The other day I got chalk on someone’s forehead when giving them a blessing. It was left over from writing and rewriting “Ask me for a blessing” on my chalkboard sign. I'd had to redo some of the letters several times, using my fingers to erase in between.
As soon as I’d gotten situated, and before dusting off my hands, a lady stopped to talk. When I wrapped up our encounter with a blessing, I felt a slight surge of panic (accompanied by an expletive in my head) as I drew a chalk-tinged cross on her very tan skin. Of course, I didn’t want to ruin the moment by mentioning this faint smudge of white peeking through her bangs, so I let her walk away.
Then I remembered an old Christian expression, ex opere operato. This is a Latin phrase meaning “by the work done.” It refers to the belief that the efficacy of a sacrament is not dependent on the attitude or the worthiness of either the minister or the recipient. In other words, grace is conferred through a sacrament by the power and promise of God, regardless of whether the priest is cursing in her mind about the chalkdust on her thumb.
Here’s another example of ex opere operato at work.
When an adult is baptized in the Episcopal Church, that person needs a sponsor — a Christian who stands by them during the baptismal service. The sponsor is a source of support and a representative of the church receiving them into the body of Christ. A sponsor is charged with saying, “I present so-and-so to receive the sacrament of Baptism.” Then follows a series of questions for the person being baptized. After that comes the baptism itself.
A recent baptism at my church involved a sponsor who is extremely spiritual and took her job supporting the candidate for baptism very seriously. When she delivered her line, she stepped to the side and gave a flourish with her hands, like she was presenting a fancy kitchen appliance on The Price Is Right rather than a person for baptism.
I about lost it. It was all I could do to keep a straight face and not bust out laughing. I honestly think getting through the question-and-answer portion that followed was the single most difficult moment of my priesthood. I had a ridiculous smile on my face, and my voice kept going up at the end of each question.
When we got to the actual baptism, this woman serving as sponsor held her hands up toward the baptismal font as if channeling the Holy Spirit through them. Heck, maybe she was. I would say she represents the whimsy of God, which I really do love about her. She just happened to make getting through this baptism especially challenging by unwittingly tempting me to laugh my face off.
And yet, the efficacy of the sacrament was not compromised by the fact that I wasn’t as "present" as I would be normally during a baptism. The point is that God was present. God was active to the fullest, pouring out grace upon grace. While I suppressed a laugh, the person being baptized shed tears.
Thankfully, God’s grace is not controlled by our emotions. If anything, grace causes emotion to well up in us. Even though that candidate for baptism and I were not emotionally in sync during the sacrament, we ended up in the exact same place as a result. We, along with the rest of the congregation, broke into applause with the joy of the Lord, great big smiles, and a little holy laughter to boot.