Is it dangerous, as some claim, to believe that God would mediate his grace to us through his creation? Would God touch us through the hands of another person, or feed us his very presence in bread, or cleanse our souls through water? Will it lead to “magical thinking” or idolatry? Yes, it is dangerous.
There is a great mystery as to exactly how God makes himself present in sacred moments through sacred elements and places. And we aren’t really sure when he will do so, except that he promises he shows up in the water of baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. Yet it is that very mystery that stirs up the imagination toward Christ, that opens the soul to grace, that inspires humble reverence. The power of the sacraments and the sacramental world is the power to heal and save us.
Is it dangerous? Yes! The Lord told Moses to craft a bronze serpent, as the way in which God would heal the people. And what did they do within a few generations? They worshipped the bronze serpent as if it were the god. And we can still do so today. That power can be seen in the means rather than in the God who uses means. Yet it was still God who commanded them to look to that serpent, despite his knowledge that some would later turn that very serpent into an idol.
So because of the abuses of the means of grace, some assume that God uses no physical means to manifest himself to us. Yet in the radical excision of the sacred and physical elements of Christian worship and life, we encounter the gnostic denial of our own humanity. After all, we ourselves are physical and we are made in God’s image.
We run the risk of a faith devoid of the very means God has given for our healing and salvation. After all it was Jesus who held up bread and wine and said, “This is my body..this is the blood of my new covenant.” Paul wrote that baptism is the means whereby God cleanses us. Paul even allowed people to pass out pieces of cloth that he had prayed over for healing! Apparently the danger that we might misuse the means of grace is outweighed by our need to be touched by God. As physical beings, we need God to manifest himself to us physically as well as spiritually.
Sacramental theology and experience has surely been used by God in my life. Non-sacramental theology was difficult – I needed more. I doubted his presence, I doubted my ability to hang on to him. For me, I was made whole again through receiving the bread and wine as his tangible presence, not sure exactly how, but trusting him to do what he promised; watching my sons being baptized, trusting that God was thereby grafting them into his Church; kneeling while a bishop laid hands on my bald forehead, trusting that God was giving me the grace needed to be made a priest in his Church; realizing that sex is not just a permitted activity, but as a sacred seal of the marriage vows; becoming able to enjoy a beer as a token of the joy of God’s creation; knowing that God loves me: heart, body, mind, and soul. Seeing him through creation, through sensation, emotion, and in everyday life has opened my eyes more and more.
God loves you and he loves me, and he is loving us through every means available, including through places, times, people, and elements. Believe this because this is what the Gospel is about. The Incarnation was God becoming a physical man. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was God physically dying and rising again. It is powerful – and dangerous – to believe that God is touching us though the elements of creation. But it is a terrible thing to strip all that away and be left with no sure signs of God’s presence and grace. Taste and see that the Lord is good, dangerously good.
Updated and reposted from 2013. Photo “Moses and the Serpent” by Aaron Goodwin via Flickr