Look with me through a time-warp telescope.
Whenever I read reports of archaeologists, I like to imagine
how the so-called primitive cultures might have actually looked.
For instance, some scientists report the finding of an ancient
grave. Mingled with the now-powdery bones of a prehistoric
person were the clear remnants of a flower.
To me, through my time-warp viewing, that means
these long-ago mourners were not "savages"they
were human. While they may have worn nothing but skins
and their speech may have been harsh grunts, they made a human
sign that showed deep feeling. They made, we could say, a
sacrament, small "s."
They did what you and I still do, a hundred
times a day: make or do or say something that carries a deep,
powerful feeling. You could call a symbol (sacrament) a
visible sign with our heart in it: a hug, a present, a
smile, a hand joined to hand. When a police officer is killed,
other members of the police force may wear black armbands
as a sign of their sorrow. You, more happily, wear a class
ring with pride.
Notice that these symbols show what more
than one person is feeling. When United States citizens
were hoping and praying for the Iran hostages to be freed,
you could see yellow ribbons tied around tree trunks all over
America. Nobody had to say anything. When we saw those ribbons,
we all felt joined to our fellow citizens.
Who put the big "S" on seven
of these symbols?
You're making symbols all day long. Some of
them are religious: signs of deep feeling that we share.
Making the sign of the cross with holy water, kneeling, folding
hands in prayer, watching incense rise and enjoying its aroma,
singing the Our Father together: these are all symbols like
the yellow ribbonssigns of a feeling that we share.
Now, another name for symbol is sacrament: a
sign of God's gracious love. Some of them are Sacramentsbig-"S"-and
some are sacramentssmall "s." The Catholic
Church has seven "big" symbols and a thousand small
ones. The big ones are: Holy Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation;
Reconciliation (Confession) and Anointing of the Sick; Marriage
Some of these are directly referred to
by Jesus. "Do this as a remembrance of me" (Luke
22:19), he said at the Last Supper and we "do this"
at Mass. "No one can enter into God's kingdom without
being begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5), he said,
and we "do this" in Baptism.
Without going into a lot of argument, Catholics
believe that the other five are implied in Jesus' life,
death and resurrection, and he left it to the Church as to
what symbols it would use to express what he did when he was
living on earth and which Jesus continues to do now.
Now these seven sacraments are not just private
symbolsthey're like the yellow ribbons that people publicly
displayed for the hostages. The sacraments are actions of
the whole Church community. For instance, Baptism is the welcoming
of a new member into Christ's Body, the Church. The whole
parishor at least those at one Sunday Massshould
be present to welcome Steve and Lisa's newborn baby Christian.
A reason these seven are big-"S" symbols
is that God gives us absolute assurance that when we do these
things in faith, we absolutely receive what
these symbols say. We are absolutely assured that we are forgiven
in Confession. We are absolutely assured that we are given
God's life and love in Baptism. So the big-"S" sacraments
are not only yellow ribbons that we all tie around our trees:
God backs up our actions!
Let's take them one at a time
Your heart has to be in these signsthe
deep feeling I spoke of before. Just going through the motions
is magic and God doesn't deal in magic. The sacraments are
symbols of faith. We believe that God is really acting;
we believe that these symbols really do what they say. They
don't work "of themselves" like Coke machines that
clunk out the can when you put your money in.
Faith and feeling, though, are not the same.
For example, let's say you love your little sister. There
will still be days when headaches, a spot on the shirt you
were planning to wear or an "F" on your algebra
test lead you to feel no love at all for anyone, much less
your little sister. But just because you don't feel it doesn't
mean there is no love. It's just temporarily deflated, like
Headaches, spotted shirts and algebra plus lots
of trials worse yet can be reasons why you "don't get
anything out of" a sacrament. The thing that matters
is: What are your deepest feelings and convictions and desires
to please God? Why are you tying a yellow ribbon 'round
the old oak tree?
1) Most amazing as a sacrament/sacrifice
is the Mass. Jesus took our oldest natural sacrament, eating
together. Notice: not eating, but eating together
in a community where there is mutual love and forgiveness.
It surely never happens that a bunch of kids say, "Let's
go out for pizza," and then sit by themselves, each one
at a separate table! It's eating together that's a celebration.
This is the great thing we the Christian community
do every Sunday at Mass. How? Jesus used his divine power
to change that little group of friends at the Last Supper
into a living oneness, filled with God's own lifethat's
what we mean by grace. Through this grace, not only
are the bread and wine changed into the living Jesus; not
only are we made present to the Last Supper, the Cross and
the Resurrection so that we can say "Yes!" to themthere's
more! We come together, like spokes of a wheel to the CenterGod
loving usand thereby come closer to each other. That's
why the Mass is the biggest big-"S."
2) Next in the Big Seven is Baptism.
Back in the days of Jesus, people were baptized in the river
and they really went down under the water for a dunking. This
kind of Baptism (by immersion) is a dramatic symbol of death
and rising: The body of the one to be baptized is literally
put under water. Whatever that person was, whatever he or
she did, is gone, drowned, dead. He or she is lifted up (resurrected)
out of the water to new life, God's life. God himself recreates
us, puts a "second" life into our natural life:
We can love as God loves, share God's wisdom.
Today the usual form of Baptismpouring
water over the person's foreheaddoesn't look as much
like drowning, death and rescue, but it's the same symbol.
We seem to enjoy dramatic symbols the most, like the exchange
of wedding rings. Still, an ordinary goodbye hug from your
mom when you leave for school has worlds of meaning.
3) Confirmation is almost impossible to separate
from Baptism. Each happens once, yet each one seems to unfold
more and more in your life. While Baptism is a beginning,
the sacrament of Confirmation is a further step, a new responsibility
to be an "official" representative of the Church
in the world. The bishop's anointing of you with oil and his
words, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,"
is a sign that transforms the person confirmed into a "witness,"
someone who testifies publicly to the power of Jesus in his
or her life.
We have a lot going
Catholics have four more great sacraments. Reviewing
all seven, you could divide them into 1) sacraments of initiation
into the Church: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist; 2) sacraments
of healing: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick;
and 3) sacraments of life-commitment: Marriage and
Priesthood. Protestants usually have only two, Baptism and
Why? I suppose the simplest answer is that they
don't find them explicitly described in the Bible. Catholics
hold that they are implicit (or understood) in what Jesus
said and did: He continues to give us his Spirit (Confirmation);
he continues to lay his healing hands on the sick (Anointing);
he still says, assuring sinners: "Go in peace. Your sins
are forgiven" (Reconciliation); he continues to choose
leaders for his Church, as he chose the Twelve (Priesthood);
and he comes to many wedding feasts of Cana to bless bride
and groom and strengthen them in their lifelong commitment
to be little "branch offices" of the Church (Marriage).
How does Jesus do this? Are these actions automatic?
Well, obviously God can't give you his friendship-grace if
you don't want it, much less believe in it. If you're really
not sorry for your sins, the priest can give you a thousand
absolutions and nothing will happen. You can have the whole
ocean poured over you, but if you don't have faith, you've
merely gotten wet.
So, sacraments are great symbol/actions of the
Church community in which you take part with faith.
God says, "If you do these things with faith, really
mean them, then I enter into them and what they 'say' really
happens." I see the Big Seven as sacraments for the great
moments of our life of faith: its beginning, its high points
and its lows.
4) Sin is a low point in our life of faith.
Jesus not only gave us Baptism to begin that spiritual life,
he made it possible for us to be brought back to life when
we have died spiritually by mortal (or fatal) sin. That's
the primary reason for "Confession"reconciliation
with the Church, becoming a living member againif we
have literally "killed" ourselves, or let ourselves
die, by serious sin.
You don't have to "go to Confession"
if your sins are not serious enough to break your friendship
with God. But in your daily life, you don't save apologies
for major catastrophes and murders. It's a good idea to be
reconciled or ask forgiveness when you've hurt someone's good
name, when you've lied to your parents or when you've run
your bike into the side of someone's car. You can see that
a "small" reconciliation is a good idea.
I remember a very pleasant way some teenagers
celebrated this sacrament. One by one, as they came from confessing
their sins in a room at the front of the church, they came
to their group (representing the Christian community) in back
of church and got a big hug from everyone. This was the first
time in history that the boys, outnumbered, were eager to
go to confession.
The symbol here is welcoming. Jesus welcomes
you "back" from wherever sin has taken you (perhaps
fatally mortal sinfulness, perhaps not). The priest declares,
with the power Jesus gives him, that your sins are gone,
and you are healthy members again.
5) When these members of the Church marry, having
deep faith in Jesus, who would say that he does not
become present to them just as he did to the couple at Cana
(John 2:1-11)? They make a symbolwords of promise, the
joining of hands and later of bodieswhich expresses
a lifelong union of love that is, for the Christian community
and all others, a living out of Jesus' own love for his people
and their love for him.
Marriage is a terribly important step, a commitment
for life. Like all real human efforts, it is impossible without
the grace of God. The sacrament means that God's power is
directly joined to living this particular married life.
6) The Gospels show us a constantly healing
Jesus. He came to make us whole, to take away all the
things that strangle and warp our lifethe life of our
minds, our hearts and our bodies. Only at the resurrection
will this be perfectly accomplished, but it begins now. Surely
one of the "Great Seven" must be the symbolic act
of Jesus still healing his people.
How? Not everyone who is sacramentally anointed
is immediately freed from sickness. What happens is that Jesus
reassures the sick person that he is just as concerned about
this ill person as he was with all the people he cured on
earth. It may sound like a lame explanation, but the sacrament
says that God will heal everything that is "wrong"
with our whole person.
The day will come when you will rise with a
body totally free of all pain, weakness and limitations. Everything
about youyour whole person, body, soul, spiritwill
be healed of all disfigurements, wounds, sickness. God's power
begins this healing in this life, most especially by
healing from sin. But you will be healed. This particular
yellow-ribbon sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick says
that all the hostages in our persons will be freed.
7) During the ordination of a priest, the bishop,
as successor of the apostles, presses both hands down on the
head of the one to be ordained. Then a prayer of consecration
follows. This is an action that means the passing on of the
spiritual power to proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the Eucharist
and the other sacraments, to be a center of unity around which
the Church can gather.
All these great actions make present what they
say. More powerfully than wedding rings, flowers, embraces,
smiles, they carry a meaning that only God can giveand
which God does give. The wedding ring and the kiss reveal
powerful human feelings. That's fine. The sacramental actions
in faith are really, in the end, mainly signs that God enters
into. They're not just signs of what we feel and want: They
are absolute assurances of what God really does.
We call this "grace." Grace is not
a thing. You don't get more grace the way you get more money
in the bank. The worst thing you can do is to think of grace
as a thing. Grace is nothing else but God loving you.
It's a relationship, like the love you have for a friend.
Evidently this relationship can be deep or shallow: That's
up to you. Much depends on how you see it.
Remember, nothing must ever be seen as just
a symbol. Then it's dead. Living people make signs of life
and love to each other. Only human beings, prehistoric and
present, put flowers on their loved ones' graves. Only human
beings tie yellow ribbons around trees.
The greatest gift God gives you is that you
are his human children. In response, you and I make the human
signs that Jesus gave us. They are signs like those our early
ancestors made when they put flowers on a loved one's gravehuman
signs with our heart in them.
Members of Youth Update's Advisory
Board who previewed this issue are Stephen Collins, 18; Ana
Stolz, 15; and Amy Wahl, 15. Questions from readers are submitted
through the board and answered by the author.