In his sermons on the sacraments, which he preached to some newly baptized, St. Ambrose in the 4th century shows a keen appreciation of the power and weakness of signs. They signify so much, but we find them hard to accept. “Is this it?” he hears them say as they approach the waters of baptism.
We’re reminded that encountering God through sacraments, which Pope Francis describes in his letter Desiderio Desideravi as weakened today by our lack of a symbolic sense, has always been difficult for human beings who, like Thomas, want to see.
Ambrose calls on stories of the Old Testament: the Israelites were saved as they flee from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, the cloud that guides them on their way–foreshadowing the Holy Spirit, the wood that makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet–the mystery of the Cross.
“You must not trust, then, wholly to your bodily eyes. What is not seen is in reality seen more clearly; for what we see with our eyes is temporal whereas what is eternal (and invisible to the eye) is discerned by the mind and spirit.” (On the mysteries)
Remember Namaan’s doubt as the Assyrian general stood before the healing waters of the Jordan, Ambrose reminds his hearers. There’s more here than you see or think.
So we’re invited into an unseen world. Still, aren’t we also like those whom the saint addressed? Is this it? Maybe more so, for schooled as we are in the ways of science and fact, we look for proof from what our eyes see. We live in a world that tells us what we see is all there is.
And now it’s a world made more untrustworthy by the Covid19 pandemic. Are sacramental signs, taken from creation, now less trustworthy?
Faith is a search for what we don’t see. God desires to approach us through signs. Will he not help us approach him that way? Believe, God says.