we talked about why we need signs and about the Sacrament being not just the grace received (the gift) but also the sign or ritual. Today, let’s begin by talking about grace. Remember, most of us have learned that a Sacrament is a “visible or outward sign of an invisible or inward grace.”
So, what is grace? Grace is a gift from God. Can it be anything, as long as it comes from God? Yes.
Grace is the effect of the presence of God in your life. Grace is the spirit of God in you. I like to think of grace as the love and life of God poured into our souls. I used to help out at a bible camp in our Parish and one summer we had a song that went: “hello my name is Grace; I’m a present just for you. I am here to remind you that God loves you. I’ll never be far from you. I’m a little piece of God inside you. My name is Grace...”
It was a cute song. That really made sense to me: grace is a little piece of God inside us. Put very simply, grace is God’s very Life inside our soul. Grace is the Kingdom of God, as a seed, in our soul. We all have it. Can we lose it? You bet: through sin. But not as in a switch that is turned on or off: now you have it, now you don’t. Sin causes this very life of God to diminish in our soul. In the same sense, grace causes it to increase.
We believe that we are guaranteed to receive grace with every Sacrament. This is different from other times we receive grace in that with the Sacraments there is a guarantee. Jesus said, “I came to bring you life, and that you would have it abundantly.” That’s what He meant.
Ok, so now the basics. We know the seven Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick. Of these seven Sacraments, there are three of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation; two of healing: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick and two of service: Marriage and Holy Orders. Three of them, Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders are only given once because they leave an indelible mark on your soul.
All the rituals or rites of the Sacraments consist of matter and form. They all have some sort of “matter” or “stuff”, i.e. the water, the oil, the acts of penance, the bread and wine, the couple being married; and they all have “form” or the words being spoken: “I Baptise you...”, “I absolve you...”, the words of the Consecration at Mass, the vows exchanged by the marriage couple - without this formula (for lack of a better term), the Sacrament would not take place. That means that there would be no guarantee of a grace being conferred. The rites also have three moments: Anamnesis (remembering), Epiclesis (calling forth the Holy Spirit), Doxology (praise). Most of us are familiar with these in the context of the Mass, in the Eucharistic Prayer.
The Sacraments act by the very fact of the action being performed, independent of the minister. That means that even if the minister is drunk at the time, or living in sin, the Sacrament is still valid. The effect on the person receiving the Sacrament depends on the interior disposition of the receiver. That means that Christ is always present and the grace is always offered, but not always received.
A note on this: Seldom do we “feel” a grace being conferred. It would be very easy if Christ made himself present to us the way He made himself present to St. Paul on the way to Damascus. But that’s not the way it happens. We have to rely on our little human ways. We have to have faith. It’s like falling in love. When it happens, you act upon it. The same with Sacraments: We need to be disposed. You need to be open to the idea that the Lord is present. If you are, you will encounter Him. That’s what it means to have “disposition”. It may be good to point out here that the Sacraments don’t just happen at “one moment”; the moment of baptism, or the moment of repentance, or at the time of the marriage ceremony. The Sacraments are a lived experience. The ritual is there to point to the mystery and to remind us of what is taking place, but then we are called to LIVE the Sacrament in our daily lives, every day.
Every Sacrament points to a mystery. (In fact, the word Sacrament is a direct translation of the Greek word mysterion and Sacraments are called mysteries in the Eastern Rite Churches.) They are not mysteries because we can’t explain it or because we don’t know the answer, like a murder mystery, but because there are no words to express them – they are so amazing - a mystery as an answer to a question that has more meaning that we can put to words. This is another reason why we need signs.
There is also confusion with the Sacraments because they are similar to rites of passage in other cultures and in other religious groups. This is because the seven Sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: They give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. Because of this, there is a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life. But Sacraments are more than just rites of passage.
We also believe that Christ instituted the Sacraments. Next time we’ll look at that. Send in your comments and remember In Your Faith
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*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