A sacrament is something that is both sign & symbol of the effective presence of God in the world.
As Catholics, we call ourselves a Sacramental People – indeed, our religious experience is sacramental.
We’re “hooked” on sacraments; expressions of life and faith (sacred realities) establishing something deeper, more meaningful in our lives. Sacraments are Sign, Symbol & Source. As such they point to something (a reality) beyond themselves.
Sacrament as Sign & Symbol is both the reality of the sign (being directional, it points to something) and the invisible reality it points to (something beyond itself, or what is immediately obvious). And it is Source – because things come to be through them. Through sacraments we believe a special grace (God’s favor, or free and undeserved help) is realized and accepted.
We Have Distinct Rituals
As Catholics we have distinct rituals which express a profound moment of God’s Grace in our lives that are more to us than simply a ritual; they are significant moments in our lives when we are in touch with the sacred realities that lie at the heart of faith. These “rituals,” or Sacraments, are “Doors to the Sacred, ” as theologian Joseph Martos would refer to them. They move us to what lies beyond the doors.
As Church, we celebrate 7 Sacraments, or ritual actions in which we believe that grace, in a way proper to the sacrament, is experienced, but in the broadest sense, sacrament is more. In the broadest sense any person, event, or thing through which we encounter, or experience God’s presence, or has the potential to reveal God in a deeper way can be a "sacramental experience."
As a starting point, the world, creation itself, is the biggest sign of God’s presence. It is a sign of God’s love we all live in.
But we "like to get our hands around something." We like more. And so God entered human history in the person of Jesus. Jesus is source (John 1, “nothing came to be besides him”) and sign (could be seen, touched). Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God. Jesus points to the reality of God. And the collection of human beings that Jesus gathered about himself and commanded to do as he did is what we call the Church. The Church, the body of followers of Jesus of Nazareth, is the sacrament of the risen Jesus. As such, the Church points to the reality of Jesus and the Church makes present in an ongoing way the relationship between God and humankind. You’re more than “just someone” when you receive a sacrament. You help reveal the reality of the Church (the People of God) and, as Church, we point to the reality of Jesus who is always leading us to the loving, creating, transcendent God.
Our Rituals Were Born In Faith Experience
To help understand sacraments we start not with the 7 ritual sacraments, but with the experience of the reality of God’s presence and care in our daily lives. Sacraments happen in people who have come together as Church to celebrate what has already happened. Early Church encounters include Baptism, the coming together to break and share the bread and to pray for each other and lay hands for healing and forgiveness. The early disciples did these activities as Jesus had done. Jesus was real and present to them as they did these. He is still real and present today to us as we, also, live out these same significant moments in our lives; moments which offer deep and personal encounters with God which transform, or change lives.
Sacraments are special experiences that begin with God’s love and care through Jesus to us, and through us to others. By celebrating and participating in the sacramental life of the Church we continually nourish ourselves and share with others the reality of Jesus who continually shows us the reality of the invisible God.
Sacraments afford God’s Grace. They are not a thing, or product, or quantity, but a quality. The gift of God’s presence into which we grow; a relationship between us and God. Through the sacramental life this is enhanced by our openness to the relationship between us and God. Grace exists, and we celebrate the sacraments because it does.
The ritual sacraments we celebrate grew out of Jesus’ ministry and teaching – they are not “inventions,” but conclusions from what is found in the church’s tradition and scripture.
“The Christian sacraments are derived from the Jewish symbols of the Old Testament," as theologian, William J. Bausch, writes in A New Look at the Sacraments. "John the Baptizer was baptizing along the Jordan before Jesus came. There was an official confession of sins since Solomon’s time. Rabbis wrote of anointing of the sick with oil. So, the first Christians, all of the Jewish faith, inherited a vast complex of sacred signs and rituals, which conveyed in some way the mystery of God. Among all the ancient signs and rituals, blessings and gestures, seven in time became the most important because they had within themselves Christ’s own dynamism. The Church, under the Spirit, came to recognize this and so drew out of its tradition those elements which best described and evoked the work of Jesus.”
Sacraments are activating signs that build on the past, invoke the active and present God in ritual actions and are oriented to future fulfillment and glory. They are meant to enrich the human experience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1131 writes of sacrament in this way. "The sacraments are efficacious (producing an intended effect) signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispensations."
Our Ritual Sacraments
There are the Sacraments of Initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist which offer us the graces needed for the life of faith; to receive new life and to sustain it.
The Sacraments of Healing, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick help restore us to completeness when we are broken, or in need.
The Sacraments of Service, Matrimony and Holy Orders help us live out a life of vocation. They are other directed and offer us an opportunity for a sharing in the mission of Jesus by serving each other.Go to main navigation