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It All Starts With Jesus

by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.

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 faith—not only for our own peace of mind but also to be able to clarify erroneous definitions of Catholic sacrament and worship.

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 Mass—or any of the sacraments—it 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 sacraments.

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 us—and we come to God—in 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 2:20).

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 God—this sacrament—by celebrating the liturgy.

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 meaningful.

"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 word sacrament.

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 plan—for example, eucharist, baptism, anointing of the sick—began 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.

Real presence

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 Liturgy, #7).

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" (Richard Gula).

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.

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., has a doctorate in liturgy and sacramental theology from the Institut Catholique of Paris. A popular writer and lecturer, Father Richstatter teaches courses on the sacraments at St. Meinrad (Indiana) School of Theology.


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