The Sacraments – An Overview

I will always go back to my youth for the definition of a sacrament – “A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”  For those of us who grew up during the era of the Baltimore catechism, this was etched into our consciousness from an early age.  And I still think it is one of the best definitions because it is so succinct yet complete.  The grace we receive from the sacramental life of the Church is God’s life extended to heal and sanctify us.  Sacraments are at the heart of the way Catholics “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  (Hebrews 12:14)

In Sacred Scripture, we find the Greek word mysterion used.  St. Paul writes of himself and the other apostles in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries (mysterion) of God.”  In the Eastern Church, they refer to the “mysteries” when speaking of the sacraments.  When Scripture is translated from Greek into Latin, the words used are mysterium and sacramentum.  The catechism tells us in paragraph 774 that “In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium.”  And as St. Paul indicates, the apostles are the “stewards” of these mysteries, and as Catholics we believe that stewardship continues today in their successors, our bishops.

The Church recognizes seven sacraments and over the next many posts I will touch on each of them and their Scriptural basis.  But paragraph 774 of the Catechism also tells us this: “in this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: ‘For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.’” Christ becomes an outward sign of God’s love and presence – “an outward sign to give grace.”  He is the True Sacrament, and from him the grace of all sacraments flow.

For this reason, all of sacramental theology has its foundation in the incarnation of Christ.  The “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  As Christ assumed a human nature — physical matter — to become present to us, so is he present to us through the physical matter associated with the sacraments – bread, wine, water, oil. 

We can recognize two competing schools of thought from the ancient early world of Christianity.  One is Gnosticism.  The Gnostics believed that physical matter was evil, and the goal should be to transcend from physical matter to an enlightened, spiritual state.  The other school of thought is that found in paganism.  To the pagan, all reality is contained in physical matter and any “gods” that exist are part of nature, not transcendent to it. 

The incarnation of Christ shows us a very different understanding of the spiritual and physical worlds.  Yes, God is transcendent to the natural world and has no dependency on it.  Yet when God created the physical world, His view was “it was very good.”  (Genesis 1:31).  And He sanctifies the world by His very presence when he assumes a human nature, and unites physical matter with the reality of His life as Spirit.  This is why The Sacrament is Jesus Christ.  And in the sacraments of the Church, he continues to unite physical matter (bread, wine, water, oil) with His reality.

I put together this small visual for my class to help understand this concept.  It is interesting to me that Catholicism is sometimes accused of being pagan, and often this is due to our use of physical elements like bread, wine, water, oil, incense in our worship and sacramental life.  From the Catholic perspective, we would question if instead, those who believe this have not moved too far on the scale towards the gnostic view.  In doing so, they dismiss the goodness of physical matter and fail to recognize these expressions of faith as being rooted in the Incarnation of Christ.

We can even see a sacramental relationship between our faith and its outward manifestation in charity.  Christ truly becomes “incarnate” in us.  St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:11 “For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”  Our bodies are truly temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  And St. Paul can write, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

We can also look to the way Jesus chose to heal people while on earth.  I did a quick scan of the healings of Christ within Sacred Scripture, and came away with these results.  There were:

  • 3 healings at a distance
  • 5 healings by the spoken word alone
  • 10 healings by touch alone
  • 5 healings by both touch and word

One of the most interesting of these is that of the blind man (John 9:1-12).  Christ uses clay made of the earth and his own spit to place over the man’s eyes and then had him wash.  Was it necessary for Jesus to do this in order to heal him?  We would say no, but it does tell us something about Christ using ordinary physical matter to heal.  This is a very sacramental, outward sign of his healing.  Another example is when the woman with the hemorrhage was healed by simply touching his cloak (Mark 5:25-34).  In this example, power comes forth from Christ to heal her.  In a similar way, when we “touch” Christ through the physical realities of the sacraments, his power comes forth to heal us from sin and strengthen his life within us. 

While Christ is obviously not bound or required to use physical touch to heal, it does seem to be his preferred method.  There is a recognition of our physical nature, and that it is “good” (Genesis 1:31). There is something beneficial to us when we have an outward, physical experience of his presence and healing.  It is most certainly a more intimate encounter with him than a healing from a distance.  And this is the way we understand the sacraments – an intimate encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  We understand that Christ is not bound or limited to the sacraments – this is not the only way in which He can give or we can receive grace.  But it is the preferred or “normative” way he established.  “The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body.”  (CCC774). 

Not all Christians view grace in the same was as Catholics.  The Catholic concept of grace was covered here.  One of the things the Catechism says about grace is “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”  (CCC1996) To the Catholic understanding, the grace we receive from the sacraments is God’s gift of His own life that will strengthen and sanctify us.

Many Christians who do participate in some of these same rituals in some fashion view them as only being “symbolic” of something else.  That is not an accurate understanding of the word symbol.  To say or believe that something is “only a symbol” is a bit of an oxymoron.  The etymology of the word symbol literally means “that which is thrown or cast together.”  The outward sign is joined to the inward reality; the physical sign is joined to the spiritual action.  As occurred when “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

Some other Christians will claim that Catholics believe we can receive this grace by simply “going through the motions.”  That would be contrary to Catholic teaching, as we believe that for any sacrament to be valid, it is required that proper form, proper matter, and proper intent are present.  We know that God knows the hearts of men (Psalm 44:21), and understand that any sacrament that is not received with the proper disposition of heart is of no value.  The sacraments are not magic, they are an encounter with Christ.  And just as some who encountered him while he walked the earth were healed and sanctified by his presence, others were not due to the hardness of their heart.

Some other Christians will also contend that if Catholics believe we must “keep the sacraments,” we are not really saved because we’re not trusting in “Christ alone” for our salvation.  Since it is Christ who established the sacraments and touches us through them, that reasoning makes little sense to us.  Others may say that the sacraments are not “Biblically mandated.”  That claim will be addressed over the next many posts, where we will see the sacraments are indeed present within Sacred Scripture. 

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