The Catholic imagination sees the goodness of God reflected in the unfolding of human life and love, in the grandeur and fragility of nature, the simplicities of bread, oil, wine and water, in word and gesture and most extraordinarily in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. It is him we hear, see with our own eyes, watch and touch with our hands in the sacramental life of the Church. It is his life we share when we participate in the sacraments of the Church.
God’s Story Is Our Story Is The Church’s Story….
and the sacraments are the means through which we can experience this. We all know how life-giving and transforming it is to hear good news and more so when it is delivered with a delighted hug and celebrated with a gathering of family and friends. The sacraments of the Church are among greatest means through which we hear the best of ‘good news’ and are touched and embraced by God in ways which lead us to life.
All of life is sacramental
Of course, human experience of God comes about not solely through the sacraments. All sorts of experiences convey God’s presence and love and hence are in a sense ‘sacramental’. Some of these include:
- the beauty and order of the world,
- human friendships, our families,
- joyful, sorrowful experiences,
- generosity, self-giving.
Simple things like candle light, a spring morning, the scent of a daphne all speak to us of God who is the Giver of all good things. These experiences allow us to ‘touch the face of God’ and to experience the Religious Dimensions of Life which are inherent in our ordinary lives.
Jesus is the great sacrament of God
Jesus is himself the great sacrament of God’s love. Jesus was the fullest revelation possible of God’s goodness and love. We believe that Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Mary – truly human and truly divine. In his person, and through his actions, words and gestures Jesus made God and God’s love present on earth. He was, and is still, for us ‘the image of the unseen God’(Col:5), the ‘Word made flesh’ who lived among us (John 1) and hence the greatest sacrament of God.
The Church as Sacrament of Christ
The historical presence of Jesus in the world was brief and confined as all human life is. But his presence is continued through his Spirit alive and working in the Church. The Holy Spirit which animates the Church makes it a place of real encounter with Christ. The Church is truly sacramental because it is the way in which people throughout time and history are brought into contact with the living presence of Jesus Christ. The first paragraph of the key Vatican II document Lumen Gentium refers to the Church as a sacrament of Christ which exists to make Christ visible and active in the world and to extend his ministry through time and space.
For further reading
Brian Gleeson, an Australian Passionist priest, explores in some detail the idea of the Church as the sacrament of Christ where we may encounter the Risen Lord. He uses a question and answer format which allows readers to locate his ideas easily. The Church is the ‘Body of Christ’ and through the sacraments of the Church we are joined to Christ’s body and are united to God through participating.
The Church gives us Seven Sacraments
But, from the vast array of God’s gifts and in response to words and example of Jesus, the Church chooses a few simple things: water, oil, bread and wine and some basic human gestures and calling upon the Holy Spirit makes them capable of drawing human beings deeply into the life of God. There are seven sacraments:
- Anointing of the Sick
- Holy Orders
All these are visible, tangible ways in which we are brought by the Church to an encounter with God in the midst of our human lives.
Sacraments and symbols
Understanding the depth of meaning of symbol and ritual is vital to an appreciation of the sacraments. Symbols, understood in a sacramental sense are not simply empty signs that point to something else but signs which draw us into the reality that they signify.
Catholic sacramental understanding says that water, oil, salt, bread and wine are good in and of themselves, but also that they not only point to a reality beyond themselves but also mediate union with that reality. Just as Jesus’ human body made him present and accessible to the men, women and children of his time, the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist enable his presence to men, women and children of our time and of every time. The sacraments transcend space and time.
For further reading
Symbols and Sacraments – their Human Foundations uses examples from everyday life to illustrate how these experiences can move us towards an encounter with God and also show how the sacraments of the Church draw us into the mystery of God. This article concludes with a number of suggestions for discussion or reflection suitable for adults and older students.
- Reflect on an experience of your own (apart from the Sacraments themselves) in which you have encountered God. What circumstances contributed to this experience. How has it affected your life and your faith. What parallels are there with your experience of the sacraments of the Church?
- How would you explain Jesus as the greatest ‘sacrament’ of God to:
- the rest of the RE team
- a group of children preparing for first Communion?
- a meeting of parents of children preparing for the sacraments?
- Why is this understanding of Jesus as ‘the primordial sacrament’ important for Catholics to grasp?
- Make a mind map illustrating your understanding of paragraph 1 of Lumen Gentium. Compare it with someone else’s.
- Thinking over your own experience of faith, explain how the Church is itself ‘a sacrament or sign of Christ’ to you?
- Jesus told stories to capture the imagination of his hearers and make them understand his teaching. Can you devise a short story about any of the sacraments to do the same?
- Compose a collage of the sacraments showing their basis in human experience.
- Express a response to the sacramentality of life in a haiku or acrostic poem based on the word SACRAMENT.
- As a group exercise, prepare a chart illustrating the sacraments; include the central symbols/actions and words of each, their basis in human experience and their religious significance.
In God’s Story
From the very beginning of the Church scripture and sacrament were the foundations of the church’s life. The earliest Christians continued to read from and pray over the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) when they gathered and gradually a body of their own sacred writings (New Testament) emerged.
But also, from the beginning, they baptised, laid hands on the newly received, celebrated the Eucharist, confessed their sins to each other, anointed the sick, appointed bishops (community leaders), that is, celebrated the presence of God among them using symbols and signs – ‘sacraments’ (though they were not referred to by that term at that time). So the sacraments do not need to be justified by scripture since as the constant practice of the Church they predate the writing of the New Testament. They were lived long before they were defined.
Nevertheless, there are several references in the New Testament that allow us to see that each of the sacraments has a grounding in the tradition of the early Church.
During his own ministry Jesus used material things: water, wine, bread, fish, spittle, gestures such as touching the ears and lips of the deaf, taking the hand of the daughter of Jairus, laying hands on those who were ill, as visible signs of the life and blessings of the kingdom he came to establish.
For further reading
A longer and older but still useful, article by French theologian Fr Jean Danielou called The Sacraments and the History of Salvation sets out to examine the relationship of the signs and actions that make up sacred history in the Old and New Testaments to the signs and actions that are the sacraments of the Church. Though this extract which reflects on the texts of Baptism, is part of a book written in 1959, its insights and explanations of the link between scripture and sacrament is rich.
- Imagine you are preparing a celebration of one of the sacraments. Brainstorm words associated with each of the sacraments e.g. Baptism: water, cleansing, life, death, Anointing: healing, comfort, patience etc.
- Type some of these words into a concordance of the Bible to find an appropriate reading from both Old and New Testaments to use during the celebration. What special understanding would the readings you have chosen give to the celebration of the sacrament?
Form groups of seven. Each student chooses a sacrament to interpret. Using a print or online concordance they find a New Testament story/reading that illuminates a key concept of the sacrament chosen. (For instance they might choose the supper at Emmaus to illustrate an aspect of Eucharist, Peter speaking to the crowds after Pentecost as an illustration of Confirmation, a parable of forgiveness to convey the experience of Reconciliation, a healing story for Anointing.) They should spend time getting into the story, understanding the situation and characters and identifying with them and noting parallels with sacramental encounters with the mystery of Christ. Each group then expresses their interpretation through
a series of mimed freeze frames
dance or movement
paint or clay
- How is what happens in the celebration of this sacrament similar to /different from what happened in the scripture chosen?
- Vatican II made readings from the scripture an essential part of the liturgy of every one of the sacraments. Why might this have been so?
- What if we had no readings from scripture at our celebrations of the sacraments?
- The following readings chosen for a celebration each of the sacraments have been muddled. Can you sort them out? Can you explain why each choice was made?
Baptism Luke 9:1-6
Confirmation John 6:32-35
Eucharist John 11:1-4
Reconciliation John 2:1-11
Anointing Mark 1:9-11
Marriage Luke 5:17-25
Holy Orders Luke 4:16-18
- When you sort them out, choose one reading and imagine a conversation between you and one of the people mentioned or a bystander or mime the reading.
In the Church’s Story
The word ‘sacrament’ comes from a Latin word predating Christianity, ‘sacramentum’ which meant originally a token or pledge of an oath of allegiance.
The Early Church Fathers gradually began to refer to various rites of the Church by the word sacrament especially in the West (in the East the word preferred was mysterion). It was Saint Augustine who proposed a definition of the word sacrament that has influenced Christian thinking down the ages. This definition was ‘A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace’. But in Augustine’s time, many rites, actions and prayers (for example the recitation of the creed and foot-washing) of the Church were considered as ‘sacraments’ though some like Baptism, Eucharist, Ordination already had special pre-eminence.
For further reading
The period from the end of the apostolic era about the year 90-450 was a very rich one in terms of sacramental theology, Justin, Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Caesarea, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo and many others thought, wrote and preached widely on sacraments especially Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Reconciliation and Orders are also reflected on by early church fathers but early references to Anointing and the Marriage ritual are more fragmentary.
It wasn’t until the 12th Century that the seven sacraments we celebrate today were definitively settled upon by the Church. Also in the 12th Century St Thomas Aquinas made a classic contribution to thinking about the sacraments (especially the Eucharist). Thomas’s clear teaching cut through some inexact thinking which was common at the time. He explained a sacrament as a sign that is:
- ‘a reminder of the past, (that is an action of Christ)
- an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ’s passion, (that is grace – a sharing in the life of God)
- and a foretelling of future glory’.
However the language St Thomas uses of the sacraments is not the language we use now. His language and questions about the sacraments were philosophical and sometimes seem almost scientific, whereas our language about the sacraments is much more relational and our questions generally more personal.
The development is obvious when we look at the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Building on the teaching and insights of Vatican II and of the liturgical movement which preceded it, the Catechism of the Catholic Church shows how the special character of the sacraments has been discerned in the history of the Church and provides a good orientation to the sacraments are currently understood in the Church. The Catechism presents the sacraments not so much as sacred objects or actions which give grace but as the ways in which the Church and all its members live daily from the saving acts of Christ made present to his people throughout history in the liturgy of the Church.
For further reading
The liturgical movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was important. Read a moving account of one of its great thinkers Dom Odo Casel which gives you a sense of how the approach to the sacraments changed during this period. A brief summary of the teaching of Fr Karl Rahner whose thought was so influential at Vatican II will help you grasp his insight into the Church as the sacrament of Christ in the world.
Franciscan Fr Tom Richstatter provides a brief, hence rather one-dimensional history of the sacraments.
If you are keen to study the progression on thinking about the sacraments you could compare the teachings of four historical catechisms and the recent (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church. A couple of other historical documents concerning the sacraments can be found in the Medieval Sourcebook compiled by Paul Halsall.
A twentieth century pastoral perspective on the meaning of the sacraments is provided in a series of homilies given by Pope John Paul II during a visit to Britain in 1982.
- Compare the Latin term for the sacraments sacramentum and the Greek term mysterion (mysteries). How are they both helpful in understanding the concept and experience of the sacraments?
- Read some of the extracts from the Church Fathers on Baptism or Eucharist. Choose one and make a short list of the points made about the sacrament.
- Imagine you were at a baptism (or one of the other sacraments e.g Confirmation) in the 11th century. What would be the same as attending a celebration of this sacrament now? What would be different?
- Listen to some music for Mass from the Middle Ages.
- Look at Chartres Cathedral, a great Church of the Middle Ages.
- Find out about St Thomas Aquinas and ‘interview’ him about his teaching about the sacraments especially the Eucharist.
- Ask your grandparents about what Mass was like when they were children. Try to find out what was the same and what was different. Alternatively an older parishioner might be invited to speak to the class about the celebration of the sacraments in their childhood.
As suggested in the previous section, thinking about the sacraments has developed over the 2000 year history of the Church. In every age of the Church, saints and scholars have sought to understand and explain their meaning and significance and this is so in our own time too.
We can easily recognise ways in which approaches to the sacraments have developed even over the past 50 years.
- In our parents’ time the sacraments were understood as channels of sanctifying grace, whereas we think of them as encounters with God.
- Rubrics and rules were important to our parents in celebrating the sacraments while for us they can seem pedantic and excluding.
- To our parents the word symbol implied a ‘mere’ representation of what is real while to us it implies the very means of participation in Reality.
- Their generation spoke of matter and form in relation to the sacraments; our generation speaks of mystery, celebration, participation.
All of these ways of speaking about the sacraments have their value and none of the ways of speaking about the sacraments finally exhausts their meaning.
The task of each generation of sacramental theologians is to draw on scripture, the constant teaching and tradition of the Church and the insights and understanding of their own age to explain and reveal the sacraments in ways that make sense to people.
For further reading
Some dioceses are preparing children for the sacraments of initiation according to the order in which they were originally received, that is Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. This original order was altered after Pope Pius X allowed children to receive first Holy Communion at ‘the age of reason’, generally around 7-8 years. Confirmation continued to be celebrated at around 12 years of age.
- What do you see as the losses and gains of the modern understanding of the sacraments?
- From a teaching point of view, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of restoring the ancient order of the sacraments, i.e. Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist?
Online Resources for the Classroom
The ‘We Believe’ is associated with American Religious Education publications but each site also contains some resources: either stories, black line masters, online activities and suggestions for primary catechists, parents and teachers quite apart from materials which require purchase.
Secondary teachers sometimes regret the fact that sacraments are taught and celebrated in the primary years and hence secondary experience lacks the heightened sense of engagement and expectation that happens naturally in primary school. An article drawing attention to the Church’s Book of Blessings might be used to shape and prepare prayer with secondary students that will parallel their life experiences. It is valuable in opening up the idea that many moments of life have the potential for being profound encounters with the mystery of God.