With the coming of Christ, we began to experience God’s healing touch, the medicine of divine mercy.
“There is nothing magical about Christianity. There is no shortcut. Everything passes through the humble and patient logic of the grain of wheat which opens to give life, the logic of faith which moves mountains with the gentle power of God. This is why God wants to continue to renew humanity, history and the cosmos through this chain of transformations, of which the Eucharist is the sacrament. —Pope Benedict XVI
There is a famous fresco found in the Catacomb of Sts. Marcellin and Peter, dating from the early 4th century, of a woman reaching out to touch the outer garment worn by Jesus. Her right knee is bent, while her right arm is shown reaching out to grab her coat.
It’s a striking image as it captures the exact moment the miracle takes place, finally freeing her from the flood of blood that for 12 years had resisted all medical efforts to rid her of it. The depiction is so dramatic that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its treatment of the sacraments, uses it to illustrate the teaching of the Church. The caption under the fresco says it all: “The sacraments of the Church now continue the works which Christ had accomplished during his earthly life.”
It is such a striking mystery of grace that if fully understood it would explain the whole sacramental economy over which the Church herself presides as Mother and Mistress (Mater and Magister). In other words, everything that happens in the order of the sacrament can be reduced to this single revealing moment of the encounter with Christ, with the power and mercy that he came to dispense in this world. And the privileged place where everything happens is the Church itself, whose highest exercise of life and mission is to administer the sacraments.
Each sacramental action is therefore nothing less than a replica of that same power which miraculously came out of his body, his sacred humanity. And all this in accordance with two things, two desired results: the remission of sin and the renewal of life in Jesus Christ. We need to be freed from the misery of sin, from every trace of wickedness that comes from being a fallen race. And, once freed from the chains of sin, we yearn for that increase in life that comes from belonging to his body, the Church, the very setting of the promised glory to come.
Until Christ came to nullify our complicity, relieving us of our status under the law of reprobate before the Lord, we remained children of darkness. We just couldn’t perform our own escape. Caught in the grip of what St. John Henry Newman called aboriginal calamity, we just couldn’t break free. But with the coming of Christ and his determination to draw us into the light, into the freedom to become Sons and Daughters of God, we began to experience the healing touch of God, the medicine of divine mercy, lifting us up into a life of endless fellowship. with the Father.
But for that to happen, there has to be a willingness to receive. The sacraments are not magic. These are not arbitrary or unilateral interventions from above — we too have a role to play. One must be able, like the bleeding woman, to actually reach out and touch that outer garment worn by Christ. Contact must be established. It cannot be virtual. If there should be real presence, if the Absolute Other is to come among us, to bring us out of what Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes as “the prison of finitude, the closed limits of the ego” – in fact, to break to become our bread – that can only happen in an extra-mental world, one where concrete engagement with the senses takes place. Through these very windows, so to speak, of the five senses, the higher life enters, inserting us into the realm of spirit so that true unity and wholeness can begin.
Our entire sensory apparatus is therefore based on the ability to taste, touch, see, smell and hear. This therefore means that there must simply be a body in space and time, with weight and extension – and not a disembodied spirit separated from the flesh, blood and bones which form the composite unity of our being in the world.
There can be no “circumvention of the image”, as the poet and critic Alan Tate once said, “in an illusory pursuit of pure essence or spirit”. Therein lies the madness, the nightmarish alienation of minds and bodies, of flesh and spirit. If there is to be meaning in being human, there must be material mediation, lest we fall into sheer otherworldliness, which is the absurdity of living as if we were not embodied beings at all. . Like Ellen’s character in Walker Percy’s novel, Thanatos Syndrome, described by her husband as “a little Holy Spirit clinging to a vigorous body”. Only the two never come together. Who remains positively “horrified” by the Eucharist because eating the Body of Christ can only be pagan and barbaric. “Why” she asks to know, “what does the Holy Spirit need a body for?” Certainly, they should each go their own way.
Yes, but if each of us is a psycho-somatic unity, then the separation of the two will leave us metaphysically bereft, detached from the earth on which God himself has placed us. This same earth, let us not forget, on which God placed himself in the event of his coming among us. Where else did he choose to spend his human life? How else does he reach us, or make his grace available to us, if not through the body he truly assumed at his conception in his mother’s womb? And as the Fathers of the Church never tired of repeating to us, “what he did not assume, he did not redeem”.
God may have made the human race, his Spoken Word, the appointed instrument to do so; but when he decided to come among us, it was we — planet earth, the chosen people of Israel, his own daughter Zion — who did so too.
The bloodied woman certainly thought so. She would not have bothered, nor endured the awful humiliation of exposing herself, if she had not first heard of Jesus, knowing in her very bones that “if I only touch his garments, I will be cured”. Sneaking through the crowd in this way, she will then be healed. “Immediately, his blood flow dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction” (Mark 5:2).