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What is a Sacrament? Part 3

March 9, 2010
So far (here and here) we’ve looked at Sacraments as “visible signs of invisible grace” so we talked about signs, about sacraments as mysteries and we talked about grace. Another definition of Sacraments is “visible signs instituted by Christ to convey grace”.
In Your Facts1There’s a story in the gospels (Mark 5:25-34) that will help you understand this. There was a woman who had a haemorrhage. She touched Jesus’ cloak and was immediately healed. This, I think is the perfect illustration of Sacrament: the power that flows out from the body of Jesus in order for us to have a new life in him. This makes perfect sense because in reality, Jesus is the ultimate Sacrament. Christ is made present in the Church and so, the Church is the Sacrament of Christ, because the Church makes Christ present in the world.
This is why we believe that Christ instituted the seven Sacraments. The Sacrament takes a natural thing (matter) and makes Christ present in it. To say that Jesus instituted the Sacraments doesn’t mean that he said, ‘this is how you pour the water and these are the words you say’... although with baptism he actually did say, “Baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit...” But the Gospels don’t say that he did that with all seven Sacraments. We believe Jesus instituted the Sacraments because he promised that he would be present in them, in those mysteries. We can, however, find scriptural references from the Gospels, supporting Jesus saying something about these seven mysteries.
We know Christ instituted the Sacraments because these mysteries are the seven ways in which He makes himself present in our lives. These are the ways in which Christ satisfies all the longings of the human heart: as our brother who welcomes us into His Body, the Church and gives us God’s own Life (the longing to belong); as the one who forgives our sins (the longing to be forgiven); as our daily bread and Sacrifice (the hunger longing); as the one who sends us “two-by-two” and calls us to be mature Christians (the longing to make a difference); as the one who heals us (the longing to be healed and to be whole); the one who is our servant, priest and teacher (the longing for Truth); the one who is Love, exemplified in the love that should exist between a husband and wife (the longing to love and to be loved); and the one who welcomes us into Life everlasting with Him (the longing to be with Him forever). I can’t come up with any other ways in which Christ is present in our lives (or any other longings). That’s what we mean when we say He instituted them.
But, remember those mysteries? Well, Jesus also makes himself present in these mysteries: the fact that our sins are forgiven, clean slate; the fact that a man and woman become one flesh; the fact that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. I like to think of these mysteries as “metaphysical occurrences”. A metaphysical occurrence is a change that takes place that is more than just a physical change. In the seven Sacraments, these metaphysical changes actually take place (bread and wine turned into the body and blood; the couple becoming “one flesh,” for example) and each metaphysical occurrence reflects a greater mystery. Get it? And Christ guaranteed that He will make himself present in those mysteries during those moments in our lives. So that’s the bottom line: We know what a Sacrament is when we ask the question, “where is the guarantee that Christ will be present?”
It’s true that Jesus didn’t come up with all the ritual: the form and matter of the Sacraments. The Church has perfected the Sacraments as our understanding has evolved. (Remember, the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in all its imperfection. God’s revelation to us is not limited to the Bible and to the time of Jesus and the Apostles.) The Church has “ritualised” the Sacraments in order to help us – we need the ritual. Since the beginning of time, humans have used ritual to celebrate their relationship with God. Can you receive God’s grace outside of the Sacraments? Is Christ present in our lives outside these “rituals”? By all means. But, how many of us are constantly remembering of how Christ is present in our lives, especially in those important moments? Plus, the Church is a “we”, not a “me”. There is something to say about how we celebrate the Sacraments as a community.
Saint Augustine thought there were about 30 Sacraments including the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, naming marriage as a Sacrament of supreme importance (which is really interesting because Pope John Paul II said that Marriage is the primordial Sacrament – but that’s another story). Twelfth century theologian, Peter Lombard fixed the number of Sacraments at seven and it became dogma at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. St. Thomas Aquinas accepted the seven Sacraments that Lombard had listed. The major change in our understanding of the Sacraments was from “this leads to God” (which can be used to define a sacramental) to “this is an encounter with God”.
A sacramental is something instituted by the Church that points towards God. So the difference is that Sacraments are instituted by Christ and sacramentals are instituted by the Church. But also, the sacramental only points towards God, but in the Sacrament, Christ is made present; God’s very Life is received. There’s a major difference. Examples of sacramentals are holy water, a Rosary, a Scapular, a devotional like the Stations of the Cross, a statue, even the Church building. Of course, many things in life can be sacramental, in that they point towards God, or they reveal something about God to us: nature or friendship, for example. The wedding rings my wife and I share are sacramental in that sense. But, not to confuse those sacramentals, with sacramentals, instituted by the Church.
So, Sacraments are an outward sign, instituted by Christ, of an inward or invisible grace. A grace or graces are always offered with a Sacrament. Christ is always made present to us in the Sacraments. All Sacraments fulfill a deep longing of our existence. All Sacraments point to a mystery and in all Sacraments a metaphysical occurrence takes place, and through the Sacraments we are able to be in communion with God. Adam and Eve didn’t need the Sacraments because they already were in communion with God, they had God’s life. They were “in the Kingdom” - until that little incident with the serpent and the fruit of the tree. But God promises that he will be with us. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.
Jesus is the ultimate Sacrament because that is what a Sacrament is: the coming together of the human with the divine. And that’s the most awesome mystery, because all the longings of the human person are satisfied by God.
Now we can begin looking at each Sacrament individually. Next time, we’ll look at Baptism. Remember to send in your comments and don’t forget to watch In Your Faith, Tuesdays at 8pm ET (9pm PT).
Pedro (pedro@saltandlighttv.org)
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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
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