When a mother hugs her son, that embrace is a visible, tangible sign of her love for him. It tells her son, “I love you.” When a student graduates from medical school, the diploma she receives is a visible, tangible sign that conveys an invisible truth. That diploma tells everyone, “This person now has enough training and experience to begin to practice medicine.”
This is one way to understand the sacraments and the Holy Spirit’s work in them. All seven sacraments use visible realities: water, oil, and salt at Baptism, bread and wine for Communion, the laying on of hands and chrism at Confirmation. These are all visible signs that speak of an interior work of the Spirit in our lives. But by the power of the Spirit, these signs are transformed and actually bring about the work of God they signify: the water actually cleanses us from sin. The bread and wine actually become Jesus’ Body and Blood. And the chrism actually seals us with the gift of the Spirit.
Now, let’s suppose that the boy receiving his mother’s hug has just come off of a temper tantrum and is still upset with his mother. Does that make her hug any less real? Does it mean less because her son is not open to receiving the love she is offering? No. The mother’s love is clearly there; it just isn’t changing her son all that much.
Similarly, St. Augustine taught that the grace of each sacrament is always poured out on us when we receive them. So even if an infant child is asleep during her Baptism, she is still made into a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And, even if the priest who hears our Confession is mired in his own sin, we are still truly forgiven when he pronounces the words of absolution. And even if we are completely distracted during Mass, we still receive Jesus himself, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, in Communion.
Bound and Unbound Sacramental Grace. Clearly, there is a correlation between the effects that the sacraments have on our lives and the level of our openness and receptivity to the Lord. As many Fathers of the Church have said, sacraments can be “bound up” by the condition of the person receiving the sacrament. This means that the effect of God’s grace is limited. It means that we are not experiencing the grace that is always present in that sacrament. Whether it’s indifference, hardness of heart, active sin, or unbelief, our attitudes and dispositions make a crucial difference.
It’s a simple formula, really. If we come to Confession knowing how much we need God’s mercy, we are more likely to experience that mercy in a way that helps us change. If we come to Communion filled with gratitude for Jesus’ death and resurrection, our hearts will be lifted up by his love as we receive him.
By contrast, if we make little time for Jesus, if we choose to remain in sin, or if we approach with dullness and lack of expectation, we’ll feel as if we didn’t get anything out of the sacrament. Think about Judas Iscariot. He received the Bread of Life at the Last Supper, but it had no real effect on his mind or his decision.
Sacraments are not magical. They’re not like an aspirin we can take to get rid of our pain. Again, St. Augustine tells us, “The One who created us without us will not save us without us.” The sacraments are filled with God’s grace, but the effectiveness of that grace depends on our yielding to God and saying yes to him. God will never impose himself on us. He looks for us to open our hearts and say, “Jesus, I need your grace and I want your grace.”
The Spirit and the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit is intimately involved in each of the sacraments. This truth was emphasized in a special way around the time of the Second Vatican Council. One twentieth-century theologian, Fr. François-Xavier Durrwell, wrote, “The individual sacraments are instituted in the Spirit and at the same time they are channels where the Spirit is at work” (Holy Spirit of God: an Essay in Biblical Theology, p. 91).
Fr. Yves Congar, a very influential voice in the council, also taught, “Throughout the history of the Church, the effectiveness of the grace of the sacraments has always been attributed to the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit” (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Volume III, p. 250). Congar continued, “Through the sacrament Jesus is in us. But if his sacramental presence is to have its effects, the Holy Spirit must add his breath, his fire and his dynamism” (p. 264).
For its own part, Scripture urges us to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18; Acts 6:3). It describes God’s promise to “pour out” his Spirit (Acts 2:17, 18) and about our need to be “clothed” with the power of the Spirit (Luke 24:49).
All of these images, as well as the words of countless theologians, convey the idea of something different—the Holy Spirit—coming upon us and becoming a part of us. They all talk about how the Spirit wants to change us through the sacraments so that we can become more and more like Jesus. They all describe the action of the Holy Spirit, whom we received at our Baptism, as he releases more of his grace and love into our lives. This filling, this pouring out, this clothing us—this is the heart of each sacrament and at the heart of the effect that sacrament has upon us.
Experiences of Grace. Describing the work of the Holy Spirit, Fr. Karl Rahner, yet another influential theologian of Vatican II, wrote: “Here below man can have experiences of grace that give him a feeling of liberation, open totally new horizons to him, make a deep impression on him, transform him, shaping, even over a long period of time, his deepest Christian attitude. Nothing prohibits us from calling such experiences baptism in the Spirit” (Meditation on Pentecost, 1977).
Doesn’t this description sound also like what we can expect each time we celebrate a sacrament? It should, because the Holy Spirit is at the heart of every grace that the sacraments pour out. We might even go so far as to say that every celebration of a sacrament is an opportunity for us to be “baptized,” or immersed, in the Spirit’s love and grace.
These kinds of “experiences of grace” are what happened when Jesus broke the bread for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It’s what made Ignatius of Loyola weep for joy when he was finally able to celebrate Mass as a priest. It’s why Pope Francis makes it a point to confess his sins before he hears anyone else’s Confession.
So every time you participate in a sacrament, be as open to the Spirit as you can. Remember that he is always there, ready to work in you. Ask the Holy Spirit to “open totally new horizons” and “make a deep impression” on you with each and every sacrament you receive. Ask him to “transform” you “over a long period of time,” so that you can know the warm embrace of your heavenly Father.