Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
It All Starts With Jesus
Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have experienced
some rather dramatic changes in the way we celebrate the sacraments.
Think for example of the way your parish celebrates Sunday Mass
now as compared to 1965. It is normal that when the way we celebrate
the sacraments changes, so does the way we talk about them.
Millions of American Catholics have memorized, "A
sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."
In what ways might we enrich this definition from The Baltimore
Catechism so that it can more adequately express our present
experience of the sacraments?
We can better understand the changes in the way sacraments
are celebrated when we examine the new outlook on sacrament held
by those scholars and bishops who revised our sacramental rites.
Grasping this new sacramental theology may make us more comfortable
with the changes in the sacramental celebrations.
The rise of Christian fundamentalism in our country
gives us another reason to deepen our grasp of the sacraments.
Today in our country there are fundamentalist Christians who see
our devotion to the sacraments and our involvement with ritual
and conclude mistakenly that we Catholics are not real Christians
at all, but members of some kind of cult. It looks to them as
if we do not believe in Jesus or read the Bible.
Many Catholic families are disrupted when a son or
daughter, father or aunt, embraces fundamentalism and then informs
Catholic family members that they are not saved and are bound
for hell. In these painful moments we must each have a good understanding
of our faithnot only for our own peace of mind but also
to be able to clarify erroneous definitions of Catholic sacrament
Nothing can be further from the truth, by the way,
than the accusation that we do not know Jesus and the Bible. If
there is anything we can say about the Massor any of the
sacramentsit is this: They all start with Jesus. For example,
although the Baltimore Catechism definition of sacrament
does not mention the Bible, the Church clearly teaches that "Sacred
Scripture is of the greatest importance" (Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, #24) in the celebration of the Mass and the
It all starts with Jesus
The loving God who made us wants to
be present to us. Lovers want to be together. God knows how hard
it is for us to love someone we cannot see or touch. And so the
invisible God took flesh and came among us and was seen in human
likeness. Central to the mystery of Christmas is the realization
that God comes to usand we come to Godin the flesh,
through our bodies in the midst of the created world.
The invisible God, whom no eye has seen,
was seen in the humanity of Jesus. God, whose wonder and love are
beyond our imagination, wished to become visible and close to us.
St. Augustine (who died in 430) calls sacraments "visible signs
of invisible grace." Our understanding of sacrament starts with
making the invisible visible. As we pray at Christmas: "In the wonder
of the Incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of
faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our
God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot
see" (Christmas Preface I).
An important step in enriching our understanding
of sacrament is to see Jesus himself, in his humanity, as the first
and original sacrament. It all starts with Jesus. Jesus himself
is our sacrament, our visible sign of the invisible God.
From Jesus to Church
"But we cannot see Jesus. Jesus is no longer among
us—." It didn't take Christians long to see how false that objection
is! St. Paul was born again in the light of the revelation that
Christ is present among us. Paul retells the incident: "I fell
to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why
are you persecuting me?' I replied, 'Who are you, sir?' And he
said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting'
" (Acts 22:7-8).
Paul realized that Christ cannot be separated from
his members. The risen Christ is so identified with the Christian
that what Paul did to a Christian, Paul did to Christ himself.
The Christian is baptized into Christ and can say with
Paul, "yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me..." (Galatians
As Jesus is the original sacrament, so we who are
baptized into the risen Christ become sacrament. Today it is Christ's
body the Church which is the sacrament, the revelation of the
loving plan of God. The Second Vatican Council teaches that Jesus
"rising from the dead, sent his life-giving Spirit upon his disciples
and through this Spirit has established his body, the Church,
as the universal sacrament of salvation" (The Dogmatic Constitution
on the Church, #48).
The Church itself is sacrament. Another point in enriching
our understanding of sacrament is to think of sacraments not so
much as something we receive but something that we are.
We are sacrament, instruments of grace; we are the ordinary way
God graces today's world.
God's dreams for the world
What is it that the sacraments make visible? It is
the story of God's dreams for the world. The Second Vatican Council
summarized this story in this way: "God...sent his Son, the Word
made flesh, anointed by the Holy Spirit, to preach the Gospel
to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart;...his humanity united
with the Person of the Word was the instrument of our salvation.
Therefore in Christ the perfect achievement of our reconciliation
came forth and the fullness of divine worship was given to us"
(Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #5).
We read of God's plan for the world on every page
of sacred Scripture. On the very first pages of the Bible we see
God creating this magnificent world and all that is in it. From
the earth God creates a human and breathes into it God's own image.
And all is at peace.
I see in the first chapters of Genesis a threefold
harmony: (1) Men and women are at peace; they are naked and not
ashamed. (2) The human creatures are at peace with the earth;
Adam names the animals and tills the earth, and it brings forth
its fruit. And (3) we are at peace with our God; Adam walks in
the garden and talks with God. And it is good. On the first page
of the Bible we get a glimpse of the harmony God wants at the
endtime: that all creation be reconciled and at peace.
But sin shatters the dream: (1) They realize they
are naked. (2) By the sweat of their brow the earth yields up
its fruits. (3) God calls to Adam and he hides.
When the time was ripe, Christ came to bring the dream
of God to completion. He spent his life healing sickness and division.
By his death and resurrection he reconciled all things in himself
and made it possible for God's plan to be realized. We enter into
this magnificent plan of Godthis sacramentby celebrating
There are times when we pray privately and there are
times when we pray together as Church in the name of Christ. This
prayer of the Church is called liturgy. The liturgy embraces our
celebration of Mass and the sacraments, the Liturgy of the
Hours and the liturgical year, music and art.
The liturgy "is the outstanding means whereby the
faithful may express in their lives and manifest to others the
mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #2). Sacraments are not occasional,
"once in a while" events. They are our constant lifestyle. Sacraments
are the way Catholics pray.
Telling the story
In this sin-torn world divided by war and greed we
must continually retell the story of God's plan for unity and
reconciliation. We must keep the dream of God alive. We, the Church,
do this first of all in the celebration of the sacraments. The
sacraments are the celebration of our Christian story. This is
the principal reason why the proclamation of Scripture is an essential
part of every sacramental celebration. Sacraments are worded signs.
Scripture is the word, the story which makes the sacramental sign
"Sacred Scripture is of the greatest importance in
the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from Scripture that
the readings are given and explained in the homily and that the
psalms are sung; the prayers, collects and liturgical songs are
scriptural in their inspiration; it is from the Scriptures that
actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the reform,
progress and adaptation of the liturgy, it is essential to promote
that warm and living love for Scripture to which the venerable
tradition of both Eastern and Western rites gives testimony" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #24).
Sacraments celebrate the goodness of all creation.
Material things are good. Our human bodies, our very flesh and
bones are good. God took flesh and dwelt among us, and in this
mystery of taking on human flesh proclaimed that the things of
this earth are not obstacles to God but are intended to be windows
to the divine. The magnificence of creation enables us to see
something of the wonder, the multiplicity, the superabundance
of God. Catholicism is a sacramental religion; it prays with bathing
and eating, singing and embracing. Sacraments celebrate the goodness,
the grace-filled essence, of creation: water and fire, oil and
salt, ashes and palm branches, bread and wine. Creation draws
us into the very life of the Creator.
"Thus, for well-disposed members of the faithful,
the effect of the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals is
that almost every event in their lives is made holy by divine
grace that flows from the paschal mystery of Christ's passion,
death and resurrection, the font from which all sacraments and
sacramentals draw their power. The liturgy means also that there
is hardly any proper use of material things that cannot thus be
directed toward human sanctification and the praise of God" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #61).
How many sacraments are there?
We have been taught that there are seven sacraments:
Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of
the Sick, Marriage and Holy Orders. When people today hear that
Jesus is a sacrament and the Church is a sacrament they sometimes
wonder, Does that makes nine sacraments?
The question "How many sacraments are there?" has
received different answers at various periods of our history depending
on what the question meant and how the questioner understood the
Today we Americans usually (nearly always!) use numbers
as quantities. Numbers tell us how much or how many. How much
is my gas bill? How many days till Christmas? But numbers can
also be used as qualities. For example, many people feel that
13 is unlucky. Thirteen in this sense indicates a quality (unlucky)
rather than a quantity (12 plus one). It is not something you
can figure out mathematically or explain to a "nonbeliever."
In our industrial America this qualitative use of
numbers sounds strange or superstitious. But this use is quite
common in other societies and other historical periods. Numbers
as qualities have often been used in religion. Seven, for example,
symbolizes totality. This is an important factor in the
Church's speaking of seven sacraments.
Four is the number for earth and three is the
number for heaven. (There are four elements: earth, air,
fire and water. There are three Persons in God.) When we join
earth and heaven, the material and the spiritual, the created
and the divine, four and three, we have "all that is." And so,
seven means universal, completeness, totality.
When we say that there are seven sacraments we are suggesting
in this religious sense that the material universe is a sacrament;
all created things are windows to the divine; we have all the
sacraments we will ever need! (Seven is frequently used in this
sense of "completeness": There are "seven gifts" of the Holy Spirit
and there are "seven Churches" in the Book of Revelation, symbolizing
the universal Church.)
Are the seven sacraments in the Bible?
We do not find the word sacrament
in the Bible. Sacrament is a Latin word. The origins of our
Christian Scriptures, however, are in the Greek language. Hence
the word for sacrament we find in the Bible is the Greek
word mysterion, "mystery."
Today the English word mystery
is frequently used to mean "something we cannot understand." ("How
she could have all that money and still be so unhappy is a mystery
to me.") The Greek word mysterion is usually translated in
our English Bibles by the word plan. The wonderful, mysterious
plan that God had before creation began to take flesh in Jesus and
to draw all of creation into unity and a harmony so spectacular
and breathtaking that the very idea is too wonderful for us. This
plan is something we never fully understand. This is the fundamental
meaning of sacrament found in the Bible.
St. Paul says that it is his life's work
to announce and bring to completion this "mystery hidden from ages
and from generations past" (Colossians 1:26). "To me, the very least
of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles
the inscrutable riches of Christ, and to bring to light the mystery
hidden from ages past in God who created all things, so that the
manifold wisdom of God might now be made known..." (Ephesians 3:8-10).
When the language of the Church changed
from Greek to Latin, the Greek word mysterion was sometimes
translated by the Latin word sacramentum; it is in this word
that we find the biblical roots of the word sacrament.
For the first 11 centuries of Christian
history the word sacrament was frequently used in this more
general sense, referring to the mysterious plan of God. Little by
little specific aspects of this mysterious planfor example,
eucharist, baptism, anointing of the sickbegan to be singled
out and called sacraments. In the 12th century, in the works of
teachers such as Hugh of St. Victor (who died in 1141) and Peter
Lombard (who died in 1160), we began to see the list of the seven
actions which we now call sacraments. In 1547, responding to specific
questions being asked at the time, the Council of Trent stated:
"The sacraments of the new law are seven, no more and no less" (Session
VII, Canon 1).
'To give grace'
We cannot update our understanding of
sacrament without looking at our understanding of grace. Grace has
been understood in many different ways in Christian history. Probably
most Catholics today think of grace as "a gift of God."
The greatest gift that God can give us
is the gift of God's very self. Karl Rahner and other theologians
speak of grace as "God's personal self-communication." Grace is
not so much something that is given but someone who
is experienced as present. This is why many theologians today do
not speak so much of sacraments "giving grace" as sacramental celebrations
"enabling us to experience grace," to touch Grace itself, to contact
the all-pervading presence of the loving God who sustains all created
things in existence. The sacraments allow us to become conscious
and aware of God's greatest gift: the creative, sustaining, loving
presence of God.
Our understanding of sacrament is related
to our ideas of grace and presence. Not only the Eucharist, but
each of the sacraments is a celebration of God's real presence.
In celebrating the sacraments we, the Church, proclaim anew the
marvelous, mysterious plan (mysterion, sacramentum)
of God to bring all things together in Christ:
"To accomplish so great a work, Christ
is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations.
He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person
of his minister, 'the same now offering, through the ministry of
priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,' but especially
under the eucharistic elements. By his power he is present in the
sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself
who baptizes. He is present in his word, since it is he himself
who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. He is
present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for he promised:
'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I
in the midst of them' (Matthew 18:20)" (Constitution on the Sacred
Sacraments proclaim the mysterious, hidden
plan of God to bring all things together in Christ. Sacraments are
the celebration of the presence of Christ in our midst.
A sacrament is...
"A sacrament is an outward sign instituted
by Christ to give grace." This catechism definition has served us
well. I am not going to try to improve on it. Sacrament is such
a complex, dynamic reality that no one is going to be able to really
define it adequately. Think, for example, of how you would define
Thanksgiving Dinner at Grandmother's, or My High School Prom or
The Final Game of the World Series.
These dynamic, ritual celebrations are
more verb than noun. Definitions are impossible; and even lengthy,
detailed descriptions fail. After all the defining and describing
are over, we are left with: "Well, you would have to be there!"
Sacraments are like that. To understand them fully, you have to
be there! One must experience them in person.
Contemporary theologians, reflecting
on their experience, have given us descriptions of sacrament which
can help us reflect on our own experience: "A sacrament is a festive
action in which Christians assemble to celebrate their lived experience
and to call to heart their common story. The action is a symbol
of God's care for us in Christ. Enacting the symbol brings us closer
to one another in the Church and to the Lord who is there for us"
(Tad Guzie). "Sacraments are symbolic actions manifesting the offer
of God's saving love for us in Christ and through the Spirit in
the Church. In the sacraments, we respond to God's self-giving and
draw closer not only to God but also to one another in the Church"
Two descriptions which have helped me
rethink my idea of sacrament are: "Many Christians tend to view
the minister/priest as the actor, God as the prompter, and the congregation
as the audience. But actually, the congregation is the actor, the
minister/priest merely the prompter, and God the audience" (Soren
Kierkegaard). "As long as you notice, and have to count the steps,
you are not yet dancing but only learning how to dance. A good shoe
is a shoe you don't notice. Good reading becomes possible when you
do not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print or spelling.
The perfect liturgy would be one we were almost unaware of; our
attention would have been on God" (C. S. Lewis).
Our attention is on God. God's plan is
disclosed. God's people are renewed. Christ's presence is celebrated.
Salvation is realized. In celebrating the sacraments we, the Church
in today's broken world, keep the dreams of God alive.