Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Have Sacraments Changed?
Not long ago I spoke to an adult study group on the
sacraments. One of the older members of the group was sincerely
puzzled by what he perceived to be the changes in the sacraments.
He had been taught as a youngster that sacraments came from Christ
and could not be changed. Yet in the years since Vatican II there
have been all kinds of changes.
He spoke of three changes that he found particularly
puzzling. First, he sees adults baptized by immersion at the Easter
Vigil on Holy Saturday in a large baptismal font surrounded by
the whole parish. This was something unheard-of before Vatican
II. For him the usual way Baptism is administered is by pouring
a small amount of water on the heads of infants in a quasi-private
ceremony after the Masses on a Sunday.
Second, the older parishioner described communal Penance
celebrations held during Advent and Lent. The whole community
hears the Scriptures and is led through an examination of conscience,
then goes face-to-face to confessors stationed around the church.
Again, this practice is in sharp contrast to the way pre-Vatican
II Catholics approached confession. Penance was almost always
celebrated anonymously and individually in a dark confessional
box on a Saturday afternoon.
He finally mentioned that at a recent marriage, the
bride and the groom faced the assembly during the exchange of
vows, instead of having their backs to their family and friends.
Have sacraments changed? Given the observations of this man who
had experienced the before and after of the liturgical reform,
this is certainly a legitimate question. Some of us remember the
Baltimore Catechism's still very valid definition of a
sacrament as "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."
Vatican II's reform of the liturgy enriched our understanding
of the sacraments even further.
The sacraments themselves did not change, but the
way we celebrate them today invites us to see and experience God's
presence in Christ where we have perhaps never consciously looked
before. The sacramental renewal of Vatican II sought to help us
make the connection between the sacraments and our daily lives.
How sacraments communicate
Before Vatican II much emphasis was placed
on the sacraments as the way the Christian faithful receive grace.
We still understand sacraments in terms of grace: God's loving communication
of self to us. But now there is a more conscious effort to see how
sacraments communicate God's grace, God's presence.
As our traditional definition indicates,
sacraments are all "outward signs." Quite simply, this means they
are all perceptible to our senses. To put it in the theological
terms of Vatican II, "in the liturgy the sanctification of women
and men is given expression in symbols perceptible to the senses
and is carried out in ways appropriate to each of them" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, 7).
The more perceptible these sacred signs
are to our five senses of sight, taste, hearing, touch, smell, the
more effectively they will communicate. God made us in such a way
that we learn about the world through our senses. We are enfleshed
spirits. The Catholic sacramental approach is founded on the conviction
that both creation and our bodies (because they are created by God)
are basically good and potential vehicles of God's presence when
they are open to God's grace. It is a central tenet of our faith
that God can and does choose to enter into relationship with us
through our physical existence, our very humanity.
This truth is reflected in the physical
manner in which Catholics worship. Think of the many ways we use
our bodies during the liturgy. To help us to attain particular interior
dispositions we assume various postures: kneeling (penitence), standing
(praise and service), sitting (contemplation). As intense forms
of worship, the celebration of the sacraments always involves our
bodies. In the celebration of the sacraments themselves we are anointed,
embraced, bathed and fed. We smell the rich fragrance of incense
at Mass or the sweet perfume of the chrism at Confirmation and ordination
to the priesthood.
We use our sense of hearing by listening
to the Scriptures and the homily. Participating in music helps us
to put aside selfish preoccupations and move to praise God in concert
with our brothers and sisters. In short, in our celebrations we
are invited to experience God's love reaching out to us through
our senses by means of everyday human actions. Our sacramental viewpoint
depends upon our sensitivity to God's grace at work in our everyday
The changes in the celebration of the
Eucharist, for example, were aimed at helping us make the connection
between the Eucharist (the central sacrament) and the very basic
human action of sharing nourishment: eating and drinking with one
In the revised order of Mass, the liturgy
presents the Eucharist to us not only as a sacrifice, but also as
a sacred meal. Just as Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, so
the revised liturgy invites us to gather around a common table remembering
Jesus and fulfilling his command to share in the meal where we,
like the disciples at Emmaus, recognize him in the breaking of the
bread (see Lk 24:13-35). In making this connection between meal
and Mass more obvious, the invitation is made to help us see the
vital connection between liturgy and life.
This connection is made more explicit
in other sacraments as well. In Reconciliation and the Anointing
of the Sick, for example, the human gesture of touch is used in
the laying-on of hands. Our loved ones reach out and embrace us
when we are sick or when we make up after an argument. Just so,
in the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing the presider also
communicates that loving presence of God through what can be best
described as a type of caress. The liturgical reform has made more
explicit the human basis for this gesture used in the sacraments.
Christ, the original sacrament
All of this, of course, is based on the most important
way God has reached out in love to humanity: in the incarnation
of Jesus Christ. In Jesus God became a real, flesh-and-blood human
being, "like us in all things but sin" (see Heb 4:15). God did
this to reach out to us in a way that we could most easily understand.
God continues to use the natural world as a way of
revealing the divine purpose. But Christians believe that the
most important and decisive way God has reached out to the world
in love is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Incarnation
is the basis for our Christian understanding of sacrament. Prior
to Vatican II, Christ's role in founding the seven sacraments
was stressed. For example, it would have been unusual in that
era to refer to his birth as a sacrament. One of the recoveries
of an older tradition by the Second Vatican Council was a look
at Jesus Christ himself as God's principal or first sacrament
to the world. Christ himself is the primary "outward sign of God's
The solemn proclamation in the prologue of John's
Gospel, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," speaks about
how God chose flesh (a human being) to communicate (Word) to humanity.
It is in Jesus, a "human being like us in all things but sin,"
through whom God has revealed the divine purpose for us and for
our world. It is through Jesus, who was fully God and fully human,
that we have been put into relationship with God and God's love.
The Incarnation itself was long regarded as sacramental.
Our ancestors in faith used the term sacrament in a much
less technical way than we do today. Before the distinction was
made between sacraments and sacramentals by later
theologians, the early Church saw sacraments broadly. Earlier
Christians saw sacraments as the ways by which God communicated
to us through our human experience in this world. To them sacraments
are how God "speaks our language."
In addition to the seven sacraments we know today,
the early writers of the Church thought of sacraments as any activity
or communal form of prayer that led Christians into the mystery
of God. That included the various rites associated with the catechumenate
(anointings and laying-on of hands to strengthen those who were
seeking Baptism). Time itselfthe progressive and gradual
unfolding of the liturgical yearwas seen as a kind of sacrament.
In time we are led to ever deeper communion with the One who is
the author of time itself. This manner of thinking was the Catholic
sacramental approach at work.
Any understanding of the sacraments cannot stop with
the Incarnation. In fact, it is only from what we know about Jesus'
life that we know the importance of his birth. A shorthand way
of referring to Jesus' life, death and resurrection is the "paschal
mystery." This term is derived from the word paschal or
"pertaining to the Passover" since, as we know, it was during
the Jewish pascha (Greek for "Passover") that Jesus handed
himself over to suffering and death.
Mystery comes from the Greek word for sacrament
itself. It refers to that which is not immediately apparent to
our senses, but is accessible and real to us because of faith.
By using the term paschal mystery we refer to all Our Lord
did to redeem humanity: the Incarnation, his teaching, his ministry
(especially to the poor and outcast), as well as his suffering,
death, resurrection and ascension.
All of our sacraments are linked to the fullness of
the paschal mystery. They derive their power from it. It is only
by virtue of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection that God's
loving purpose was fully revealed to us.
In every sacrament we remember the paschal
mystery in such a way that the power that flows from God's outpouring
of love for us in Christ becomes both real and accessible to us
here today. For this reason, to help us "remember well" this paschal
mystery, all of the new sacramental rites include Bible readings
as an important part of the celebration. Having heard God's word,
having remembered God's promises contained in Scripture, we can
proceed to the celebration of the sacrament itself, which continues
Christ's saving work in the world.
Scripture in the limelight
Prior to Vatican II very little was usually made of
the proclamation of Scripture during the celebration of the sacraments.
Today there is a restored emphasis on the Scripture readings as
an important part of the whole celebration. We recognize in the
Scriptures it is Christ speaking to his people. This is true not
only for the Eucharist, but for all of the sacraments.
In the Baptism of children, for example, we read from
the Gospels about Jesus and the little children or we reflect
on St. Paul's description of our dying and rising with Christ
in the waters of Baptism. In communal services of Reconciliation
we hear and reflect on God's word which constantly calls us back
to relationship with God and one another. In the Anointing of
the Sick, we hear the Gospel stories of Christ's healing all those
with infirmities and God's desire to make us whole.
We proclaim God's word to help us remember God's promises
in Christ. Sacraments are not magic, after all. They are celebrations
of faithfaith that is nourished and heightened by the proclamation
of God's Word. Our faith is also most eloquently and completely
expressed when we gather as a community. For, as Jesus promised,
"where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among
them" (Mt 18:20).
The Church: Christ's ongoing sacrament
In a real sense, the sacraments continue the work
that Jesus accomplished while on earth. Vatican II teaches that
the purpose of the sacraments is "to make people holy, to build
up the Body of Christ, and finally to give worship to God" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, 59). It is through the sacraments that
the Church continues here and now to incarnate Christ's presence
in the world. We baptize, forgive, heal and blessall in
the name of Christ.
All of the sacraments, thus, are communal celebrations.
This is especially true of the Eucharist as the central sacrament
of the Church. The old adage about the Eucharist illustrates this
well: "The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes
the Church." We gather, hear and reflect on the Scriptures, praise
and thank God for all that has been done for us in Jesus Christ.
We then share a meal that unites us more fully to both God in
Christ and to our brothers and sisters. In this we celebrate and
strengthen our identity as God's people.
With that in mind, it is easy to see receiving the
Eucharistor any other sacramentis not simply an act
we do as disconnected individuals. We receive the Eucharist, for
example, not to hoard the presence of Christ in ourselves. We
receive the Eucharist in order to be transformed, individually
and communally, into better members of the Body of Christ in the
How do we know if the transforming power of the sacraments
is having its effect? We know from Scripture that in the presence
of Christ there is reconciliation and peace. In his presence there
is no want: The hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and the
poor have the Good News preached to them. If we are truly mindful
that the sacraments celebrate and transform us into the very presence
of Christ, then it is we as Church who bring God's reconciliation
and peace to the world. It is we who are empowered to feed the
hungry, clothe the naked and preach the Good News to the poor.
This is also true when we witness sacraments received
by others. Whenever a sacrament is celebrated, Christ is present.
When we see someone baptized, that presence of Christ is communicated
to all present: to the person being baptized, in a special way,
but also to those present who are already baptized. Through the
celebration they are invited to relive the moment of their own
Baptism when they, too, were immersed in the Paschal Mystery of
Christ. They are invited to pledge themselves anew to the discipleship
celebrated in the sacrament and to realize in an even more profound
way their membership in Christ's body.
Once again, this is why the sacraments are meant to
be public events. They are most fittingly celebrated in the context
of the Christian community at prayer. At a wedding, the consent
of the couple witnessed by the Church, which constitutes the central
act of the marriage rite, is not only for them. It underlines
the fact that through the sacrament of marriage, God's love for
us in Christ becomes all the more present in the world. It radiates
out from the Christian home established by the sacrament of marriage.
Have sacraments changed?
In this Update, we have discussed various changes
in the way we celebrate and understand the sacraments: the expanded
use of Scripture readings, the emphasis on the communal nature
of the sacraments, Jesus as the primary sacrament, to name a few.
We have seen, however, that the essential meaning of the sacraments
has not changed.
While the way we celebrate the sacraments has changed
since Vatican II, the faith of the Church in Christ's active presence
in the sacraments has not. Because we Catholics are a sacramental
people, we experience the presence of God in the world. We experience
God in everyday human actions such as sharing food with one another
or reaching out in love to those in need. Sacraments are God's
way of communicating that presence to us. They are our way of
seeing in Christ's suffering, death and resurrection the very
pattern for our own lives. This will never change.