When the kindness and love of God our Saviour for humanity were revealed, it was not because of any upright actions we had done ourselves; it was for no other reason except his own faithful love that he saved us, by means of the cleansing water of rebirth and the renewal in the Holy Spirit which he has so generously poured over us, so that, justified by his grace, we should become heirs in the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3: 4-7)
Sacraments in general are concerned with our relationship with God. We obviously have an image of ourselves and of human beings in general. Many if not all of us will have studied a little history, we have lived with people and have some good understanding of the human person, but what do we know about God?
Although we have never seen God face to face through creation, and with the eyes of faith, we have glimpses of God. We see God in the work of his hand in the world in which we live, but most of all we see him in one another in whose image each of us is created.
In reflecting on our history, on ourselves, the world in which we live, again with the eyes of faith we can recognise the effect of sin on our human race, on the world in which we live, and on ourselves. We can begin to understand the need for freedom and for Salvation. Reflecting on the history of Israel as described through the Scriptures, we see that God is a saving God who constantly is calling us back into a full relationship with him. As a loving God he gives us the freedom to choose or reject this relationship with him.
As an expression of his unconditional love for us and of his utter desire for us to be in relationship with him, God, in the second person of the Trinity, the Son, became flesh and dwelt among us. The whole life of Jesus was concerned with Salvation. His preaching was a preaching of redemption. Each miracle was concerned with redemption, often prefixed with the forgiveness of a person’s sin. The Mission of the Son finally culminated in the great act of salvation, when the Son allowed himself to suffer death, Rose from the dead, and was exalted to be at the Right Hand of the Father. All this was order that we may be in relationship with God.
Each of the Sacraments in their own specific way reflects our relationship with God, and his salvific action throughout history, in our world and our lives.
The word Sacrament in itself means mystery. It is something that on the surface we can visualise and understand, but which points to something that really is beyond our comprehension.
In terms of our Christian faith a Sacrament is concerned with the unfathomable action of God in wanting to save everyone, referring especially to the way in which salvation is made visible, audible and accessible, and above all real and present in Christ.
Therefore there are three essential elements in what we call a Sacrament:
- Salvation (through them we find salvation in Christ)
- Made visible, but above all realised and made present (sacraments are saving actions in which Christ himself is present)
- In Christ (instituted by Christ)
The word Sacrament itself comes from the Latin word Sacramentum, first used by the Roman writer, Tertullian in his translation of the Scriptures from Greek into Latin. The word that he was translating was Mystery. The word Sacramentum though meant an oath of allegiance, made publicly by a Roman soldier, and which was sealed by branding a mark on him.
Tertullian was conveying that a Sacrament marks a person for life as belonging to Christ.
In each of the sacraments, there is a visible sign of the Sacrament. For Example in Baptism we have water, in the Eucharist, we have bread and wine, and in the Sacrament of anointing of the sick we have the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Each symbol points to Christ. In baptism water symbolises the person entrusting himself to Christ, so that in associating himself with Christ in his death, he is given the promise of rising with him again.
It was only from around the 12th century with the development of what was known as Scholastic theology that the 7 sacraments were defined. These are: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, and The Sacrament of the Sick, Marriage and Holy Orders.
This was in response to the question, among all the things that have been called sacraments which of them speak unambiguously about Christ and his mission of bringing salvation to all? This was based on the criterion that a sacrament needed to have three essential qualities:
- Do they make memory of Christ’s saving work?
- Do they clearly demonstrate, by their very nature, what aspect of that salvation is accomplished in us, here and now?
- Do they prefigure the salvation promised to us?
Sacraments transcend time: rooted in Christ in the past; used by and affecting us in the present; and opening the way to eternal life with Christ.
At the Council of Lyon (1274) and C. of Florence (1439) and then later at the Council of Trent (1545-63) the Church explicitly defined the 7 sacraments, stating that they are privileged
- In the sense of being instituted by Christ,
- And privileged in the sense that they are saving actions in which Christ himself is present,
- And privileged in the sense that through them we find salvation in Christ
Vatican II again reminds us that all Sacraments are rooted in Christ, and that “He alone in his death and resurrection is the full and effective sign of our salvation….
Catechism of the Catholic Church (250): How are the sacraments of the Church divided: The sacraments are divided into: the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist); the sacraments of healing (Penance and Anointing of the Sick); and the Sacraments at the service of communion and mission (Holy Orders and Matrimony).
Questions for Reflection
- How would you describe you relationship with God?
- Where do you feel closest to God?
- If anything, what has this short reflection taught you about the Sacraments?