A few weeks ago, we travelled down to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with our families. One of the perks of being from the same hometown as your spouse is that you never have to decide whose family you visit on holidays. The value of this perk is greatly diminished, however, when you live 500 miles away and the entirety of your immediate families live in close proximity to said hometown. Now, we have to endure an 8-hour road trip whenever we want the boys to see any of their grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins. An additional effect of living so far away is that all of the little toys and treats that grandparents pick up for their grandchildren here and there end up accumulating over time and when we eventually come to visit, the boys are showered with gifts.
One of the surprises that our toddler, Jack, received (with delight) was a scale model backhoe. It’s actually an excavator, but in Jack’s world, any piece of large construction machinery that digs holes is called a backhoe. Jack has other “backhoes”, but this one actually looks like the real thing with all the right hinges and parts and even has little tracks that roll along when you move it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the desk of an executive at a construction company or displayed at a construction vehicle dealership (that’s where you buy bulldozers and cranes, right?). Of course, to a 2 and a half year old, it’s just an awesome new thing to play with and Jack immediately took it outside and began digging holes in the garden with it. My first instinct was to tell him not to get it dirty, to only pretend to dig in the mulch, but the determination and focus on his little face made me just sit and watch as a fine layer of dirt spread across the toy and my son.
It was in this moment that I realized that my understanding of toys and playing is very different from a child’s. For Jack, that little model IS a backhoe and it is MEANT to dig in the dirt. That’s what backhoes do. The distinction between real and not real that is so clear in the minds of adults simply isn’t there. There are backhoes that are big that people drive and dig big holes with and then there are small backhoes that dig in the dirt in the backyard. It’s as simple as that.
I know that play is an important developmental tool for small children and that it’s how they experiment and learn about the world around them. And I know that the fact that I can distinguish between make believe and the real world makes me a functional adult. Nonetheless, watching Jack with his backhoe has gotten me thinking about his ability to merge in his mind the toy and the real thing, the symbol with the referent (that’s right, I studied literary theory). My thoughts naturally go to the sacraments, the ultimate signs of God’s continued involvement in our lives. They are outward signs that point to an interior grace working within us. When we’re baptized, the water pouring over us is a visual representation of God’s cleansing grace. In Eucharist, we physically consume bread that is at the same time spiritual nourishment and replenishment. When we are absolved in the confessional, God releases us from our sins through the actions of the priest.
This is nothing new to anyone who’s aware of the Church’s teaching on the sacraments, but lately I’ve been asking myself a question: am I treating the sacraments like a real backhoe, or am I content with just pretending to dig dirt inside? Am I getting out in the mulch, so to speak, and really using these gifts like I believe what they contain? Do I leave Mass and act like I have in my stomach the body of the King of the Universe? Or am I content to pray for a few moments and then get on with the rest of my day to day life? Granted, we cannot fully understand the mysteries of the sacraments and our sinfulness clouds our understanding sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. So for the rest of Advent, hopefully longer, I’m going to be asking myself daily if I am really living out what I believe. Am I going to take those graces with me outside of the church and the confessional and my home and put them to work?