I don’t visit the Catholic answers forums very often but over Thanksgiving week I happened there. A protestant fellow had started several threads. I along with others answered some of his questions. It got tiresome quickly, as most of his questions could have been satisfied with 20 minutes and a catechism.
One of his questions though was interesting to me because in his follow-ups it was evident that he didn’t get it. Several people explained, but he just didn’t get it. The question was a stereotypical objection to the Mass as a sacrifice “is Jesus sacrificed again in every Mass?”. The answer of course is that the sacrifice of the Mass is the one sacrifice of the cross made present again and offered to the Father for our benefit in the here and now. He didn’t get it ‘How does this square the book of Hebrews which said the sacrifice of Jesus is once for all?’
My answer “It is the same sacrifice.”
Him, (or maybe it was a her) eventually… “You mean it’s like we go back in time?”
Me “No it’s like ‘back in time’ comes to us.”
One of the other threads was on baptism. I won’t replay it but there was a similar struggle. It was in going over that thread that I realized the real problem was he believed in imputed righteousness and was trying to understand sacraments from that perspective. I don’t think this person was aware that they were holding to a paradigm which is foreign to Catholics. The problem was in thinking of the saving act as something ‘back then’ which saves us now but stays back then. A legal provision which is applied to us, but not active.
Imputed righteousness is a protestant doctrine which says that God imputes (nominally credits) the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Martin Luther famously compared it to a snow covered dunghill. It looks pure but isn’t really. This is tied to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, that is, the idea that Jesus died in our place.
Now there are some problems with substitutionary atonement as a strictly legal construct, such as the attitude that ‘Jesus suffered so I don’t haft to’ but that’s a different subject.
In the sacramental view, God became a man, became a material being. This made use of matter to unite God to man. Christ is our salvation. If we are in Christ Jesus we are saved. Not just in the future in Heaven but even now. It is by participating in Christ and being united to him and his saving act that we are saved. St. Paul tells us to “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14) is not merely metaphorical but a possible mystical reality.
In all of the sacraments we come into real contact with Jesus and his saving act, and become part of it. I think we Catholics (and others) who believe in sacraments need to communicate more clearly what happens in the sacraments, that they are a means of direct contact with the acts of Christ. When I became a Catholic the traditional formula (‘an outward sign instituted by Christ which gives grace’) was used to explain sacraments to me. It would have been better to say something like ‘a sacrament is a thing involving matter, which God has given us, in which we spiritually but in a real way come into direct contact with Christ and his saving act, and are incorporated into it’. In other words through the sacraments we become part of Christ and part of his saving acts and they are present to us and in us here and now and for real.
We have a God who shares our sufferings and we who are in him share in his suffering. Our sufferings are his, and his ours. There are several statements in the New Testament which take on a deeper more clear (more literal) meaning when viewed from the vantage point of the sacramental experience.
The sufferings of Christ abound in us 2Cor 1:5
I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh, Col 1:24
But rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, 1 Pet 4:13
I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. Gal 2:20
For we, being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread. 1 Cor 10:17
Precious promises: that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature 2 Pet 1:4
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. Gal 3:27
Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death. Rom 6:4
The historical Christian understanding of life in Christ is shot through with the reality of the incarnation. This extends far beyond the 7 formal sacraments. Remember that as we approach Christmas, and the mystery of the incarnation.