Here begins a series on the sacraments of the Church. We will be exploring each of the seven sacraments individually and looking at how the sacraments are usually organized into groups. We will also have something to say about sacramentals. Sacramentals are objects or actions that resemble sacraments and that play an important supporting role in the sacramental life of the Church.
Before doing any of this, it may be helpful to look at what a sacrament is and why we have them in the first place.
The best-known traditional definition of a sacrament is that it is a sign or ritual action instituted by Christ to confer grace. The sacrament both expresses some grace that is already present and intensifies it, deepens it, raises it to a level attainable in no other way than through the grace of God encountered in the sacrament. Since grace builds on nature, we may also say that sacraments both express aspirations and needs already present in the human heart and fulfill them in a way that goes far beyond anything we could do for ourselves.
An analogy from contemporary life may help us. Imagine that a major league team is established in Maine. Don’t worry about whether such a thing is possible; just stay with me! The team creates a logo that is then placed on caps, sweatshirts, bumper stickers, and other merchandise in the hope of raising some money for the team. We buy some of this merchandise. Now the logo did not create our loyalty to this team. The fact that the team is here, the fact that it is our team, is enough. As social beings, we naturally identify with ‘our’ group. If we did not feel some loyalty, we would not seek the logo. On the other hand, the act of buying merchandise with the logo not only expresses this loyalty but also affirms and intensifies it. We could call the logo, in a small sense, a “sacrament” of our loyalty to our team. It conveys a certain message, a certain meaning, to all who have been initiated into the fandom of this team.
A sacrament is like this logo, but with one essential difference. People create and produce a team’s logo. A sacrament is a gift of the Lord to us. We as a Church may tweak how we celebrate sacraments, but we do not create them. Christ gives them to us. We cannot add to their number or take away from it. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we discover their great importance. We can see in the sacraments our greatest needs and aspirations and the Lord’s gracious response to them.
Sacraments impart grace. The Lord acts in and through the sacraments. This is consistent with the faith of ancient Israel which believed that God was active in its history, such as in Passover and the Exodus story. God was present in His word spoken by the prophets and read in the Torah. This is consistent with the faith of the New Testament Church which believed that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to the Father in the Spirit. Moreover, the early Church understood itself to be the Bride of Christ and the body of Christ. Christ Himself chooses to act in and through His people.
The grace of a sacrament begins before the sacrament is celebrated. An example from the sacrament of reconciliation will explain this. Someone sins and then comes to acknowledge the sin. God’s grace is already at work, helping the person perceive the sin and then desire reconciliation. Moved by this initial desire and grace, the person goes to the sacrament of reconciliation. This initial grace is intensified and brought to its fruition in the sacrament. The person is reconciled with the Lord and the Church. The penance the person may be asked to fulfill is the final step in welcoming this reconciliation.
I invite you to join me over the next several issues of Harvest as we explore the sacraments and seek to open ourselves more fully to the depth of the riches of God’s grace offered to us in and through them. Let us pray for one another that the Lord may work though this and bless the lives of many of His children!
By: Faher Mark Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland