“Sharron, things need to be stirred!” So said my husband’s grandfather to his wife when she queried him regarding the state of their crockpot meal. Grandpa Joe was legendary for not leaving those crock pots alone. In his mind, food shouldn’t be left to sit, as a crockpot requires. He always had to stir things up, checking what was what and I suspect trying to discover what was for dinner that evening.
I was thinking about this the other day while cleaning the bathroom of all places. We inherited a fancy touchless toilet from the previous owners of our house. There is a little button that isn’t really a button that indicates where you should wave your hand to make the toilet flush. No matter how many times I explain to the kids, they insist on pushing the non-button. Just like in the grocery store, museums, park or yes, even the bathroom, things just need to be touched — at least according to kids.
Things need to be touched, stirred, smelled, tasted and seen. God made us tactile people, sensual people. Jesus, God who became human in all things except sin, experienced this. He ate bread made by his mother. He carved wood with his foster father. Jesus walked miles with his friends, perhaps even barefoot at times. He knew the fatigue of the hot sun at noon and he felt the refreshment of the cool breezes of twilight. In all of Jesus’ ministry, he engaged in the daily activities of life. Jesus didn’t talk at people, he worked with them. This is why, in my mind and in the eyes of the Church, the practices Jesus left us are just as much physical as spiritual. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
In human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place. As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols. As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God (1146)
Inasmuch as they are creatures, these perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. The same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator (1148)
Each one of our seven Sacraments has some physical element specific to it. Baptism must have water and oil. Eucharist must have bread and wine. Confirmation must have the laying on of hands. Likewise, Matrimony rings, Reconciliation and Holy Orders both also have the laying on of hands. Anointing of the Sick includes the Oil of the Sick. Our liturgy is full of sights, sounds, smells and gestures. We have music, incense, readings, silence, movement. Each physical element is meant to draw us into deeper prayer and communion with God and one another.
The seven sacraments are defined as “visible signs of invisible grace.” The visible, tangible element is the touchstone, that thing that we can grasp or see, which propels us into the spiritual reality of grace. Jesus knew how humans work (He did create us after all). Jesus doesn’t open his ministry with a big speech or gathering. First He is baptized in the Jordan and His first miracle is to provide more wine at a wedding. Before giving the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus first multiplied the loaves and fish. In order to institute His Church, Jesus celebrates the Passover with His disciples, transforming it into His very Body and Blood.
Pope Francis famously spoke about how he desires priests, our shepherds, to “smell like the sheep.” I like to think he desires this of all Catholics. Our faith cannot thrive in purely intellectual terms or hypothetical situations. We need to bring all our senses with us and dig into the nitty gritty, day in and day out, the beauty and the sorrow of our lives and those whom God has placed around us. There we discover the spiritual realities at work within our physical experience.
Copyright 2017 Kate Taliaferro