How Sacraments Work
Last month we reflected on how God reaches us through the liturgy. Now let's develop that idea a little more. The Mass and the seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, Matrimony) link us to Christ. They put us in touch with His Person and with what He said and did to bring about our salvation. As Pope St. Leo the Great taught in the 5th century: "What was visible in our Savior has passed over into His mysteries." Through the sacraments we have living contact with Christ: His incarnation and birth; His preaching and miracles; His saving death and resurrection. Further, Christ instituted the seven sacraments and entrusted them to the Church. In fidelity to her Savior, the Church continues to celebrate the sacraments and is built up by them.
All the sacraments are efficacious signs which show us how God wishes to touch and transform our lives and they are also the means by which he does so. As St. Augustine taught, they are visible signs of God's invisible grace at work in us. Indeed, the words and gestures of the liturgy powerfully symbolize what God is doing for us and in us as a community of faith and as individuals.
We might say that the sacraments fulfill Christ's promise to remain always with his Church. In this way we can understand the Church's teaching on the efficacy of the sacraments – the fact that, through the Holy Spirit, they impart the transforming presence and grace of Christ. Thus, we can access Christ's saving words and deeds and they can become a real part of our lives. So determined was Christ to remain with us that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend on the personal worthiness of the minister (bishop, priest, deacon, or layperson performing an emergency baptism). Thus the Church teaches that the sacraments bring us God's saving grace ex opere operato (by the very fact that the sacramental action is performed). But this leads to two other important considerations.
First, anyone who performs a sacramental action (baptizes, celebrates Mass, etc.) has a most serious obligation to be in the state of grace and in pursuit of personal holiness. Every minister of the sacraments must seek to model his life on the mysteries he celebrates. Second, while the sacraments are in and of themselves efficacious, they must be received with a living and active faith. To receive the sacraments fruitfully – in a way that will make a difference in our lives – we must have faith. If we approach the sacraments in this way, we will find that the sacramental signs express, nourish, and strengthen our adherence to the faith of the Church. Indeed, there is a deep and mutual correspondence between what we believe and how we worship.
So we can readily see that the grace of the Holy Spirit given us by Christ through the sacraments is necessary for salvation. Each sacrament provides its proper effects in our lives but all of them work together to join us to Christ and to one another in a communion of life and love. Through the various sacraments we are healed and transformed so as to grow in the likeness of Christ. The Holy Spirit, at work in all the sacraments, enables us to share in the life of theTrinity by uniting us with the Son of God. As God's own life begins to take root in us, we long to join the angels and saints in seeing Him face to face. Thus, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, the sacraments commemorate (re-present) what Christ has done to save us; they make present the grace He won for us; and they look forward to our future glory in heaven.
Sacramental signs unfold in the context of the living Word of God faithfully reflected in the Church's prayer wherein Christ, the Head, acts on behalf of His Body, the Church. Even when celebrated "privately", the sacraments unite us in the Holy Spirit as a priestly people. The baptized are enabled to offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice. Bishops and priests, assisted by deacons, administer the sacraments in the Person of Christ, Head and Shepherd of His Church.
Let's now look at the sacramental symbols themselves. We are familiar with the use of water, bread and wine, and oil in the sacramental liturgy. We are also accustomed to gestures such as the laying on of hands. Some sacramental signs are drawn from nature, others from human culture. All sacramental signs emerged from salvation history and were taken up by Christ to convey His saving truth and love. Closely joined to the sacramental signs are words which bear the meaning and the power of those signs.
When possible, the liturgy is to be celebrated with music and song. Liturgical music should always reflect the Church's teaching and lift our minds and hearts to God. So, too, the liturgy should be celebrated in the presence of holy images, above all, the image of Christ crucified. Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and the angels remind us that they are praying with us and for us in the liturgy of heaven.
The most important day in the Church's liturgical life is Sunday. It is the Lord's Day in which we are obliged to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ – culminating in Easter Sunday, "the feast of feasts". The Liturgical Year consists of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time. We also celebrate the life and example of the saints and call upon their intercession.
By following the Church's liturgy throughout the year, we share more deeply in the mysteries of Christ's life – that is – His incarnation and birth, His preaching and miracles, His death, resurrection, and exaltation. Thus we are more and more deeply immersed in Christ's life. We come to know Him more intimately and follow Him more faithfully.
It is also fitting that the liturgy be celebrated in churches, sacred buildings, dedicated to the worship of God. For centuries the Catholic faithful have sacrificed to build churches that rise in praise of God and serve as their spiritual home. The rite of dedicating a church helps us see the nature of the Church herself and highlights the importance of the Church building and its furnishings.
The liturgy is very rich and beautiful. It has been celebrated for nearly 2,000 years in a variety of languages and cultures. Amid such diversity there is oneness thanks to the Apostolic Tradition, that is, a oneness in faith and sacramental life received from the Apostles and handed down through the centuries by their successors, the bishops. The Church carefully distinguishes between those things in the liturgy which are unchangeable and those which can be adapted to various cultures.
In our next installment we will consider what "full and active participation in the liturgy" means.