I guess you can’t blame Catholics if they don’t know the meaning of a Sacrament. I was a Catholic for 38 years and had received 5 of the 7 Sacraments before I really came to understand what Sacraments are and why we need them.
What is a Sacrament?
I don’t 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. What’s the sign? Which is the gift? Is the gift of God the ritual? 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 didn’t find it) 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’s just say that the ritual of the Sacrament is not the gift. Rather, like a road sign, it points to the gift. The gift is the destination. The ritual of the Sacrament is there to point us in the right direction and to remind us where we are headed.
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.
A Bit of Mud
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, 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. The man didn’t need to put mud on his eyes to be healed, but the mud was a tangible sign that something invisible was taking place. (Although in his case, he was healed of his blindness, so I guess that was pretty physical too!)
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, the signs are pointing necessarily to something that is absent. The sign itself contains something of the meaning of that to which it points. 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.
What is Grace?
Most of us don’t remember learning this one either. Grace is a gift from God. It can be anything as long as it comes from God.
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.
One summer I was helping out at a Vacation Bible School in my former parish and 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.
The Church teaches that we are guaranteed
to receive Grace with every Sacrament. This is different from other times we receive Grace because with the Sacraments there is this guarantee
. Jesus said, “I came to bring you life, and that you would have it abundantly.”
That’s what He meant.
Come back next week
and let’s look at the actual ritual of each Sacrament.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Read Part 2 and Part 3.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: email@example.com.