We celebrate the feast of St. Blaise this week, and I’d like to talk about the fine line between devotion and superstition.
The Gospel readings this week set us on the right path. We read about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, with Jesus’ clear instruction to her parents: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” We read about the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for 12 years, how she was healed by touching Jesus’ clothes, and Jesus’ commendation to her: “Your faith has saved you.” We read about how Jesus returned home, and was “not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people” because of their lack of faith.
Finally, after hearing about how Jesus performed mighty deeds, we read about how He sent out His apostles with the same powers. It’s the first time we see that Jesus intends for His own mission and ministry to be continued through His followers.
That’s where St. Blaise comes in: The mission and ministry of Jesus also comes to us through him. And so, on his feast day, we customarily receive the blessing of the throats.
This blessing is one of the “sacramentals” of the Church. Sacramentals — like the use of holy water, the veneration of relics, the signing with ashes, and so on — are outward signs. And while they don’t convey grace the same way the seven sacraments do, they do “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1670).
The Catholic religion is rich with such outward signs! They help us to bring faith into every aspect of our lives. But if it’s important to let the faith penetrate every aspect of our lives, it’s also important that we use these sacramentals with the right disposition.
There’s a danger of falling into superstition as we use the sacramentals. It’s important that we refrain — both for our own faith and for the witness we give to others.
It’s superstition when we expect the mere external performance of an act (burying a statue of St. Joseph, for instance) or the mere external presence of an object to produce an effect without the interior disposition of faith. In short, we think we’re manipulating God. That turns sacramentals into a kind of religious magic, which is exactly what they’re not supposed to be.
The Gospels direct us to the right path: Access to the power of Jesus is conditioned on the presence of faith. It was faith, not magic, that allowed the woman to be healed just by touching His clothes. The same holds true for sacramentals such as the blessing of St. Blaise.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying we shouldn’t use sacramentals. Not at all! On the contrary: we should use them, and do so abundantly! They enrich our lives immensely. But we must do so with the right disposition. We use them rightly when we approach them with devotion, which is built on faith in the power of God.