The Catholic life is a sacramental life. The means, at its core, that Catholicism teaches that God’s graces and goodness are mediated out through the sacraments, through humans. Through the Eucharist, chief amongst the sacraments, we receive the very body and blood of our Lord. Through matrimony, confession, the anointing of the sick, baptism, confirmation, and through office of the priesthood God gives us his grace in various degrees.
Meditating on the sacraments, however, is a bit of a daunting exercise for the average evangelical. I admit, when I first started reading about the Catholic Church I wouldn’t have had the foggiest notion of what a sacrament was. God gave me grace, when He wanted to, because I prayed for it. Or because He thought I needed some. Or, because.
Once I understood what the Catholic Church meant about sacraments and the grace of God it only served, at first, to get my back up and my spine all out of joint.
You mean, I have to receive God’s grace mediated out through man?
Surely that goes against every fiber of my Evangelical Protestant being. There’s only one mediator between man and God and that’s Jesus, right?
Well, yes. And, no.
What I’ve learned about what the Catholic Church teaches on the sacraments, and the grace of God, is that it actually makes sense. It doesn’t contradict Paul’s teaching in his letter to Timothy. And, even more compelling, is that it’s how God has always worked.
How God Works
God has always worked through man. It’s His modus operandi and it’s clear from even a cursory reading or understanding of the Christian story, as spelled out through the Old and New Testaments. From Moses to David. From John the Baptist to the apostles to the divinely-inspired authors of the New Testament. To the bishops of early Church councils, who recognized the divinely-inspired parts of the New Testament and defined our sacred theology.
To the priesthood, the modern day bishops, and the Pope.
God has chosen His main means of dispensing grace—and calling His people back to Him—to be to work through people. Ordinary, disappointing, sinful people. Look at David. Look at the apostles—Peter denied Christ!
Is God bound by the sacraments? Certainly not. God created them for us. But the Catholic Church teaches that these are the normal means in which God gives us grace—the mysterious and beautiful system that Jesus left for us, His Church.
God uses people.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise, not at all, that God established a sacramental system of faith life that works through people.
Was there an alternative? Certainly!
God could’ve revealed everything we needed to know through a system of divine revelation. He didn’t need to use people, but He did. God could’ve given us everything we needed to know about Him and our eternal purpose when we were born, by imparting that knowledge automatically and letting us decide at that very instant, but He didn’t. God chose to use people.
For 1,500 years this is what Christians believed. In fact, believing that God used people to dispense His graces was, in a way, one of the chief catalysts for the Reformation itself. In parts of Europe, wealthy aristocrats hired personal family priests to say Masses on their behalfs, often in private chapels—to dispense grace like an ATM. The early reformers rightly protested against such detestable behaviour but just because some bad apples used the sacred system poorly doesn’t mean it was poorly built from the beginning.
God has always worked through humankind, which is why the sacramental life makes sense to me.
Confession: A Case Study
The Sacrament of Confession is a prime example.
As a young evangelical reading my Bible I couldn’t figure out, for the very life of me, why we didn’t practice confession. It was right there, starkly, in the New Testament. We were called to confess our sins to one another but nobody I knew was doing it. Except the Catholic Church—and back then I thought the Catholic Church was the devil.
But the Catholic Church got it right!
The Sacrament of Confession is the ultimate grace that God gave us. See, as a Protestant I sin all the time and the best I can do is pray for forgiveness. Pray to God who, in spite of all the faith I have that He’s listening, doesn’t necessarily, and normally, answer back. As a Protestant I am left to assume I’ve been given the grace of forgiveness. I can assume that, and billions do, and many folks who are particuarly blessed might even feel like they’ve been forgiven but many more, the majority, don’t. Most, in my experience, feel nothing. Other than the intellectual knowledge of knowing, academically, that they’ve been forgiven.
On the contrary, what a grace the Church has been given in the Sacrament of Confession. Taking its theology straight from the pages of the New Testament and in a continuous line of belief and practice right from the apostles, through the Church Fathers, up until today Catholics believe you can confess your sins to a priest, and be forgiven.
God using man? What precedent is there for that?
The priest, empowered by Jesus’s words to “bind and loose” and the command of the apostles to confess our sins to each other, have the God-given ability to proclaim my sins are forgiven. Make no mistake, the priest has no magical powers to forgive sins but, rather, God has given us a system which means His forgiveness and, ultimately, His graces, can be dispensed through that priest. The priest, standing on the foundation of the New Testament and the very words of Jesus, can safely say that He, God, forgives our sins.
How much more powerful to hear, “You’re forgiven,” from a human being, standing in for Jesus, than to merely imagine these words in my head, or try to muster up the emotion to feel them in my heart. I need no mustering here: the tears flow freely when those words are truly spoken out loud by a fellow traveller like me.
Like Pope Francis said this morning on Twitter,
The Sacraments are the manifestation of the Father’s tenderness and love towards each of us.
It couldn’t be more true.
The Messy, Sacramental Life
But it sure makes for a mess.
The Sacramental Life is messy because human beings are messy. The apostles themselves were a mess. So was Moses, Jonah, Noah, and I’ve already mentioned David. But this is the system which, to me, God has clearly chosen. At least, the apostles thought so and so did the Church Fathers and Christians like you and me right down through the ages.
But it’s still a messy system. It makes me vulnerable to the people in my community and, despite the name of this blog, I don’t like a lot of people, all the time. I’m grumpy, too, and sometimes I want my graces and my faith life to be my own and only my own. It takes a certain degree of humility—and, ah, there’s the rub!—to accept a sacramental faith, a faith dependent on other people. Especially in this post-post-modern world of me. It’s so counter-cultural.
The Sacramental Life is, ultimately, another beautifully compelling aspect of the Catholic Church, in my opinion. It not only, to me, makes sense with what we know about God and His character but it makes sense with what we know about humans and ourselves. It makes sense with what I know about me. Because I don’t feel forgiven. I don’t feel grace-filled. I don’t feel, sometimes, like God is even there. The great, incredible, and ultimate grace that God’s given us in the sacraments is that He is present, in the most tangible way possible, to say, like Moses heard from the voice of God in the burning bush, “I AM.”