Monday, March 28, 2016

The Faith That is Sacramental

One of the most significant theological differences between the Catholic Faith and most Protestant traditions lies in the amount of emphasis given to sacraments. In the Catholic Church we recognize seven sacraments, whereas most Protestant traditions today recognize only two. The two that are common to Catholics and Protestants alike are Baptism and the Eucharist or "communion." The seven sacraments that the Catholic Church acknowledges and celebrates are:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance (or Reconciliation), the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. In the Catholic Church, reception of the sacraments is central to living the fulness of the Christian faith. Considering how essential the role of the sacraments is, it is important for us to understand what a sacrament is, why the Christian faith is sacramental, and why the Catholic Church teaches the necessity of the sacraments for salvation and sanctification.

What is a Sacrament?

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, " saves an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet 3:21).

Born Again––the Bible Way

Many Christians will speak of the need for every person to be "born again," something that Catholics also believe. However, when we speak of being "born again," we're referring primarily to Baptism, as Christ himself did. When Nicodemus spoke to Jesus, marveling at the signs he was performing, Jesus said to him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). Hence the necessity of being born again. However, Jesus did not stop at these words. Nicodemus, perplexed at the idea of being "born again," proceeded to ask Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4)  Apart from the rather comical idea of taking this question literally lies the essential question: "How?" Nicodemus was surely thinking, "If this wise man from God tells me I must be born again, then knowing what I must do to achieve this rebirth is of utmost importance." Curiously, many Protestants, if asked what it means to be born again, will respond with something along the lines of, "You have to ask Jesus to come into your heart and accept him as your personal Lord and Savior" (this process is sometimes referred to as praying the "Sinner's Prayer"). I say this is curious not only because Protestants tend to be well-versed in Sacred Scripture, but primarily because Jesus himself told us exactly how to be born again, and he didn't mention praying any such prayer. Instead, he said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (v. 5, emphasis added). What did Jesus mean by "water and the Spirit"? Well, what did he just get done doing prior to this encounter? The synoptic gospels record it: "...when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him" (Mt 3:16). Here we see that water and the Spirit are joined together in the action of baptism.

There is nothing wrong whatsoever with asking Jesus to come into your heart and accepting him as your personal Lord and Savior; these are good and holy things that all Christians should do. However, when it comes to the question of being "born again," the sacrament of Baptism is the Biblical and historical way of doing that. This understanding of Baptism (and all the sacraments) as an action of God that brings about an objective change in the person who receives it is the basis for Catholics, along with several mainline Protestant denomination, practicing infant Baptism. The objection that one must be old enough to freely choose Baptism for oneself is rendered erroneous by the counterexample of offering Baptism to mentally handicapped persons who often lack the cognitive capacity to have any explicit understanding of the Gospel and to make such a decision for themselves. Consider also the many cases in which Jesus healed sick or possessed people at the request of others, such as the servant of the centurion (Mt 8:5-13). God may not impart grace to those who explicitly reject his will, but he certainly can and does to those who are at least open to him, with or without their explicit knowledge.

Matter Matters

      "Shower, O heavens, from above,
      and let the skies rain down righteousness; 
      let the earth open, that salvation may sprout forth, 
      and let it cause righteousness to spring up also; 
      I the LORD have created it" (Isa 45:8).

We have seen that the sacraments actually do something, and that they are not merely flashy outward signs or man-made formalities used to represent an interior conversion that has already taken place apart from the sacraments. Another important element of the sacraments is that most of them involve the use of material things: water in Baptism, and various oils in the other sacraments, for example. As in the sacrament of Baptism, the other sacraments use material following the example and command of Christ, who frequently used the physical things of the world when performing miracles and healing. For example, he used water to create wine at the wedding feast in Cana (Jn 2:1-11). Obviously, Jesus could have instead simply filled the jars with wine created out of nothing, but instead, he preferred to use already existing water. Likewise, in the case of the "man born blind" (Jn 9), Jesus could have simply said to the man, "See!" and he would have instantly been cured. Instead, Jesus mixed dirt with his spit and anointed the man with it, and then told him to wash in a pool of water (Jn 9:6-7). Why the use of dirt and water to accomplish this healing work? The reason is twofold. First, God created everything that exists and is glorified by his creation. In Genesis, we read that God "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:31). Since all matter is created good, God wills to make use of it, not only for accomplishing pragmatic purposes (like feeding us!), but even in his plan of salvation (the Cross began as an ordinary tree and became an instrument of salvation). He could have created us as purely spiritual beings without bodies (like the angels), but he didn't; he gave us physical bodies and a material world to inhabit. God is not a gnostic.

Divine Infiltration

The sacramental nature of the Catholic-Christian faith does not make sense apart from the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. While God created the material universe as "good" and ordered it to serve the needs of human beings, matter itself has no inherent power to sanctify or communicate grace. (Otherwise, we would be seeing "spit and dirt therapy" advertisements instead of Lasik.) The natural world, being inseparably tied to the destiny of human beings as the apex of God's Creation, must likewise be "redeemed" in a sense before it can serve so noble a cause as the sanctification of the creatures created imago Dei (in the image of God). Saint Paul observed this:
...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).
Jesus Christ sanctified the natural world when he became a human being. The Incarnation pays a sort of "divine compliment" to Creation. Think again of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. As John the Baptist rightly objected, Jesus did not need to be baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14). Jesus' response tells us why he still willed to be baptized: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Notice that he says "to fulfill all righteousness." This point is crucial. We know that the whole purpose in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is to redeem all of us (Jn 3:16-17). We also know that Jesus himself was without sin and thus had no need of redemption (Heb 4:15). Therefore, his desire to be baptized in order to "fulfill all righteousness" must be for our sake, for our redemption. Jesus was not baptized to be sanctified by the waters of Baptism, but so that the waters of Baptism would be sanctified by him. He did not negate John's baptism or render it obsolete, but elevated it to the status of a sacrament. In fact, it could be said that everything Jesus did on earth was an elevation or sanctification of what came before. His last words in scripture testify to this: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21:5). Death itself was not immune to Christ's transformative power, since he changed it from a bitter finality of defeat and extinction of meaning into the very doorway by which we enter into eternal joy and fulfillment. As the words of an old oratorio (hymn) proclaim: "Thou hast made death glorious and triumphant, for through its portals we enter into the presence of the living God."

Seeing Sacramentally

The Catholic Church's focus on the sacramental nature of Christianity is justified not only by the goodness of the material world as created by God, but by her Savior's entrance into it, by which it has been sanctified and subordinated to God's plan of salvation. As Christians, we know that the Incarnation was not merely a past reality that a few thousand people were lucky enough to enjoy this side of heaven. Instead, it was the beginning of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that starts here and now:  "Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Lk 17:21). When Jesus said, "I am with you always, to the close of the age," (Mt 28:20) he surely didn't mean that in a merely sentimental or analogical sense––He is with us always, in all his incarnate and tangible glory. The way in which he is most concretely present to us is in the sacraments of his Church, his Bride. Jesus established the New Covenant in his Body and Blood, which he offered on the cross and commanded his apostles to make present again in the Eucharist: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk 22:19, 1 Co 11:24). Christian faith always calls us to see things differently, to see everything in the light of God and his love for us. In Christ we see God differently, we see each other differently, we see ourselves differently; we even see Creation differently. As C.S. Lewis wrote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." As Christians we also recognize that Creation is not some spiritually neutral medium of exchange in which we are "stuck" for now, awaiting a later time when we can escape from it. Rather, it is the product of God's love for us and an important means by which God wills to communicate his grace to us. Are the sacraments really necessary, considering they are temporal realities that take place in the finite material world? In the absolute sense, no. God can accomplish his plan of salvation by whatever means he chooses. Are they necessary for us? As necessary as the physical blood and water which gushed forth from the heart of Christ on Calvary two thousand years ago.
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,
Chris Trummer


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.

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