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Have Sacraments Changed?

by Mark R. Francis, C.S.V.

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 life.

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 another.

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 grace."

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 itself—the progressive and gradual unfolding of the liturgical year—was 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.

Paschal Mystery

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 faith—faith 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 bless—all 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 Eucharist—or any other sacrament—is 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 world.

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.

Mark R. Francis, a Viatorian priest, is associate professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He holds a doctorate in liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.



Key Quotes on the Sacraments
From Vatican II

The purpose of the sacraments is to make people holy, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called "sacraments of faith." They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.

It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs, and should frequent with great eagerness those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #59

From the Catechism

The sacraments are "of the Church" in the double sense that they are "by her" and "for her." They are "by the Church," for she is the sacrament of Christ's action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since thay manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1118

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.




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