THE MEANING OF SACRAMENT
Sacraments are celebrations that accomplish what they signify. What they signify is grace. They accomplish it because Christ is at work in them.
Sacraments accomplish what they signify. Consider as an example a wedding. The ceremony transforms the couple. The ceremony signifies the unity of the two partners, and it also accomplishes their unity.
Graduation, though not a sacrament, works in a parallel way. So does the oath of citizenship. Students walk in; graduates walk out. Foreigners walk in; citizens walk out. These ceremonies accomplish what they signify.
Sacraments, though, are different because what they signify is grace. Amazing grace. Grace is favor. Grace is the free and undeserved help that God gives us. Like the air we breathe, the grass we tread, the friends we make, grace is free favor. It is God's life and love given to us before we ask, without our paying, even when we fail, abundant beyond our greatest merit. Sacraments signify that free favor of God. Each sacrament confers its own sanctifying grace.
In the Catholic Church we recognize seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders. Some Christian churches acknowledge only two: Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Still others might argue that sacraments are innumerable -- the experience of God's grace cannot be measured or counted. But the Catholic Church holds to the tradition that Jesus instituted seven sacraments by his ministry and the ministry of the church, his body. The scriptures do not explicitly record Jesus setting up seven sacraments, but evidence for them surfaces from the earliest centuries of church life. The first time the Catholic Church defined the seven sacraments was at the second ecumenical council of Lyons in 1274.
We celebrate sacraments through perceptible signs. We use words and actions accessible to our human nature. When these signs are clear we can more easily absorb their meaning: water in abundance for baptism, oil that flows for confirmation, bread that resembles food for the Eucharist, texts that lead us to prayer. Sacramental signs that engage the human senses will awaken our spiritual sense as well.
In some measure, sacraments celebrate realities that already exist. A couple's love precedes their marriage. A sinner's repentance precedes forgiveness. A catechumen's faith precedes baptism. Sacraments bring to a moment in the present a reality which is past. But in that moment of the present the past attitude is infused with the divine presence by the activity of Christ. When we baptize, it is Christ who baptizes.
Sacraments also have a future dimension. Because they are celebrations of the presence of Christ they bring us, in some measure, to the realm of eternal life. Sacraments give us a foretaste of the life to come. The complete sacramental dimension is past, present and future. It brings what has been happening in the past to a moment of present grace which prefigures future glory.
Sacraments demand faith. The church as a whole believes in them first. The believer is invited to share that faith. Without individual faith the celebration of sacraments becomes difficult. Without faith one cannot be baptized. Without consent one cannot be married. And if you do not believe that Jesus is more active in sacraments than in other experiences of life, you will not easily accept the beauty of the sacrament of reconciliation. Reconciliation is not just a forum for saying, "I'm sorry." It is a sacrament in which Christ is the agent, where Christ says, "I forgive."
Sacraments also build faith. They sanctify believers, build up the Body of Christ, and give worship to God. They nourish, strengthen, and express faith.
The catechumenate leads to the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. When an unbaptized adult (or child of catechetical age) celebrates initiation, they are freed from the power of darkness and joined to Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. They are adopted into the people of God. Baptism incorporates us into Christ, frees us from sin, and makes us children of God. Confirmation makes us more completely the image of the Lord and fills us with the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist we eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man. These sacraments enable us to bear witness to Christ while we are alive, and to have union with Christ when we die.
Initiation is both the result of the sacraments and the means to the sacraments: The celebration of these sacraments constitutes initiation. The celebration of initiation entitles one to the sacraments. Thus, in a way, the sacraments lead to initiation; in another way, initiation leads to the sacraments.
Baptized candidates who seek the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist already share a common baptism with the Catholic Church. Their sacramental participation in the life of Christ is real by means of baptism. Their preparation brings them to the full communion of the Catholic Church.
Those who assist in the ministry of initiation assume the noble task of assisting the Holy Spirit, who is already at work, opening the hearts of those who seek God. To partake in the ministry of initiation requires faith in God, faith in the Church, and faith in the sacraments. The same life flows through them all. The life of God flows through the Church, the Body of Christ, which celebrates that life in the sacraments. God's grace, alive and flowing within us, will enliven those who seek a share in the sacraments of initiation.
(For further reading, see the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: "Christian Initiation: General Introduction" 1 and "Introduction" 1, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1084 and 1113-1134.)
This article appears in the Forum Institute Resource Packet (2000):13-14.
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