Sacraments 101

There was a book published in 1989 entitled “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.” It was one of those self-help books, and it was wildly popular. I just checked Amazon.com today, and noticed that that book – after 23 years on the market – is still ranked among the top 100 sellers in America, and ranked #3 among business and investing reference books. The book invites its reader to adopt seven habits – seven behaviors – that allow people to transform their lives and achieve greatness.


 

Now personally, I am not a big fan of self-help books, as the persons they mainly serve to help are the authors, the publishers and head honcho at Amazon.com. However, this “Seven Habits” book did something at the time it was published that many other business or professional guidance books did not do: It invoked God. It juxtaposed the low-expectations and cultural tendencies of the day against principles based in natural law (i.e., the moral meaning of humanity – who we are, why we exist, what we are called to do). It posited that if a person engages, or at least recognizes the importance of, the seven principles, he will be a better person.

The Church likewise puts forth a list of seven items that can lead to personal change; we call them Sacraments. This article, and the next seven articles in this series, will deal with the Seven Sacraments: seven encounters with Christ that change us to be in communion with, and at one with, the God who gave us life.

 

The Basics

There are seven sacraments in our Catholic faith, to wit: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of Sick (formerly dubbed Extreme Unction), Holy Orders and Marriage. Each of these Sacraments, though distinct, gives a share in God’s Divine Life which we commonly call Sanctifying Grace. In each of these sacraments, those willingly receiving the Sacrament have an encounter with Christ that affects them on the ontic level of their soul. While there are others ways of receiving grace, Sacraments provide the faithful with a guarantee, a promise, of an encounter with Christ.

 

Of Sacraments, UPS and Logistics

UPS, the United Parcel Service, had a recent ad campaign focusing on “logistics” – namely how the company gets a product from here to there through the mechanism of its delivery service. There is an analogy to be made here, that Sacraments are perhaps a form of Divine logistics. How is that? Let’s start with a fundamental ecclesial truth: Sacraments, as the Church has taught consistently over its life, are outward signs instituted by Christ to confer grace. That is to say, Christ designated key visible symbols (which the Church identifies as “matter”) and a method or structure in which to use them (which the Church identifies as “form”) as ways of receiving His grace. For lack of better term, and perhaps being a bit flip, I would say that Sacraments are grace delivery systems – they provide logistics for Sanctifying Grace. They are guaranteed ways of receiving God’s grace for specific purposes. And they are even delivered on Sunday! Take that UPS!

 

Meta-physical Education

Okay, so sacraments confer grace… but how? Well, to understand the Sacraments one first must understand a little about metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of the science (knowledge) of the world unseen, or as might be more traditionally put, the supernatural realm. When we speak of angels, heaven, purgatory, hell, etc., we are speaking of that realm beyond the natural, and we dub it “super” natural. You might be asking yourself, “Hey, what on earth, do sacraments – which we can see – have to do with the supernatural realm?” Good question! And the good answer is that Sacraments have everything to do with the supernatural realm (the world unseen).

When a sacrament is confected (made present), the proper minister must be present, the appropriate “matter” must be at hand, and the appropriate “form” must be used. When all of those proprietary elements are in place, combined with the intention of the Church, the natural realm (visible) and the supernatural realm (invisible) converge – the presence of Christ is made manifest. Because these seven Sacraments, as mentioned, were instituted by Christ, they are repeated by the Church and its ministers of our time, as they were carried out by Christ himself to the people of his time.

 

Sign Here?

What about the recipient of a Sacrament? What exactly occurs when a person receives a Sacrament? Well, there is – from time-to-time, in heretical circles – a fashionable, but a wrong, consensus that Sacraments are merely a sign of Christ’s presence. It further holds that that “sign” of Christ’s presence brings calm, happiness and an Oprah-esque peace to the person, thus making them feel all good, warm and fuzzy inside. And, hey, isn’t that what it’s all about? No, that is not what it is all about!

 

Close Encounters

The person who receives a Sacrament receives more than the simple presence of a sign. The fundamental truth is that the person receiving a Sacrament is receiving an encounter with Christ, his Lord and God, who gave him life, who saved him, who loves him and who will judge him. And by the very occurrence of that encounter that person receives, as mentioned earlier, Sanctifying Grace – that is, that person will have a prescient share in God’s Divine life and it will make him holy and pleasing to God. For this to occur propitiously, a person must be in a state of grace when receiving a Sacrament (with the exception of Baptism, which actually puts us in a state of grace, and Penance which restores us to a state of grace which may have been lost subsequent  to Baptism). Unlike common graces, Sanctifying Grace abides within us unless we lose it by placing ourselves in mortal sin.

 

Of Death and Taxes and…

It is said that in life we can only be sure of death and taxes (and these days, we might say we are being taxed to death), however as Catholics we have a third item even more certain than death and taxes: Christ’s presence to us in the Sacraments. Since we hold that Christ is God and that God is truth, the promise of Christ that he will be with us always has to find extant reality in our life. The Sacraments – all seven of them – provide that reality, in faith. We know that Christ is present to us, and he extends himself to us through these Sacraments. Thus, since we have faith in his presence, we have an obligation to live lives worthy of Him, to prepare ourselves for those Sacramental encounters. Thus it can be said that certitude – that is, the certainty of God’s presence – is both the joy and the burden of being Catholic. Knowing that God is with us, and that he allows us to be able to share in his Divine Life, serves to keep us aware that Good News of Jesus Christ is more than just a nice sounding story, but rather it is made tangibly present to us in form of His Sacraments.