Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
What Are Sacraments?
"What do the sacraments mean?" It's a simple question
that can't be answered simply. That's partly because of the number
of sacraments. There are seven religious rituals or church ceremonies
that Catholics call sacraments. Then there are other lesser rituals
and practices (like blessing ourselves with holy water or praying
the rosary) called sacramentals. Is there a single meaning that
can embrace all the sacraments?
Sacraments are rituals that are highly symbolic. That's
another reason why it's not easy to specify exactly what each
or all of the sacraments mean. Unlike traffic signs or signs in
a store, symbols can mean more than one thing at the same time:
They can mean different things to different people (think of a
cross, a six-pointed star or a crescent), and they can have different
levels of meaning. For example, think of the many levels of meaningpersonal,
family, civil, religiousconnected with a wedding. Ceremonies
that are rich in symbolism can mean many things at once.
To understand one way in which religious
ceremonies such as the sacraments get their meaning, let us look
first at non-religious ceremonies.
Take a simple greeting ceremony such
as shaking hands. How did shaking hands come to mean something like,
"Hello, I'm glad to see you"? What would it mean to someone from
a culture where people greet by bowing to one another? Would it
mean anything to a visitor from outer space? These questions suggest
that the meaning of the ceremony is not only in the ritual itself
but also in the minds of the people who participate in the ritual.
A child's birthday party is a more complex
ceremony. The party is meaningful partly because it is celebrating
something real in the presentthe completion of another
year of life and the family's happiness about that. At the same
time, the party points to something in the pastthe
child's actual birth and the family caring for the child since then.
The party also points to a hoped-for futurethe child's
continued growth and the family's continued love. All three dimensions
of meaning can probably be found in the minds of the people at the
Take an even more complex ceremony such
as a graduation or an inauguration. Ceremonies such as these are
much more meaningful for the participants for whom this represents
a present transition in their life, who bring significant
memories of the past to it, and for whom it points to new
possibilities in the future. All public ceremonies and social
rituals are meaningful when they have present, past and future dimensions
to be honestly and joyfully celebrated.
Christian rituals and ceremonies range from the very
simple (for example, making the sign of the cross) to the very
complex (for example, the Holy Week Triduum). They all have aspects
of past, present and future.
For example, a Christmas pageant looks back to the
birth of Jesus, it resonates with the present Christian beliefs
of the audience and it looks forward to peace on earth and salvation
for all. A person who did not know the story of Jesus, who was
an atheist and who was pessimistic about the future would probably
find the pageant rather meaningless. A person who lacked one or
more of these three dimensions would find the pageant somewhat
less meaningful than a knowledgeable and hopeful Christian.
In general, we can say that Christian rituals are
meaningful to the extent that people know what they point to in
the past, that people celebrate what is real for them in the present
and that people affirm what they point to in the future. The more
important, significant and cherished these past, present and future
dimensions are for people, the more the ritual symbolizes and
celebrates what is sacred for them. That makes it more
meaningful for them.
The Latin word sacramentum means "a sign of
the sacred." The Catholic sacraments are ceremonies that point
to what is sacred, significant and important for Christians. Members
of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopal traditions call
seven of their religious ceremonies sacraments. Most Protestants
count only two ritualsBaptism and Communionas sacraments.
Nevertheless, Protestants have ceremonies that are similar to
Catholic sacraments, for example, weddings and ordinations.
Sacraments are celebrations of Christian tradition,
of Christian life and of Christian hope. They share
the dimensions of past, present and future that give ordinary
celebrations meaning. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a prayer about
the Eucharist that illustrates the point: "O sacred banquet, in
which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed
[past], the mind is filled with grace [present], and the pledge
of future glory is given to us [future]." Today we commemorate
this understanding of sacrament when we pray the following version
of the Memorial Acclamation at Mass: "Christ has died,
Christ is risen, Christ will come again."
Sacraments, though, are no ordinary celebrations.
They are special occasions for experiencing God's saving presence.
It is important for people to be in touch with what the sacraments
celebrate if the rituals are to be as meaningful as possible for
them. Sometimes people who participate in a sacramental celebration
do not fully appreciate one or another of the dimensions of a
sacrament's meaning. In this case, the sacrament speaks its meanings,
as it were, to those attending the ceremony and invites them to
find out more about them. The sacrament also calls people to get
in touch with the sacred realities it celebrates. The more people
respond to this call (for example, Reconciliation's call to forgive
and accept forgiveness), the more they will find meaning in the
Sacraments celebrate Christ's life
Of all the events that sacraments can point to in
the past (biblical events, Church traditions, events in one's
own faith journey), the most important are events in the life
of Christ. Tradition tells us that all of the sacraments were
instituted by Christ. Indeed, they each have a real foundation
in the life and ministry of Jesus. Each relates to stories and
teachings of Jesus.
For example, Baptism calls to mind the baptism of
Jesus in the Jordan, and the way Jesus gathered a community around
himself. It also reminds us of the command of the risen Lord to
carry the gospel to others and to baptize them. Eucharist reminds
us of the Last Supper. Those familiar with the Gospels are also
reminded of other meals to which Jesus invited even those who
were rejected by others. Reconciliation reminds us of Jesus' invitation
to forgive one another, and of the way he forgave those who put
him to death.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church ties together
the many meanings of sacraments thus: "The sacraments are efficacious
signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church,
by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by
which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the
graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who
receive them with the required dispositions" (#1131).
Sacraments celebrate the community's
Each sacrament dramatizes and points to something
that is happening in the lives of people who belong to the celebrating
community. For example, Eucharist strengthens the unity of Christians
as they receive it. It celebrates God's nourishing presence with
us now. Sacraments celebrate the community's life now.
Taking friends out to dinner or giving them presents
is meaningful in part because it signifies how we feel toward
them right now. A graduation ceremony is meaningful because it
occurs at a moment when people have completed an important stage
in their education. One reason for the current question about
what age is right for Confirmation is that people cannot all agree
about what exactly the sacrament should point to in the lives
of those being confirmed.
It is easier to see what other sacraments are celebrating,
however. For example, through the Baptism ceremony, some people
are entering the Christian community while others are supporting
and welcoming them into community. In Matrimony and Ordination
ceremonies, people are likewise undergoing important changes in
their relationships with others through the very process of the
Sacraments celebrate the Kingdom of
The sacraments also point to a future
which Jesus referred to as God's kingdom, realm or reign. God already
reigns in hearts that are converted to doing God's will and to loving
others as Jesus instructed. God's realm is already found wherever
justice and compassion are the basis of human relationships between
individuals, in a group, in an institution or even in a whole society.
But the kingdom is always incomplete, so the sacraments look forward
to the coming of God's kingdom in its fullness.
Of all the time dimensions of sacramental
meaning, the future dimension is the most elusive. We remember the
past and we can see the present, but how do we get in touch with
the future? Yet somehow we do this every time we participate in
a ritual that we find meaningful. When we shake hands and say hello,
we are looking forward to the development of a relationship. When
we celebrate our friends' wedding anniversary and when we attend
Fourth of July fireworks, we are expressing hope for that couple
and for our country in the future.
Children who make their first Communion
or first Confession are expressing a desire to get closer to God.
People who get married in church or who are ordained to the priesthood
are saying something about their future in relation to God and the
But sacraments imply more than just a
personal future. They also point to the possibility and hope that
the realities they celebrate will someday reign over all the earth.
Eucharist looks forward to the time when all will be one. Reconciliation
speaks the possibility of peace among all families and nations.
Anointing of the Sick points to the hope that illness and disease
will someday be no more.
Making the connections
We often hear people talking about the
meaning of the sacraments as though it were a simple thing, as though
each sacrament had a single simple meaning. We see now, however,
that the actual meaning of any sacramental celebration is rich and
complex, for it has multiple dimensions.
A sacrament's meaning is multidimensional
because it points to three different time dimensions: past, present
and future. A sacrament also has multiple levels of depth because
it can be personally meaningful for an individual at one level,
it can have a shared meaning for a particular group at another level,
it can have a general meaning for the whole Church at yet a third
When people talk about the meaning
of a sacrament, they may be referring to its general meaning or
to its meaning in the life of the institutional Church. Yet sacraments
are celebrations of God's gift and gracious action in our lives.
The fruitfulness of a sacramental celebration
is strongly dependent on the connections among the people and to
what the dimensions of past, present and future bring to the celebration.
In order for sacraments to be meaningful celebrations for us, we
need to be grounded in Scripture, involved with our faith community
and working toward God's reign.