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Sacraments: Meeting God in Our Own World


While many churches use the term sacrament frequently, few understand Teaching about them, or the history of the term sacrament. In Latin, the word "sacrament" literally means "to make holy; to set apart" and was used to describe an oath through which one changed legal status (1). Latin speaking Christians used this term to translate the Greek word for "mystery." Both terms get at the same idea: sacraments/mysteries are signs/symbols of something sacred and hidden, vehicles by which we encounter the mystery of the Trinity and receive God's grace through the physical world. The Catholic Catechism says, "sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites...signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1131). Similarly, the Book of Common Prayer describes sacraments as "outward signs of inward and spiritual grace." The Orthodox Church says, "the material elements, signs and gestures used...are living symbols that relate to the realities of our human experiences...material things are made into vehicles of the Spirit" (The Sacramental Life of the Orthodox Church). In other words, God uses the physical world, such as bread, wine, water, and oil, as signs of His activity in our lives. Jesus' cloak had power, as did his saliva. Peter's shadow healed. Paul's handkerchief did as well. Think of it in this way: You pray because you are lonely. A few days later, you get a call from an old friend. This is sacramental. God, operating through the physical world, gave you grace and helped you out. Divine mysteries were enacted and carried out using the physical world.

water flowing from a spring

At the heart of sacramental theology is the Incarnation, that is, God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is the most complete, and final, revelation of God to mankind. When God became human, he sanctified all of creation, making it a fitting vehicle for his work. This means that God uses physical things to reveal himself to us. St. John of Damascus (730 AD) describes the value of material things in knowing the invisible God:

For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance (On Holy Images).

One can find sacrament-like rites and symbols even in the Old Testament, before the Incarnation, when God's revelation to humanity was incomplete and developing. In the Old Testament, we encounter blessings, washings, kissings, ritual meals, circumcision, etc, all of which involve God providing his grace and revelation using created things, rituals, and symbols. God frequently used people, even seemingly broken people like King David, to carry out his purposes. Thus God acting within, and utilizing, creation, occurred prior to the Incarnation, perhaps even foreshadowing it.

Thus a sacramental worldview, rooted in God's revelation to humanity, especially in the Incarnation, is experiencing God acting within the world in which we live, the world in which God chose to dwell for the sake of our salvation. As such, a sacramental worldview, perhaps given completely only through God's grace, allows us to perceive deeper meaning to what appear to be everyday symbols and events, e.g. bread and wine. Additionally, sacraments, as part of God's plan for humans, touch upon the deep human need for symbol and ritual, a need built into our very being. Just as the weekly family meal is a meaningful ritual, symbolic of family unity, love, and brotherhood, sacraments fulfill the same basic human need to experience meaning in symbol and ritual. However, the sacraments are better than other symbols and rituals (which themselves may be Good), because they give us special grace, and allow us to uniquely encounter the Risen Lord (2).

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Certain early Christians rejected the idea of sacrament. They believed that matter was evil, and that one received salvation through esoteric knowledge. Only a few had this knowledge. Even some in the church who thought they were saved, were actually fated to be condemned, because they lacked this knowledge. Salvation was about saying a few words, a salvation "formula." These were not orthodox Christians, but rather Gnostics, early Christian heretics. It is no surprise that the Gnostics rejected the sacraments, because they did not believe in the incarnation. The Gnostics so despised the physical world that they could not fathom how the Son of God could become flesh to save us.

Many today believe very similarly to the Gnostics. They believe that the physical world is evil, and that true Christianity is about esoteric knowledge, i.e. knowing the correct spiritual formula (like the extra-biblical "sinner's prayer"). They try to escape the physical world, and emphasize being "spiritual," rejecting the use of any externals in worship. The early Christians rejected these Gnostic tendencies, instead embracing a symbolic and sacramental mentality. Influenced by both Jewish thought and Neo-Platonism, they believed that symbols, such as water, were truly connected to the reality they symbolized. Even the word symbol (Gr. symbolon), which literally means "thrown together," suggests that a symbol cannot be separated from the Reality it symbolizes. To use a modern example, a handshake truly conveys the reality of brotherhood. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as just a symbol. Therefore, the water of baptism was the way in which God actually washed away sins, cleansing the soul. After the enlightenment, with its rationalism and individualism, sacraments were rejected as "works" by some and called "ordinances." However, St. Paul did not divide symbol and reality, or the spiritual and the physical:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7, RSV).

As you can see, Paul describes baptism's washing as saving, and in the next sentence talks about being saved by grace, demonstrating the symbolic mentality of ancient Christians, whereby free grace is mediated through sacrament/symbol.

The Catholic Church has come up with three characteristics of sacraments proper. All sacraments must have proper matter, form, and intention. The form is the sacramental sign, the verbal and physical liturgical action, e.g. the "this is my body" spoken during communion. The matter is the part of the sacrament to which something is done, the physical objects, e.g. the waters of baptism (although not all physical objects used in administering a sacrament are considered essential matter). Intention means that the priest or minister must have the willful intention to do what the Church does (facere quod facit ecclesia). Note that a minister does not have to believe personally all that the Church believes for the sacraments to be valid; he simply has to intend to do what the Church does. This means that if a person pours water over your head, reciting the words spoken at baptism, but is doing so only to demonstrate how to baptize, that baptism is not valid. Also, a child who is pretending to baptize another child would not confer a valid baptism upon that child, because his intention is to play, not to baptize. Additionally, the Catholic Church teaches that sacraments confer grace so long as the individual places no obstacle (obex) in the way of receiving the grace. The importance of intention and placing no obstacles in the way of receiving grace shows that while the sacraments are effectual in and of themselves, they are not magic whereby God works against our will.

Sacraments are effective ex opere operato, i.e. effective on account of the work itself. During the 4th century some otherwise orthodox Christians asserted that the effectiveness of the sacraments depended on the holiness of the minister. In other words, if the presbyter baptizing was in a state of sin, his baptisms didn't "take." These Christians eventually broke off from the wider Catholic Church, and were called "Donatists." The Donatists, situated primarily in North Africa, asserted that bishops consecrated by sinful bishops weren't really bishops at all. St. Augustine and others spilled a lot of ink to refute this position regarding sacraments, which is characterized in the Latin as ex opere operantis, i.e. sacraments are effective on account of the one doing the work. While the Church calls her priests (and all Christians) to high standards of holiness, the sacraments are effective independent of a minister's holiness because a perfect God is ultimately providing the sacramental grace, not the imperfect human minister.

The Sacraments have been numbered variously throughout history, but all of the rites currently accepted as sacraments can be traced back to Jesus in some fashion, although in some instances the official designation "sacrament" was applied to the rites much later. Typically, Catholics and Orthodox put the number at seven, although both Churches apply the term "sacrament" to events and entities outside the classical seven, including to the Church herself. The Eastern Churches are far less likely to officially number them, although because seven is a mystical number, many Easterners are content with it. Similarly, many Catholic Christians see sacrament-like events, or perhaps sacramentals, or sacramental experiences, everywhere that God uses the Incarnation-redeemed physical world to further the mystery of His salvation and grace. Nature, sounds, smells, people, music, words, etc, can all be sacrament-like signs, although the term "sacrament" is generally reserved for those rites in which God's grace is promised.

Finally, we must remember that sacraments are ultimately experiences and encounters, and not necessarily rational apprehensions. After all, meeting the infinite God of the cosmos cannot be fully conceptualized by our finite minds. On account of this, we call the sacraments mystical. However, we must remember that this is mystery grounded in the real, physical world. Below are the seven sacraments Catholics accept, all of which the Orthodox accept as well.

Baptism- Baptism is our entrance into the Church and into the life of God. Baptism is done in the name of the Trinity, and baptism brings about regeneration, illumination, new birth, and gives us a permanent sacramental seal that unites us to Christ and the Church. Baptism cleanses the taint of original sin, although the effects remain. Every Christian is expected to be baptized, and in the cases of an emergency, anyone may baptize, even an atheist, so long as he says the right words, uses water, and is intending to perform a baptism. While full immersion is the biblical model, early in the Church (even as early as 80 AD), pouring water was a legitimate option. Infant baptism is an ancient tradition, and is implied in the Bible, where whole families were baptized. The Catholic Church considers all baptisms with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit to be valid, so long as the minister intends to do what the Church does at baptism. Currently the baptisms of most Christians in the name of the Trinity are usually assumed to be valid, with the exception of Mormons and a few others. Thus when non-Catholics become Catholic, they are not re-baptized, although if there is doubt about the original baptism (no certificate, no recollection, etc), a person may be conditionally baptized. Baptized Christians not officially in the Catholic Church are in a limited and imperfect communion with the Catholic Church on account of their baptisms (CCC 1271).

Eucharist- The Eucharist is the Church's "thanksgiving," where we partake of the body and blood of Christ. This is also called the Mass. While Baptism is only done once, we may partake of the Eucharist daily. Catholics and Orthodox believe that once properly sanctified, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit comes upon the bread and wine, sanctifying them, and sanctifying us as well. The Mass is a sacrifice, where we participate in the unbloody re-presentation of Christ's one sacrifice. Through the Eucharist we are given grace, strength, and the ability to resist evil. Christians have been availing themselves regularly of this holy meal, the "medicine of immortality," since Jesus instituted this sacrament before his death.

Confirmation (Chrismation)- In this sacrament, whereby we are sealed with the sign of the cross with blessed oil, baptismal grace is completed, and we become more perfectly "bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit" (CCC 1285). The Eastern Churches confirm immediately after baptism, as is the ancient manner, even with infants, whereas the Western Church usually confirms later in life, usually during adolescence. However, when the West takes in new adult converts, Confirmation usually occurs immediately after baptism. Confirmation gives us an indelible spiritual seal of the Holy Spirit, and makes us more able to live the faith with new purpose and abundance. In the early Church, confirmation initially may have been viewed as a component of the baptismal process, or perhaps a post-baptismal "intensification" of baptism, whereby through the laying on of hands, a person was anointed and sealed in Christ.

Reconciliation and Penance- Often called "confession" or "penance," reconciliation is the sacrament whereby Christians who have sinned after Baptism may be assured of their forgiveness and become reconciled to both God and His Church. In a sense, reconciliation is a continued after-Baptism conversion to Christ, as we grow in our obedience to Christ. Keep in mind that only God forgives sins, and that the Church has been given the right to be the instrument of this forgiveness. Reconciliation is in many ways about forgiveness within the community, because perfect contrition, being genuinely sorry because one has offended a holy God, is enough to keep one from eternal damnation. However, to partake of the Eucharist worthily, one must confess major sins (called "mortal sins," or sins leading to the soul's death) beforehand. While this may seem foreign to Protestants, the truth is that the early Church was a communal entity and any major sin scandalized the entire community. Surprisingly, in the early Church a person was usually given one chance to be forgiven for sinning after baptism and this was done by public confession. Private confession developed in Ireland in the 4th century for pastoral reasons.

Anointing the Sick (Unction)- St. James in his epistle (5:14-15) exhorts the presbyters of the Church to pray over and anoint the sick. This is the first clear reference to a primitive form of the sacrament of Anointing, also known as unction, from the Latin word unctio, "anointing." The Catholic Catechism describes this sacrament thusly: "by the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them" (CCC 1499). This sacrament is for all those who are gravely ill, although not just those who are immediately going to die. The sacrament may be repeated as illness persists, although historically it has been reserved for the time of death, which is why it is often known as "Last Rites." However, we must note that this sacrament is not necessarily only about physical healing, but about total healing in Christ, through sacramental grace. God grants us physical healing when it is for the good of our souls and a part of his plan.

Holy Orders- This is the sacrament of the apostolic ministry, i.e. the sacrament of those to whom Christ has entrusted his ordained ministry. There are three degrees of this sacramental ministry: Bishop (episcopos), Priest/Presbyter (presbyteros), and Deacon (diakonos). All three have clearly defined roles. In the earliest Church it seems that presbyteros and episcopos were used almost interchangeably. However, towards the end of the first century, a distinction between the two developed. The sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved for males alone, and despite trends toward's women's ordination in various Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church (or Orthodox Church) is not able to change the nature of a Christ-established sacrament because of trends in society or Protestant denominations. In the Western Church (except in rare cases), those receiving Holy Orders are celibate. In the Eastern Churches, married clergy are permitted, although only celibate men may advance into the Episcopacy.

Matrimony (Marriage)- This is the sacrament whereby one man and one woman enter into a life-long commitment, blessed by the Church. Married people are given a special grace to perfect each other's love. The grace also allows couples to effectively serve God as a "uni-duality" and to raise children. The married state is vocational, in that just as celibate individuals (priests, monks, nuns, etc) serve God in their single chastity, married couples are expected to serve God in their married chastity. Married chastity does not mean refraining from sexual intercourse; it means the married couple must be faithful to each other alone, and use their God-given sexuality properly (e.g. refraining from using artificial contraception). The Catholic Church requires that all marriages have "unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility" (CCC 1664). The Catholic Church does not sanction divorce, and if an individual obtains a civil divorce, and "remarries" civilly, he or she, from a Catholic standpoint, is committing adultery, because he or she is still married to the original spouse. The Catholic Church grants annulments, or declarations that a marriage was invalid from the start, if one is sought, and invalidity can be proven. Many mistakenly view annulments as "Catholic divorces," but the two are not equivalent.

In addition to the accepted Sacraments, there are other events and objects that have a sacramental character. The Catholic Church refers to these as sacramentals. These are sacred signs, whether objects or actions, that are like the sacraments, and whose effectiveness is obtained by the prayers of the Church. While sacraments are effective in and of themselves (ex opere operato), the sacramentals are more subjective and depend on the disposition of the persons involved (i.e. effective ex opere operantis) and the prayers of the Church. I am not sure where sacramental events fall (perhaps "sacramentals?"). For instance, nature, smells, sights, sounds, people, books, words, etc, can all have a sacramental character, in that God can supply grace, enliven, and enlighten us through diverse physical vehicles. While the classically accepted sacraments are sure means of grace, these "sacramental experiences" are more subjective, and depend more on what God intends to do. E.g., nature does not always a sacramental character, but can. This depends on God's intended activity in the world, an activity that I tend to see as more of a complex numinous web than anything linear. Why one hiker discovers God through nature, and another scorns God, we cannot know.

There also seem to be sacramental events that precede our conversion to Christ. These could be thought of as prevenient sacramental experiences, and are God's way of drawing us to Himself. These sacramental experiences include people, nature, and other ways in which God uses physical means for his divine purposes. Many have come to God after contemplating nature, or after experiencing the charity of Christians. These events act as vehicles for God's prevenient grace, i.e. God's preemptive grace.

Let me end on a joke. A lady was stranded on top of her house as floodwaters approached, ready to engulf her. She prayed for God to rescue her. A boat passed, and she let it go by, saying, "The Lord will provide." A second boat came, and she motioned it by, saying, "The Lord will provide." A third boat offered its help, and she proudly motioned the boat by, saying, "The Lord will provide." She eventually drowned and went to heaven. She saw God and asked him, "Why didn't you rescue me?" God said, "I sent three boats, what more did you want?!" The lady did not understand sacraments. Remember, we live in the physical world, God redeemed it, and God uses it.

1. Thanks to Latin teacher and friend Niall Slater, PhD, of Emory University for the information.
2. Thanks to Dr. Donald Casey of Felician College, and his post-graduate course on the sacraments, for highlighting this information, which is also raised in Bausch's A New Look at the Sacraments.

Updated 05-13-2009

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