The definition that Christians use for “Sacrament” vary, but range from mere memorials on one end of the spectrum, to “a sacred act instituted by Christ Himself which gives us Him and His salvation” (the Lutheran view, summarized), to “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (the Catholic view).
The varying definitions give rise to the different number of Sacraments. Lutherans hold to two (sometimes three) Sacraments: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, and (sometimes) Confession and Absolution. Other Protestants have Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, although their conception of exactly “what” these are differs.
Catholics have the following Sacraments, divided into three main groups:
- Sacraments of Initiation
- Sacraments of Healing
- Penance and Reconciliation (Confession)
- Anointing of the Sick
- Sacraments of Service
- Holy Orders
I’ll focus on the Catholic list for purposes of this article, since they are more expansive and encompass every area of the human life, from conception (the Sacrament of Matrimony) to death (the Sacraments of Anointing, Confession, and Eucharist). They also span from the entire life of the Christian, bringing people into the Church through Baptism, confirming their Baptismal grace in Confirmation, feeding them continually with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and restoring them to the Church through Confession. Finally, a Christian is called to greater service either through Matrimony or through Holy Orders.
It is interesting to reflect on the truths which the Sacraments are revealing to us.
First, they are God’s actions through Christ whereby He is with us throughout our lives. They show a paternal concern for His people in ensuring that there is a people (the Church) who births, cares for, and nurtures new children of God. God has not left us alone, but is continually with us through the Sacraments.
Second, they show an incarnational aspect of God’s love. Water is poured over our bodies in Baptism, we are anointed with oil in Confirmation, we are fed with bread and wine in the Eucharist. What is more, the very elements of the Eucharist itself are also the body and blood of Christ. The sick are cared for and people are called into special service either for the Church or for their spouse and children. The Sacraments witness to the truth of Christ’s incarnation because they themselves are incarnational.
Third, they illustrate the love of Christ. The Sacraments are ways in which He is present with us. They are also things He has commissioned the Church to do for His people. The Sacraments therefore come from outside of us and are done to us, as acts of God’s grace. The Sacraments of Service are meant to nurture the Church (through Holy Orders) and the family (through Matrimony). As part of this, they all also illustrate the central truth that Christian love is sacrificial and has a concern for the other. In marriage, husbands and wives give themselves to each other and sacrifice for each other as well as for their children. Marriage is therefore the most intimate way in which Christian sacrificial love or charity is lived out.
What are the implications, then, of the Sacraments?
For one, they witness to the incarnation of Christ. The Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us, and continues to dwell among us in the Eucharist. In addition, they witness to the fact that we – as human creatures – are both body and soul. God cares for the entire person and is saving the entire person, as evidenced by the tangible, bodily aspects of the Sacraments as well as the promise of the bodily resurrection. Related to this is the fact that human life is important. God has provided a means to bring it about (Matrimony) and given the other Sacraments to nurture the entire human life so that a person is brought closer to Him.
Human actions which devalue human life, then, fight against the Sacraments and God’s design. Abortion, Euthanasia, and murder all “kick against the goads” of God’s witness in the Sacraments that He created life, that Christ came in the flesh to save us (being Himself born of a woman), and that He is the one with power over life and death and chooses life due to His grace, even though our lives cost us his suffering and death.
Thus, God’s love is sacrificial. He gives Himself to us. Christ left the adoration of the angels (cf. Isaiah 6) and came to us to give Himself up for our salvation. We, as His people – the Church – are called to do the same for each other, most especially our spouses and children. We are called to bear witness to Christ and uphold the things He upholds: life, grace, and mercy. Let us not forget the sacrificial nature of Christ’s love for us as we seek to model love for others.
(Image: Distribution of divine graces by means of the Catholic Church and the sacraments. By Johannes Hopffe – Bistum Hildesheim, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9603529)