit, make his accomplishments ours.  The phrase “as if” merely preserves the reverent distance of participant to source.

This “incorporation,” begun at baptism, is perfected by a man’s being united in the power of the Spirit to the Body of Christ — engrafted into His Mystical Body by way of His glorified Body shared in the Eucharist — that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for Him. The Eucharist is “the consummation of spiritual life, and the end of all the sacraments” (ST III, q. 73, a. 3), containing substantially the common spiritual good of the whole Church. It is “the sacrament of Christ’s passion in so far as a man is perfected in union with the Christ-who-suffered” (ST III, q. 73, a. 3, ad 3). [6]

The sacraments in fact simply Christianize us. Contrary to the heresy of Karl Rahner, no soul is “naturally” or “anonymously” Christian, as if one could be a Christian and not even know it. We need to receive, in faith, the gift of Christ’s life, His grace, His charity. The sacraments find us more or less pagan, more or less self-centered, and they evangelize and convert us to be centered on Christ, to have our center in Him. This means that a sacramental life, so far as the recipient’s experience is concerned, will not consist of satisfying (one might say, flattering) encounters between a well-defined self or subject and a securely-apprehended object. [7] Rather, it will be a mirror, at times bright, at times blurry, in which I am able to glimpse the Face of the One who seeks me out in love, and the unfolding of my life in relation to Him, in union with Him. “Sacraments are proportionate to faith, through which the truth is seen in a mirror and in an enigma” (ST III, q. 80, a. 2, ad 2).

When we come before the Lord at the end of our lives, may He recognize in us the beauty of His own features.

Johannes Hopffe, Distribution of Divine Graces by Means of the Catholic Church and the Sacraments (before 1615)


[1] See Joseph J. Sikora, S.J., “Sacraments and Encounter,” in Theological Reflections of a Christian Philosopher (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), 213–33.

[2] From his essay “Aquinas on Christian Salvation,” in Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction, ed. T. Weinandy, D. Keating, and J. Yocum (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 129. See also the same author’s “The Sacramental Mediation of Divine Friendship and Communion,” Faith & Reason 27 (2002): 7–41.

[3] The Eucharist occupies so unique a place and enjoys such a primacy among the seven sacraments of the New Law that even the very term “sacrament” has to be regarded as analogous, with the Eucharist being the very locus of divinization and communion with the Savior, and the other sacraments streaming out from it and leading back to it.

[4] The phrases in quotation marks are taken from André-Charles Gigon, O.P., De Sacramentis in communi (Fribourg: Typographia Canisiana, 1945).

[5] Gilles Emery, O.P., “The Ecclesial Fruit of the Eucharist,” Nova et Vetera [English] 2 (2004): 43–60.

[6] For more on the Eucharist as containing Christus passus, see my article last week: “‘The Application of the Lord’s Passion to Us’: St Thomas on the Blessed Sacrament.”

[7] The experience, as such, may be empty and dry, or overfull and beyond words — like bodily intimacy, like evanescent recollection. But this is not the crux of the matter. The desire to equate faith or love with a subjective “experience” of God, and the consequent tendency to spurn a God who eludes experience, is one of the chief temptations a Christian has to overcome if he is to get beyond “self-cultivationism” into the maturity of spiritual marriage.

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