Why do the seven sacraments matter?
I’ve found your series on the Mass to be very helpful. Would you be able to explain the idea of the sacraments in general a little bit more for me?
For those of us who are cradle Catholics, the sacraments are simply part of our lives. As such, however, it’s easy for them to remain unexamined, with the consequence that we fail to realize the depth and significance of what they are and what they mean for our relationship with God.
So, what is a sacrament? And why do they matter?
Here’s the definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC): “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). That’s a mouthful, so let’s unpack it a bit, beginning with the concept of a sign.
In short, a sign points to something more than itself. Take a wedding band as an example: what are the words the bride and groom speak to each other when they place the ring on the other’s finger? “Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That ring signifies the love and fidelity a spouse has for the other. The ring itself is just a round piece of metal. But we give it a greater significance, a greater meaning by making it a sign of something else.
Next, a sacrament is an efficacious sign of grace. What is grace? The answer actually comes near the end of the catechism’s definition: grace is divine life!
There are different types of grace, but when it comes to the sacraments, the grace given to the recipient is the very life of God. When we receive the sacraments, we are receiving God himself! This is true in a unique way in Holy Communion, but it’s true in all seven sacraments: God is at work on us and within us, giving himself to us in the sacraments.
Sacraments, in other words, are moments, events, “places,” if you will, in which and by which we encounter the living God, the creator of the universe who became one of us, died on the cross and rose again. In each and every sacrament, we are “touched” by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, embraced by the Holy Trinity, brought into ever deeper communion with God. Here we see why the sacraments are so much more than rites of passage or religious rituals, as meaningful as they are in that way: they are also the ways God himself has given us to be with him, to receive him, to share life with him, to be his beloved sons and daughters.
Next, the catechism tells us the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace. What does “efficacious” mean in this context? It means the sacraments work, that they actually convey or give the grace they signify. Again, there’s a lot packed into that word. Efficacious is significant because it means the sacraments work in and of themselves, not because of the worthiness or holiness of the person who gives them. As long as the minister of the sacrament intends to do what the Church intends, the grace of that sacrament is given. It doesn’t matter how holy or unholy the minister is; if it’s done according to the intention of the Church, it’s efficacious, it works, meaning that the grace of God, the life of God, is given.
We’ll briefly finish the rest of the definition: the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, which are instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church. All seven of the sacraments are divine in origin, not human; they are given to us by Jesus himself. The Church did not invent the sacraments. Just as with all her teachings, the Church received the sacraments from Christ. They are the way Jesus desires to share himself with us, the way we receive the divine life of God, according to God’s own plan.
And he entrusted them to the Church. The Church is both the minister of the sacraments and their recipient. As the catechism puts it, the sacraments are by the Church as well as for her, and therefore the Church has the responsibility of ensuring they are always celebrated according to the plan of the one who instituted them: Jesus. As with all of Jesus’ teachings, the Church is the guardian of the sacraments, ensuring—by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit—they are celebrated properly.
So, the sacraments are important, not merely as rites of passage, but even more, as the means by which we enter into fellowship—communion with God himself.
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Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of discipleship formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.