I remember when I was going to receive the sacrament of confirmation. I was excited and thrilled. I was the youth version walking down the aisle, more like a preview to getting married. I remember the emphasis on what clothes to wear and how grand a party we will have after mass. It was an atmosphere of celebration and festivity, but largely limited to superficiality. As I reflect back, I feel that in this whole focus of inviting people for the party and deciding on what food I should serve, just to ensure that they do not gossip about how stingy we are, I missed out on a very important point – that I was going to encounter Jesus.
I thought as we enter into the season of Lent and get hit by the age-old question of what are you going to give up this lent, we can focus on another element which is often neglected, that is, sacramental encounter with Jesus. Lent is not so much of an invitation to give up as it is to encounter the Lord and the Church assures us that every sacrament is grace filled moment of encountering the Lord.
According to CCC 1076
‘In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls “the sacramental economy”; this is the communication (or “dispensation”) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s “sacramental” liturgy.
According to this understanding, the sacraments are Jesus’ own actions, which are not limited to just the seven defined by the Church. This can be better understood with an example. When we celebrate a person’s birthday, we celebrate the gift of life and that s/he has grown to be mature and blessed; but is this maturity and blessing received just on that one day? Definitely not! We are growing daily and we receive blessings daily but we choose to celebrate this on this one day of the year. In the same way, the whole world is sacramental by virtue of the incarnation, but the Church in her wisdom called us to acknowledge and celebrate seven sacraments.
Let us understand some important aspects of Sacramental Theology that will help us to appreciate the richness and depth of Sacraments in the Church
- Eastern and Western Understanding of Sacraments
- Jesus as the Primordial Sacrament
- Church as the sacrament of Christ
- Jesus instituted the seven sacraments
- Sacramental Causality
- Necessity of the Sacraments for Salvation
Eastern and Western Understanding of Sacraments
The Church was presented in its visible form on the day of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. The gift of the Holy Spirit marks a new beginning in the journey of Christianity. As CCC 1076 says, Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church. He acts through the sacraments in what the Eastern and Western tradition calls ‘Sacramental Economy.’ Though this may seem to be the common ground, both these traditions approach the sacraments differently. Each tradition has its own understanding and nuances based on the approach selected. The Eastern Church took the word ‘Mysterion’ to describe the sacraments, whereas the Western or Latin Church translated this as ‘Sacramentum’ to elaborate their understanding of Sacraments.
Mystery is the invisible which is made known through the visible. In the description of God, we often find ourselves using the adjective mysterious because it is who he is. He constantly reveals himself to us, but only through signs which he chooses to be appropriate. I would have resisted this approach prior to understanding the depth and weight it carries. I held the view that religion should be simple and direct. The word ‘mystery’ does the job of a stop gap to fill in the places where we find no answers and hence I did not appreciate this understanding. Now I feel mystery adds a sense of suspense which contributes to the experience of the divine in the celebration of a sacrament as the more you reflect on the mysterious aspect of sacraments, the deeper encounter you begin to have with the divine reality. The truth of his presence in the world, though not possible to be completely comprehended, begins to come alive in our lives. God is never directly and simply known to us but revealed slowly with time and mysterion is the same principle. It also creates an experience of sanctity, that the most holy is not something that you can find around the house. This understanding may be missing without this element being emphasized.
When the Latin Church wanted to translate mysterion, they chose the term sacramentum which in its original sense means an oath taken to the emperor. Sacramentum sends out a message of commitment and bond. It expresses in my understanding, an act of showing faithfulness in a relationship. Sacramentum calls the individual or the community in the context of a celebration to act or perform their part and see how God fulfils his commitment.
Both focus on the same experience but from different perspective. By using the word ‘mysterion’ the eastern Church is focused on the divinity and its process of revealing God to humankind. Whereas the word ‘sacramentum’ speaks of the response by humankind to the divine initiative. Both these strings should be held together as they contribute immensely to the holistic understanding of the sacraments. It is a free human response to a commitment and relationship based on fidelity which leads to the slow revelation of God in our life, who is mysterious and largely unknown or partially known through signs.
Jesus as the Primordial Sacrament
The Catholic understanding of sacraments has its foundation in the personal experience of the faithful in the past with the person of Jesus Christ. His visible presence on earth was a sign as well as a reality of the presence of God among the created people. Therefore, Jesus made the invisible God a visible reality to all mankind. Jesus was a sign of God to his people but most importantly according to me, Jesus was a sign that God has not abandoned, forgotten or disowned his people. Though the people of those times may not have been aware of Jesus as divine yet they experienced it in their encounters with him. Thus, revealing a mysterious element to the person who can heal, drive out demons, calm the sea, feed five thousand, raise the dead, though himself being just a carpenter’s son. These encounters were personally moving and called for a commitment on the part of those experiencing it. That is why, we see some follow Jesus, others go about telling the good he has done, while some come back to thank him. Jesus was a perfect example of both mysterion and sacramentum.
Christianity is not just a theology or set of doctrines, it is primarily a relationship with the person of Jesus. Jesus came to earth to show us all how to live. Sacraments therefore strengthen us and help us to live this live to our fullest potential. They enable us and stir up an inner experience which takes us back to encounter Jesus like the early Church did. Jesus came to make all things new and once we encounter Jesus we are changed, renewed and energized. Sacraments are moments of encounter which change us to be better. Sacraments give us a new meaning to life which draws from the new meaning Jesus gave to the whole of humanity with the Paschal mystery. Jesus no longer physically walks with us, but he is still alive and active among us and we experience him today through the Word of God and celebration of the sacraments which are primary to our faith.
Church as the sacrament of Christ
A unique feature of Catholicism is our understanding of the Church. No other religion understands the gathering community with as much depth and nuances as we do. A Christian cannot be a Christian in isolation. Our faith is communitarian and we experience and encounter Christ today in and through the Church. We have to move from the understanding of the Church as an institution or a building to seeing it as the People of God. The Church today continues the mission of Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit which descended on the apostles at Pentecost and thus gave birth to the Church is the same spirit which is available to us today and makes the Church a sign through whom we experience God’s renewing love.
Though we say the Church is the people of God, we cannot reduce the church to be just what its member are or do. Even in the middle ages, with all the corruption and crusades the Church was still in a sense Holy, because it is not completely identical to the people but is an extension of the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians says Christ is the head of the body, the Church (Col 1: 18). But in Corinthians he says that in the Church we encounter the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12: 12-13).
Just as Jesus was filled with God’s Spirit, the Church as promised by Jesus himself was freely given the gift of the Holy Spirit and it demonstrates this when it preaches the word, calls the people to conversion, when it heals and forgives etc. When Jesus was alive, it was his own actions and words that helped people to have an experience of the divine but now after his ascension, it is through the words and actions of the ordained ministers chosen by the Church, the people of God have this experience.
I loved the insight I received from the book which said the Church does not exist for its own sake which I believe is both a challenge to us and an invitation to truly live the call of God. In hindsight as I look back I can affirm this by the number of outreach and community building programs the Church has undertaken. The seven sacraments encourage the community in faith and their relationship with God, thus building a strong Church which goes out in service to people of other faiths. This service is not done as sympathetic charity looking down upon the other religions but as a genuine call to love. However, the Church still enjoys a privileged position because of the fullness of revelation and the outpouring of the spirit that it has received. The Church community, however is not exclusive. The Church has a mission to bring healing to the whole world.
CCC 775 -776 says,
“The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men’s communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues”, at the same time, the Church is the “sign and instrument” of the full realization of the unity yet to come.
As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. “She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men.” The Church “is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,” because God desires “that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus instituted seven sacraments
The Church teaches from the Council of Trent that Jesus Christ instituted the seven sacraments. This assertion was made as a counter to the accusations by Martin Luther who challenged that all seven sacraments do not have scriptural base and the Church on its own authority put together these seven sacraments.
There have been various attempts since then to trace back the sacraments to find its roots in the actions and words of Jesus during his ministry. I would like to hold on to the theological opinion taken by Karl Rahner. That in so far as Christ willed the Church, he also willed the Scriptures and the Sacraments along with the Magisterium. Jesus may not have directly instituted all these sacraments but the Church has been graced with the authority that comes from Christ and I believe it is in this right the Church puts forth these seven sacraments. Jesus did not directly speak about many of the issues we face today in which case the Church acts like the representative of God and discerns his will for the world. One way of looking at it is that Christ determined the grace and then it was the Church’ duty to decide the rites to signify this grace to the world.
The whole world is sacramental because of the beautiful act of the incarnation but the Church specifically points out seven moments to mark and identify as encounters with the Lord. Hence if the Church has formally announced these seven sacraments, I think it is justified to hold them as sacred and to experience Christ through the celebration of these sacraments.
Sacraments give us the grace which they signify. Various theologians have given their explanations on the Sacramental Causality. What I believe is of great importance is the understanding of Grace. Grace is often understood as something I receive materially or some power which is vested in me because of the performance of some actions. This reduces God to be like an ATM machine where I do some actions and I am sure I will receive what I want, but Grace should be seen as a relationship and the strength and the power drawn from this relationship. Therefore, Grace means the graciousness of God in turning the divine countenance to us. It is a sign of God’s nearness which arouses in us, a responding love.
Of all the classical and modern explanations mentioned, I personally like the encounter theology proposed by Edward Schillebeeckx. Christ is made present through the Church and is active in the Church. The Sacraments give us grace because the Church is the sacramental expression of the encounter between man and God in Christ. In celebrating the sacraments, this encounter is constantly being renewed.
I believe that in celebrating the sacrament, we are taken back to the very act of Christ, that is, his passion, death and resurrection, through which we have access to God. This act of God is rooted in eternity and when we celebrate the sacrament we give this act a historical dimension. Thus, reminding us of the encounter of human being with God in Jesus Christ. We are unworthy of God’s grace. It is in participating in these sacraments that we encounter God and his act of love that we are redeemed to receive God’s graciousness and goodness. Hence as the book beautifully puts it,
‘Sacraments are the same acts of Christ sacramentally presented to us and hence effect grace in the recipient’
Necessity of the Sacraments for Salvation
The Church makes the encounter between God and man a reality through the celebration of the sacraments. However, it is not only a celebration of the presence of God, but also very important human experience so that man may experience fullness of life. CCC 1129 taking from the Council of Trent states clearly that the Sacraments are necessary for Salvation.
In my opinion, a person who is in a relationship with our Lord would necessarily desire to encounter and meet him and the surest way that the Church knows this encounter takes place is through the celebration of the Sacraments. For it is only through the sacraments that the person is united in a living union with the only Son (CCC 1129) and experiences life for God in Christ (CCC 1134). The necessity of Sacraments is not so much of a minimum qualification required to clear the entrance exam but rather an assurance that the person has invested to encounter the Lord at specific moments in his life.
As Catholics, we are sacramental people. The sacraments journey along with us through the various stages of life. A journey we make from our birth to our death. These celebrations of sacraments are not to be seen as just milestones that mark significant stages of growth in the spiritual journey but as life giving celebrations of the mercy and love of God which flows through Jesus because of his salvific act of passion, death and resurrection. To put simple, Sacrament is an act instituted by Christ, performed by the Church which gives grace to the recipient. I hope we are able to see the various aspects to our celebration of sacraments which are not directly mentioned in the definition. To conclude I would like to mention the phrase I heard in class which I believe is central to our study of the sacrament –
‘The Sacraments make the Church and the Church makes the Sacrament.’