Michelangelo is probably the most well-known sculptor of all time. His Pieta has moved countless generations of Christians as we see Mary hold the dead body of Jesus in her arms. This is one of the greatest expressions of human suffering, seemingly captured in the beautiful white marble. Similarly, the statue of David depicts the ruddy youth ready for battle with Goliath, down to the finest detail of his artery bulging in his neck as he braces for battle. Surprisingly, these sculptures by Michelangelo have a lot to each us about the sacraments as we celebrate our last Sunday focusing on this in our articles.
How does God use the sacraments to confer grace to his people? This was the topic of debate for some time in the Church. Some thought that the sacraments were simply an occasion for God to give grace directly from heaven, and the celebration of the sacrament was only asking God to do so. However, the sacraments are a more direct cause of our sanctification than this! We can say that the sacraments are an instrumental cause that God uses to give us grace. As odd as this might sound, God uses the sacraments as instruments of his grace, just like a sculpture uses a chisel as an instrument of his mind and hands. We know that the sacraments “work,” so to speak, whenever they are celebrated properly. Even if the priest is only half-heartedly saying the prayer of the Mass, or the formula for a baptism, the sacraments are still effective as instruments of God’s grace.
A chisel by itself has no power to make a magnificent sculpture. Left to itself, a chisel will sit on the shelf where someone puts it, until the end of the world! This is because it is only an instrument and has no power without someone holding it. The same is true for any other instruments or tools that we use – they are only as effective as they are made to be by someone with the power of mind and will. By itself, the pouring of water has no power to forgive original sin. Every baby had water poured over his or her head during their first bath! But by itself, this washing does not have the power to forgive sin. The power of Jesus Christ comes from his Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This is what makes the sacraments powerful instruments of God’s love and saving grace. As the chisel was Michelangelo’s tool of choice, the sacraments are God’s tool of choice. He uses them to save us. When writing about Baptism and the story of Noah’s Ark, St. Peter said, “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (NAB). In the simplicity of water poured, oil smeared, and a few words spoken, God’s saving action is taking place in the sacraments. What a masterpiece God is making out of us!