As Vatican I teaches, God is a spiritual substance (see DS 3001/1782). This means that he is not bodily as we are and that his being is that of his personal reality. This truth often is misunderstood, for it is mistaken to mean that God is something like our own mind. God, however, is no more a mental than a bodily reality; he is beyond all such finite categories. Therefore, the bodily is no more alien to him than is the immaterial reality of thoughts and choices. The bodily resurrection and glorification of Jesus, his bodily presence in the Eucharist, and our own hoped-for bodily communion with him in heaven, which already mysteriously begins when we receive the Eucharist here on earth—all this argues that the bodily aspect of the sacraments is an intrinsic and indispensable part of the fulfillment God is accomplishing in Jesus.
Even so, although essential, the pure symbolism of the sacraments is secondary; it is determined to be precisely as it is only because of Jesus’ choice to use some rather than other words and deeds as appropriate, expressive performances (see S.t., 3, q. 64, a. 2).
The Eucharist being under two species symbolizes the separation of Jesus’ body and blood in his passion and death, and allows us symbolically not only to eat his flesh but also to drink his blood. Yet the whole reality of Jesus in glory is present under both species. Similarly, the liturgical year provides a quasi-chronological experience of the complex reality of the redemptive act of Jesus and the re-creating response of God, although this reality is not essentially temporal, and the particular events we review each year are as particular events simply past. Other symbols could have been used. Yet symbols of some sort are necessary if we are to be able to cooperate with Jesus. The ones he in fact has provided serve us by giving us something to do to cooperate humanly with him; they serve him as appropriate tokens of the very same redemptive act (the basic human act which is shaped by his lasting commitments and choices) which he once carried out by all the performances of his public life culminating in his going to Jerusalem, eating the Passover with his friends, giving them his flesh and blood to eat and drink, and accepting the consequences of what he had done.
Once one understands clearly the essential yet secondary role of the symbolic dimension of the sacraments, one can see why the actual performance of the sacrament need not coincide temporally with the grace which flows from the cooperative act. One who is preparing for baptism perhaps already is in grace; similarly, one who comes with the right dispositions to sacramental confession. The sacraments of anointing and matrimony also perhaps have important effects upon those preparing to receive them worthily, by sanctifying preparation for death or engagement to be married.
Yet the actual reception of a sacrament remains vital, since in the performance one’s cooperation really is carried through. By desiring the sacrament (even in an implicit way), by preparing for it (however remotely), one already is beginning the cooperation which culminates in the sacramental performance itself. If one is not somehow aiming toward this performance, then one is in no way humanly disposed to cooperate in the human redemptive work of Jesus, through which alone the remission of sin and deification are given us. For this reason, even those who have not heard the gospel are redeemed only by some sort of remote relationship to the sacraments. (Perhaps their sincere groping amounts to an implicit wish to receive them.)
Thus what appears to us at times an illogical sequence of events—for example, contrition and reconciliation, followed by an examination of conscience, sacramental confession, and finally absolution—is not really illogical, because it is not a sequence of events in a causal process but an assembling of the elements required to constitute the complex whole of the sacrament. A similar situation is narrated in Mark, when the woman with a hemorrhage first touches Jesus and is healed, then is noticed by him and nervously admits what she has done, and only finally is told: “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mk 5.34). He also tells her that her faith worked the cure, but the account makes it clear that healing power had gone out from Jesus (see Mk 5.30). Thus divine causality, the woman’s faith, and the human act of Jesus combine in the cure.