Sacraments: A Simple Explanation for Children

Well, for young people, anyway. In what follows, I visualized my daughter at about age 16.

Daughter:       Daddy? Can I ask you a question?

Father:            Sure, sweetie pea. What is it?

Daughter:       Well, you know the Baptism at Church this morning?

Father:            Yeah. That was a cute baby. Too bad about his mother’s dress. Good thing that baby spit up is such good clean stuff; it almost always comes out pretty well.

Daughter:       Yeah. I thought she handled it fairly well. I like Baptisms. Something always goes wrong, but they always turn out well in the end. They make everyone in the congregation so happy. And it’s not just because people like babies, although that’s part of it. I mean, it’s that plus the fact that they are always a bit spooky, even when the baby cries or the godparents don’t get the words right. Especially the bit about the baby joining in Christ’s eternal priesthood.

Father:            I love that part! It’s always so amazing to me; as if I can see a whole everlasting adventure, a mighty kingship in Heaven, exploding out into the future from such a tiny little body, with no end or limit. And it always reminds me of my own eternal priesthood, too.

Daughter:       Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.

Father:            What do you mean?

Daughter:       Well, how does the Baptism work? I mean, how do the water and the words make me a priestess? How do they change me, or make me immortal? I mean, I don’t even remember my Baptism.

Father:            Is there anything else that’s worrying you, love?

Daughter:       [grimacing] Yeah.

Father:            OK. Can you tell me what it is?

Daughter:       Well … how does Baptism clean out my sin? I mean, I don’t think it actually did. I still do lots of bad things. Why? Didn’t Baptism work? [choking] Am I going to go to Hell? I’m scared.

Father:            First thing, my dear, is this. Don’t think you are anything special when it comes to sinning. You’re an awfully good girl, so far as I’m concerned. You mess up, sure; but you do it in little ways. As a sinner, you’re really not very much of an expert. And you try so very, very hard to be good. Don’t be harder on yourself about your failures than they warrant. Everyone messes up. When you do, just pick yourself up, shake yourself off, admit your wrong to God right away, ask his forgiveness, resolve to do better, and get on your way. OK?

Daughter:       [relieved] OK, Daddy. Thanks.

Father:            And apologize to your brother, too, of course, and ask his forgiveness.

Daughter:       [grinning, shamefaced] Right. Sure. But he started it.

Father:            [chuckling] Indeed he did! Or rather, he *provoked* it. I’m not sure that counts as starting it. Are you?

Daughter:       Maybe not. I guess it’s hard to say where it started.

Father:            So you’ve apologized to him for your part in it?

Daughter:       Yeah, we made up.

Father:            Good. And he apologized to you?

Daughter:       Um … yes.

Father:            OK, I can see I’ll have to have a word with him.

Daughter:       Don’t get me in trouble with him, Daddy. I didn’t tell.

Father:            No, you certainly didn’t. I just know all, see all. Voice of Doom, Dreadful Judge, and all that.

Daughter:       Oh, Daddy, you’re so silly.

Father:            The silliness is the velvet glove over the mail gauntlet.

Daughter:       What do you mean? What’s the mail gauntlet?

Father:            You know very well. When I counted, did I ever have to get to three?

Daughter:       No. [laughs]

Father:            You were terrified of what might happen if I did, right?

Daughter:       Totally. But, I mean, we weren’t scared of you, deep down.

Father:            I certainly hope not. But, if you hadn’t known the mail gauntlet was there, you’d never have felt quite safe, either from the dangers of the outside world, or from the danger that you had broken the Law.

Daughter:       Well, I know that it makes me feel safe that you are so big and strong and rough, but what do you mean about the Law?

Father:            How would you be feeling right now if I had told you a moment ago that you are a very bad, wicked girl, instead of telling you that you are a very good girl who messes up from time to time? What if I had told you that I condemned you, and I had then ejected you from the household, and disowned you as my daughter, on account of your sins?

Daughter:       [horrified] Oh, my gosh. I’d feel terrible. I’d want to die. It would be Hell.

Father:            Indeed; quite literally so. It would be your corner of Hell, right here on Earth. And you know – you’ve always known – that that sort of thing does happen. You have a hard time imagining my saying such things – I sure hope you do – but you know that I could possibly say them; and you know that if I thought they were true and rightful things to say, I would have to say them. That’s the mail gauntlet. It’s my loyalty to truth, and to justice, that, to the best of my ability, governs my actions toward you. It orders the moral life of this house, and it lets you know when you’ve been good and when you’ve been bad. It’s because you can sense the presence of the mail gauntlet, and of the moral order that it represents and imposes – on me more than anyone else, let me tell you – that you can rely on me when I tell you that you have been good. Without that reliance, you’d be lost. You wouldn’t know which way was up.

Daughter:       I suppose so. I really can’t imagine you saying those things, Daddy.

Father:            I cannot conceive of your ever doing something so horrible that I would think them right to say. You are not that sort of person, thanks be to God.

Daughter:       Mummy doesn’t have a mail gauntlet, does she?

Father:            No. She wields the same moral authority, of course, but differently. I can’t quite put my finger on the difference, but there is one. It may have something to do with the fact that men are specially made to destroy and kill, while women are specially made to nourish and nurture. Men deal death, women give life. If I’m war, maybe Mummy is famine: an empty bowl. But I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about that. What about pestilence and plague, I wonder …

Daughter:       Dad. Can we get back to Baptism?

Father:            Hm? Yes, but first I have to say something else to you about your sins, and about Hell.

Daughter:       Oh. Yay.

Father:            Sorry, it’s this mail gauntlet. I can’t get it off anymore.

Daughter:       OK, what is it?

Father:            Well, you are indeed a very good girl. You’re not very wicked. But you are a little bit wicked. We all are. And you need to be vigilant about little wickednesses all the time, and you’ll never ever be able to relax about them. Because little sins lead to big ones, and the big ones can indeed doom you to Hell.

Daughter:       But I can’t stop sinning altogether, no matter how I try. So I guess I’m doomed?

Father:            No. You aren’t. Here’s the thing. I would rather die than tell you that I have to disown you and eject you from my household on account of your sins. It would absolutely kill me – I think it literally would kill me, no exaggeration – to have to say such a thing.

Daughter:       Because you love me.

Father:            Yes. More than my life. And you know what?

Daughter:       What?

Father:            God loves you infinitely more than I do. So much, that he went ahead and died, so that he might have a shot at never having to say such a thing to you.

Daughter:       That’s Good Friday.

Father:            Yes. He suffered everything for you. But even so, it only gave him a shot at avoiding your damnation. You could still mess it up; you could reject him, and his House. You could up and leave, and disown him as as Lord of your life.

Daughter:       I would never do that.

Father:            But you keep sinning, right?

Daughter:       Oh. Rats! So I do reject him.

Father:            Yes. A bit, each day. So do I.

Daughter:       Whatever shall I do?

Father:            Well, don’t worry too much, OK? Despite your sins, you are well on the way to the throne he has reserved for you at the Table in his House. It’s a lifelong journey to sainthood – indeed, it will almost certainly take you longer even than that. You’ll keep stumbling and falling on your way – you are small and weak, and the trail is steep, and tricky, because you are climbing up his Holy Mountain. You started on your way when you were just a baby, with your Baptism. And you’ll be at it from now on, maybe forever. You’ll get stronger and more agile as you go, and you’ll see more and more clearly. Just keep on climbing.

Daughter:       Alright; good, I’m glad I got started so early. But, how did my Baptism do that? How does it work?

Father:            You got me. No idea.

Daughter:       Oh great. No, no; wait. I know you. This is one of your Dad moves. You’ve got something up your sleeve. Out with it.

Father:            No, really, I’m not kidding. I don’t understand it at all.

Daughter:       Phhht.

Father:            No, Lisi, really. It’s like this. Here, reach out and touch my palm with your finger. OK, how did you do that?

Daughter:       I don’t know. I just decided I wanted to do it, and I did it.

Father:            Exactly. There is a link there between the intention and the completed action, and we don’t understand it at all. We can’t. The intention somehow generates the action. If you think of touching my palm without truly intending to touch it, your hand won’t move. It’s the same with Baptism.

Daughter:       What do you mean?

Father:            It’s all about the intention of the act. A Baptism isn’t a Baptism unless the Baptist intends to Baptize.

Daughter:       Don’t the words count?

Father:            Yes, totally. But they count because they are the outward sign of the intention of the Baptist.

Daughter:       What do you mean?

Father:            OK, think of it this way. Look … what have I just written on the newspaper here?

Daughter:       “I love you, Lisi.” I love you, too, Daddy.

Father:            My doughty daughtery; my gally gal. So, ahem, is it those squiggles of ink that make you feel that I love you, or is it what they signify?

Daughter:       It’s what they signify.

Father:            Yes. The words are an outward sign of my love for you – of my will toward your good. I intend within me to do you good, insofar as I am able. And it is that intention that gives the words their oomph within you. If I didn’t mean what I wrote, then what I wrote would be a lie. It would be evil.

Daughter:       So it’s the same with the words at Baptism.

Father:            Yes. And with the water. They are crucially important, but their importance derives entirely from what they signify. They signify the Grace of Baptism, and so they actually confer the Grace of Baptism, just as my squiggles of ink truly signify my love, and so actually confer it upon you. But if the intention to Baptize is missing from the Baptist, then his words and actions fail to signify Baptism, or confer its Grace. If you were to pour consecrated water on a man’s head while saying the Baptismal formula – “I Baptize thee, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” – without intending to Baptize him, you’d be lying. You wouldn’t be Baptizing him at all. You’d be committing sacrilege.

Daughter:       And the Baptism wouldn’t be any good?

Father:            Well, that’s hard to say. Whether a man is really Baptized is ultimately up to God, after all. He is not encompassed or limited by the rite. He can Baptize with no help from human ministers. So even if you didn’t intend to Baptize, that wouldn’t be dispositive. But, however, if you didn’t intend to Baptize, the rite would not signify Baptism, and it would not be the rite that had effected the Baptism, but rather only God.

Daughter:       What about babies?

Father:            What about them?

Daughter:       When I was Baptized, I was way too young to know what any of the words meant.

Father:            Yeah, well; I doubt very many Christians, of any age, have a really good idea what the words of our rites mean. In fact, I doubt anyone has a really solid idea what any word means, in full. [pauses, lost in thought – silence ensues]

Daughter:       Dad! Dad! Come back.

Father:            Eh? What?

Daughter:       You were drifting off into your language stuff again.

Father:            Ah. Hm. Well, then, answer me this: when you were Baptized, did you know what the words, “I love you, Lisi” meant?

Daughter:       No.

Father:            Yet I feel quite sure that you knew that I loved you when I said those words. And even though you didn’t understand the words, I was still able to will and to do your good. You felt my love, and it shaped your life. Right?

Daughter:       Yes.

Father:            It’s the same with Baptism. The baby doesn’t understand the words of the rite, or what they signify, but that doesn’t mean that the Body of Christ, the Church, in the persons of the minister, the sponsors, and the congregation, don’t mean what they say, nor does it mean that their intentions will not form and shape the baby as she grows, and make her more a Christian than she would be if there had never been a Baptism, or a Baptizing Church.

Daughter:       OK, sure. I can see that. But, how could the words and the water of Baptism change me into an immortal priestess of God? How could they wipe out my sin?

Father:            That’s the part I don’t know about. That’s the part that lies between your intending to reach out and touch my palm, and your actual touching of my palm. What is touching, really? We have no idea. We can do the math, but we have no real idea what touching is. And it’s the same with Baptism. We intend the Grace of Baptism to be there, and we signify that intention by word and action, and whammo, the Grace is there. When we call him, he comes; what we truly ask, he grants. But it’s a total mystery, just like the mystery of your ability, whammo, to move your hand.

Daughter:       But my hand doesn’t move itself. It is directed by me. The way you are describing Baptism, the Baptist is like the hand moving God.

Father:            Really? Are you sure? When you move your hand, your hand cooperates with your intention, right? If it didn’t, you’d be in pretty big trouble. And, it’s not your intention to touch my palm that actually does the touching of my palm; it’s a few hundred cells in your fingertip.

Daughter:       OK, I see. The Baptist is cooperating with Providence.

Father:            Bingo.

Daughter:       What about marriage?

Father:            Oh ho! Thinking about marriage, are we? Who’s the lucky guy? Have I met him? Where’s my baseball bat?

Daughter:       Dad! You’re bad! Sheesh. I’ll never be able to bring a boy home.

Father:            [glowers menacingly] “Young man, are your intentions honorable?”

Daughter:       Dad! [laughs] It’s not funny! I mean it.

Father:            [wiping away tears] Sorry, sweetie. You know me.

Daughter:       [smiling grimly] Dad jokes. All dads make ‘em.

Father:            Darn right. It’s a perquisite of the office. Makes up for this doggone mail gauntlet all the time.

Daughter:       OK, OK, so what about marriage? Does it work the same way?

Father:            Sure. All the Sacraments work that way. If you don’t mean what you say in them, why then you aren’t saying what they mean. The words have the right outward form, but you are not using them to communicate what everyone takes that form to communicate. You are communicating something different. You’re lying. Despite that defect in your intention, and in the rite, the Grace may still connect with its intended beneficiary, but it won’t be by virtue of the rite that you didn’t really mean to say, and did not therefore really perform.

Daughter:       So, if I say my wedding vows without meaning them …

Father:            You won’t really be married.

Daughter:       It all seems to come down to telling the Truth.

Father:            Very good, yes: admitting the Truth – admitting it into your being – and then telling the Truth, emitting it, breathing it out into your life, enacting it in the world. It’s Truth that sets you free. And the only freedom is the freedom to bind yourself to the Truth. So in a way, the only danger is to depart from the Truth. Depart from the Truth, and you depart from Reality, from Being itself. That’s why taking the Name in vain is such a great sin.  Depart from Truth, and you reject God, and depart from his House.

Daughter:       So sacraments work because they tell the Truth.

Father:            Yes. And in telling the Truth to each other, we glorify it, and sanctify life itself, so that everything we do becomes holy. That’s the bit of sainthood that is nearest to our lives as we are living them, right this minute.

Daughter:       It would be nice to be a saint.

Father:            Yes. But even just the fact that you feel that way is a tiny sliver of sainthood in itself, working away in you like yeast.

Daughter:       Hm.

Father:            Have I answered your questions?

Daughter:       Yeah, pretty much. Or else, I’ve worn out my thinking muscles for the day. Anyway, I don’t have any more questions.

Father:            Good. I’m going to go talk to your brother.

Daughter:       Wait, no, Dad. I need to talk to him first. I think I need to apologize to him a bit more.

Father:            You want to will his good a bit more truly, eh?

Daughter:       [sheepishly] Yeah.

Father:            Good girl. Send him in when you’re done, OK?

Daughter:       Dad, are you sure?

Father:            Don’t worry; I always wear the velvet over the chain mail. Protects my face.

Daughter:       Silly Daddy. Love you, Daddy.

Father:            Love you, too, deario.


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