By Lawrence Feingold
Dr. Lawrence Feingold is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. He is the author of numerous scholarly books, including Touched by Christ: The Sacramental Economy.
The Incarnation is the center of all God’s plans for mankind. Two millennia ago, the Word became flesh. He dwelt among us for thirty-three years, completed His Paschal mystery, rose from the dead, and forty days later left this earth in His Ascension. However, He still wished to remain among us so that we could encounter Him in His humanity with its life-giving and medicinal power, and therefore He established the sacraments of the Church to be the principal means of encounter with His humanity between His Ascension and His Second Coming. St. Leo the Great said: “What was to be seen of our Redeemer has passed over into the Sacraments,” so that “faith might be more perfect and more firm.”
Two thousand years ago the Word Incarnate pronounced words of power in His public ministry. At His word, the wind and sea were calmed, lepers and paralytics were healed, the dead rose, and sins were forgiven. His words accomplished what they signified because the Son of man is also the Son of God by whose word all things are governed.
Christ’s miracles differed from those worked by others because He did them in His own name. For example, in Mark 1:40–42, a leper comes to Jesus and says: “‘If you will, you can make me clean.’” Jesus, moved with pity, responds: “‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.” A similar scenario takes place with a man possessed by an unclean spirit, to whom Jesus says: “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1:25–26). Jesus’s words did what they said; they made the leper clean and expelled the demon. For this reason, the crowds said: “‘What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (Mark 1:27). We see this authority emphasized also in the miracle of the paralytic in Matthew 9:5–8:
“Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
This miracle has a special interest from the point of view of sacramental theology because Jesus heals the paralytic through the power of His word in order to show that He has the authority not only to heal the body but also to forgive sins through His word.
This power can also be seen in Matthew 10:1, in which Christ gave to His Apostles a share in His authority to work through His word: “He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.” The centurion in Capernaum amazed Jesus because of his faith that Jesus could command nature with power, as a centurion can command his troops and “say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes” (Matt 8:9). If Jesus’s word is one of authority over nature, it has no less power in the supernatural order with respect to the infusion of grace, the forgiveness of sins, and the building up of the Church.
The sacraments are not something marginal in Christ’s work. They are the privileged means of union between Christ and us. They build up the Church as nerves and arteries by which the grace of the Head comes to the members and the Father is glorified. Without the sacraments there can be no Mystical Body of Christ on this earth, for the sacraments are the channels that convey the life of the Head to the members of His Body.
The sacraments are the fruit of Christ’s Passion. Christ’s Passion made superabundant satisfaction for all human sin, original and personal, and merited grace for all men. The sacramental system applies to mankind the graces that have been merited on Calvary, restoring, in a sensible way suitable to human nature, the supernatural justice and grace lost through sin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1116) describes the sacraments as the life-giving channels of the Church and “the masterworks” of the New Covenant: “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant.”
In Touched by Christ: The Sacramental Economy, Lawrence Feingold expertly describes the nature of the sacraments; their purpose, fittingness, and relationship with Christ and the New Covenant; their relationship with the Old Covenant rites that prefigured them; the character and grace that they communicate; and the nature of their causality.