What is Sacrament?
It is easy to understand and accept what is perceivable by our senses but for something abstract, we often rely on symbolic means to help us understand its nature. The Church is an assembly of men and women, in order to have a clear view of God’s love and salvation, it also uses visible signs to represent God’s love for mankind which would otherwise be beyond our means to peruse. The Son of God took our human form and became the Son of Man, our mediator, to show us the love of God our Father has for us. In other words, we see God by living in Christ and we also find God through encountering Jesus. The Lord has told us that, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
Encountering God in Sacraments
When Jesus was preaching the gospel of the kingdom, it was easy to learn from Him without obscurity as He explicitly demonstrated the love of God the Father, teaching the people how to pray, baptized, forgave sins and cured the sick. Seeing these in action helps us to experience the love of God and also brings us to an intimate encounter with God.
When Jesus was founding His Church, He anticipated what His believers will need in the future. They would not be able to talk to Him face to face nor listened to His voice as He gave sermons. Hence He has established the seven ‘sacraments’ for the Church so which help believers to understand and love God, sharing the grace God freely gives.
What is Sacrament?
The word ‘sacrament’ came from its Latin origin ‘Mysterion’, which implies mystical and confidential, which is now widely adopted as the ‘mystery in Christ’. Thus sacraments are what Christ left to His people in which they can encounter God and receive His grace. The meaning of sacrament is further prescribed by the following three points:
- that it is instituted by Jesus;
- it is well defined by its external form;
- those receiving the sacraments under appropriate condition of their souls will receive gifts and grace as imparted by Jesus.
Christ is the Sacrament of God the Father
Although we see sacrament as a way we are brought into communion with God the Father, for Christians, Christ is a sacrament as He has made God the Father who is not seen by our eyes visible on Himself. ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created.’ (Col 1:15) Thus Christians believe the mystery of God the Father is revealed in Christ. Christ is visible, perceivable and accessible; by living interactively with Christ, Christians come in touch the invisible Father and the Holy Spirit. It is why we say Christ is the sacrament of God the Father.
The Church is the Sacrament of Christ
Christ instituted the seven sacraments for His Church but the Church itself is a fundamental sacrament in herself. Christ founded the Church to spread the good news, bringing grace to many, making those who believes in Him His family. Thus the mission of the Church is to continue the work of Christ in the world as well as being the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world. When the Church shows the world Christ through its instituted presence and its activities, allowing people to encounter Christ who is now invisible to our eyes, our Church becomes Christ’s ‘sacrament’.
The Seven Sacrament
The seven sacraments of the Church are Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. Through the use of signs and acts, Christ gives grace to His people. Each of the seven sacraments has its unique purpose and are administered for different needs of grace. Through Baptism we share the life of God and become His children; receiving Confirmation strengthened the new life we received; Holy Eucharist nurtures our spiritual life; Penance allows us to be reborn again in grace should we loss the life we have received; the Anointing of the Sick restores spiritual and physical vitality; Holy Orders transform one’s capacity in sharing the priestly role of Christ; Matrimony bestow a couple the gift of life creation with God’s blessings. Each sacrament gives a specific kind of grace and empower the life of the ones receiving it.
When the Church administer a sacrament, Christ will be present which makes the fruit of receiving it palpable. To put it shortly, the seven sacraments are precise answers to seven kinds of needs.
The nature of a Sacrament
‘The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called “sacraments of faith.” They do, indeed, confer grace but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace to their profit, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.’ (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Chapter III)
The passage implies that apart from sanctifying the recipient of the sacrament, it also also building the Church, in this we see a call to respond and also a mission. Besides, one must be a believer with faith to receive a sacrament in order to benefit from its effect, while through the act of receiving expressing and increasing one’s faith. Lastly, the grace conferred in a sacrament is not an elixir per se nor should it be compared with an illusionist’s trick, it should instead be taken seriously with the right preparation in order to transform its blessings into the love of God and our neighbours.
‘Grace’ is nothing but the merits of Christ as God sees it, which sublime nature is granted to mankind so that we may receive eternal life. There are two kinds of grace, sanctifying and natural. Sanctifying grace makes us the children of God through the suffering of Christ; actual grace is what Christ grant us according to our need in our work and living, when encountering difficulties or when we have to struggle to choose good from evil.
Grace is a supernatural gift which cannot earned by human effort, it is solely conferred by the discretion of God while its effect is beyond the reach of natural human capacity.
Sacrament and Liturgy
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) When Christians pray together and part of a celebration, Jesus will come among us and act as the bridge between heaven and earth. Apart from the seven Sacraments, the Church also provide other holy services including funeral rites, blessing of churches and homes which are called sacramentalia.
The Sacraments are instituted by Jesus Himself. Throughout the history of the Church, the form of administering the sacraments has undergone several changes, which shows the close relationship between the people of the era and the the need of the sacraments. It’s easy to recognize the unchanging face of Jesus Christ in the sacraments although change is constantly happening which may alter the external acts.
Sacramentalia were instituted through different periods of the past, which makes the prayer of the Church more closely in tune with the the social realities people have been experiencing. Although the sacramentalia are not exactly comparable with the seven Sacraments, they have certain similarities in the way they are structured, consisting of a visible part of the act an invisible part of spiritual enhancement.
Lastly, the liturgy of the Church includes the Mass, the seven Sacraments and sacramentalia (which includes funeral rites, blessing of churches and homes).
God is willing to express His love for mankind with an icon. This icon was established for the need of mankind, so that we may understand the love He has for us. In sacraments believers find themselves to be a group which experience the love of God both in spirit and body. The focus is on experience. In other words, faith is not only something abstract and supernatural but also something within our grasp and experience, something that can be lived and touched.
Hence ‘Sacraments not represent a new life but they also give us new lives. They do not merely referred to our salvation but also continue to save us. Not only do they remind us our closeness with our Lord but actually bring us into the Lord’s presence’.
Apart from daily Mass and Penance, our Church also provide the following services of Sacraments and sacramentalia to our parishioners: