What is a sacrament? First of all the Catholic Church considers herself to be the sacrament of salvation: "The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men" (CCC 780). It is from this understanding of the Church as sacrament that the particular sacraments within the Church derive their meaning. There is no clearer definition of the sacraments than that found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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" (CCC 1131).This definition contains a lot of important information, so let's unpack it a little. First, the sacraments are signs, which means that they represent and point to a reality beyond themselves. However, the sacraments are not merely signs because they are efficacious, meaning they actually bring about a real change in the person who receives them. This one word, efficacious, has immense theological implications, because the failure to acknowledge the efficacious nature of the sacraments produces radically different (and incorrect) understandings of them. A paradigm example of this is the sacrament of Baptism. In the Catholic Church, we believe in "baptismal regeneration," which means that Baptism is necessary for salvation because it actually cleanses our souls of Original Sin and dispenses sanctifying grace into our souls. This is not simply a symbolic or semantic way of describing an interior process of conversion, because it marks an objective change in reality independent of our mind or conviction. In the words of Saint Peter, "Baptism...now saves you...as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21).
...creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now (Rom 8:19-22).
There flowed from his side water and blood. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh! As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death. Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life (From the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostom, Office of Readings for Good Friday).Signs of the Holy
The Catholic Church is often criticized as being excessively elaborate and showy in her liturgical celebrations. However, everything that goes into the Mass and other liturgies has a specific purpose, namely, to draw our minds deeper into the mysteries in which we are participating. We are each a unity of body and soul. Therefore, just as we do not experience and engage the world with our minds alone, but also with our bodies and all our sensory faculties, so too our worship of God is enriched when we incorporate more than just our minds. This is why the Catholic liturgy includes elements such as: music, vestments, candles, incense, bells, and changes in posture. It is not empty show––it is all carefully thought out to elevate our experience and foster our active participation. We are not passive observers who attend Church only in order to be entertained or moved, to "watch" what is happening there. No. We are active participants who are called to worship God together in the way that he has called us to worship him. The sacraments of the Church impart God's grace to us, so that we can be initiated, healed, strengthened, and conformed to the will of God in our lives. If we want to become the people God calls us to be, then we ought to gratefully take advantage of the tools he has given us to accomplish that task. The sacraments are those tools: time-tested and saint-approved.
May God bless you and give you an intimate experience of his resurrection this Easter season!
† Under the Mercy,
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.
Catholic Church. The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite. Volume II, Lenten and Easter Season. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1976.