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What is a Sacrament? Part 1

February 24, 2010
For the last several years, one of my most enjoyable occupations has been working  on the show In Your Faith. I hope that this is a show that you're familiar with. We are currently in post-production for the second season and for eight of these episodes we are looking at the Sacraments – well, Byron and Rosanna are looking at the Sacraments.
new openingWorking on these episodes has probably been huge in teaching me about the Sacraments. I’ve realized how little I knew – how little we know – about this immense part of our Faith.
So, I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned with you. So here begins a series on the Sacraments. Let’s begin with the basics: What is a Sacrament.
I guess you can’t blame Catholics if they don’t know the meaning of a Sacrament. I’ve been Catholic for 41 years and have received five of the seven Sacraments and it wasn’t until three years ago that I really came to understand what Sacraments are and why we need them. In fact, now that I am in formation for the permanent diaconate, I can say that I’m even learning more about the beauty and truth of the Sacraments.
I don’t even remember learning this, but, as far as I know, this is what most kids learn in Catholic schools in Ontario: A Sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward Grace or gift of God”. Of course there is confusion. Is the gift of God the ritual of the Sacrament? Which part is the sign and which is the Grace? I like things to be nice and clear and so when I started looking at this carefully, I wanted there to be a chart showing me the list of Sacraments, the Grace that you receive with each and the sign that goes with each. In looking for this, I found so much more.
But, first let me say something about the ritual. True, the Catholic Church is full of ritual. If you don’t like ritual, then perhaps the Catholic Church is not for you. Hopefully, when I’m done explaining Sacraments, you’ll have a new appreciation for the ritual. For now let me just say that the ritual of the Sacrament is the visible part.  It is not the gift (the invisible part, the grace), rather, like a road sign, it points to the gift.  But (and this is a bit confusing) while the ritual is not the gift the ritual is still an important part of the Sacrament. Just remember that.
But, why do we need signs? Think about it: Everything about our communication is signs: words, letters, illustrations, so it makes sense that God would choose to communicate with us by using signs too. The ritual of the Sacrament is the visible and tangible sign that God is delivering on his promise. He didn’t just deliver on his promises 2000 years ago, but He delivers today, for you and for me.
Perhaps this story will exemplify how Christ used signs too: Once Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes saying to him, “go and wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). The man went, washed and was able to see. Jesus could have just said, “be healed” and just healed him. But instead he made mud; he put the mud on the man’s eyes and sent him to wash in this pool. Why? I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with our human reality, that we need physical, visible signs and symbols.
So the Sacraments are outward signs of inward Grace. What does that mean? Well, it means that most of the time we can’t see or know that we are receiving a special Grace, so we have these symbols, or signs, that reflect the Grace we are receiving. But, don’t think that when we use signs, that the signs are pointing necessarily to something that is absent. The sign itself contains something of the meaning of that to which it points (which is why the sign – or ritual – is also the sacrament). Does that make sense? But this is why I don’t like to think of Sacraments as merely “signs”. I think they have much more to do with the Grace. Next time, we’ll talk about Grace. Until then, share your thoughts with me. What is your idea of what a sacrament is? Why do you think we need them? Send me a comment.
In the meantime, remember, In Your Faith tackles the Sacraments – tune in every Tuesday at 8pm (ET, 9pm PT and AT, 7pm CT – 9:30pm in Newfoundland!)
Talk to you soon.
PEDRO (pedro@saltandlighttv.org)
*Read all posts on the Sacraments:
What is a Sacrament? part one, part two and part three
What is Baptism? part one, part two and part three
What is Reconciliation? part one, part two and part three
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