Remember those comic book ads for X-Ray vision glasses and you were worried that if someone used them they could see you naked? I never sent away to get a pair, but my friend Christian LeBlanc–who is probably one of the world’s best catechists–writes here about how he uses this idea to help teach kids about the reality of the sacraments.
When discussing sacraments with 6th graders, I always emphasize that the physical part of a sacrament is more than a symbol. And by the time we even get to a sacrament (Baptism), they are already familiar with God’s grace and power moving through physical media such as Moses’ staff, Elijah’s cloak, Elisha’s bones, and Jesus’ tassel. Later on when we get to Acts, they can figure out on their own how handkerchiefs and shadows can transmit healing to the afflicted. Catechism class is alive with God flowing through his Creation.
Christian has this super fast, witty and wonderful way of teaching kids. They love him and love going to religion class because his religion has class. So he continues:
Consider this flag:It’s a symbol of America. But that’s all it is. There’s no metaphysical connection between the flag and the country. Burning the flag doesn’t cause a fire in America. We could swap it out for another flag tomorrow.
But sacraments are different from a flag, and I am not content in class with calling the part of a sacrament that we can see a symbol, and leaving it at that. It’s just the visible part of a bigger reality. Consider my wife. If I have a picture of her, that’s a symbol. Burning the photo doesn’t set my wife on fire. But if I’m looking at my wife- is she a symbol of herself? Oooh. Interesting. Living in the world I’d say no indeed, she is my wife, she is herself, not a symbol. But in the context of an unseen and larger reality, then yes, this bit of her I can sense is a symbol of the aspects of her being I can’t sense. Or only sense fleetingly and dimly. If we both wind up in the New Jerusalem, of course there’ll be nothing symbolic about her there: it would be The Total Babe for all eternity.
My point is that there are different levels of symbol; and Christians tend to regard the symbolic aspects of sacraments as being like the flag, when they are more like my wife. For example, we use water for Baptism. Some Baptists will tell you Baptism’s nothing more than a symbol; doesn’t do a thing. The Catholic Church teaches it’s a symbol (an outward sign) that signifies what truly happens: sin is washed away. That’s consistent with Acts: “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” Pretty clear- but did Luke mean it literally? Does the water actually wash away sin; or does God intervene when the water is poured? That is, on the spirit side, does the water do anything? Dumb old water? I think it does.
And so on. I have been meaning for some time to recommend again Christian’s terrific book The Bible Tells Me So. It should be the text book for every sixth grade catechist and more.
Christian just gives you a script for a fantastic lesson to teach kids the faith. It’s totally orthodox, full of solid content, built ground up around the sacraments and taught with huge enthusiasm and joy.
Christian also happens to be a very fine architect who is building our new church at Our Lady of the Rosary…but that’s another story for another day.