Index Catholic Church What is a Sacrament

What is a Sacrament?

It seems to me that the most characteristic feature of the Catholic Church is its belief in the sacraments. This isn't to deny that the Protestant Churches share this belief to varying degrees, but I would say that it is found in its fullest form in the Catholic Church -- including the Orthodox Churches, who believe essentially the same as Catholics, and the more Catholic elements within the Church of England.

I think I can most easily explain what a sacrament is by comparing it with what a Baptist told me at an ecumenical (inter-church) study day a few years ago. His view was that a person hears the Christian message, comes to believe in the Gospel, and accepts Jesus Christ as his or her personal Saviour. The ceremony of baptism takes place some time after this, as a sign of what has already happened in the life of the believer. That's why the Baptist Church could never accept the idea of infant baptism, because the conversion to Christ has to happen first, and an infant is too young for this to be possible.

When we say that baptism is a sacrament, we also mean that it is a sign -- but a sign that brings about the reality which it represents. It is rather like the signs given on certain crucial occasions by the prophets: for example, Ezekiel and the sign of the exile packing his bundle (Ezek 12:1-16), Jeremiah and the broken jug (Jer 19:1-15). In such cases there is always an action carried out by the prophet, together with a message which interprets the meaning of the action. Once both have been given, the reality they point to is not only bound to occur -- in a sense it already begins to come about -- because although the sign is given by the prophet, it is at God's command and it is God who acts to make it happen.

A sacrament is also a combination of action and word. The words point out the meaning of the action, and the combination actually brings about the reality it represents. It is essential to remember also that, like the prophetic sign, it is carried out at God's command -- for example, 'Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Matt 28:19). It is not a case of human beings manipulating God to do what we want (as a witch-doctor might attempt to do). It is God's initiative and God's command. Though the priest or minister conducts the ceremony, it is God who is the prime mover.

Coming back to baptism, then, we have essentially a sign of death and resurrection:

You have been taught that when we were baptised in Christ Jesus, we were baptised in his death; in other words, when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too might live a new life. If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:3-5)

In baptism we act out a sort of sacred drama which represents us as being in some way united with the death and the resurrection of Christ. God uses simple material things (in this case, water), human actions and human words, to bring about a new relationship between the person being baptised and Christ. It is more than just a sign; a real change takes place -- though of course in the case of an infant the full effect is not seen until later in life.

Many, who do not understand the nature of the sacraments, would see them as primitive and superstitious. We see them, on the other hand, as God's way of taking account of our nature as human beings: both body and soul, physical and spiritual. He offers us the means towards health in both dimensions of our existence, using a method which combines signs and words we can see and understand, together with his unseen power in which we believe and trust.

There are seven sacraments, in the strict sense: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, ordination and marriage -- but the broader concept of sacrament runs through the Catholic vision of Christianity. God uses material things as means of salvation: music, art and architecture, for example. Following St Paul (1 Cor 12:27), we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ: as Christians act in the world, so Christ acts through them in ways which they perhaps can never imagine. Ultimately, all this is the result of the Incarnation: God became man raised up our limited nature to a new dignity. In a sense, he destroyed the distinction between the sacred and the profane: even the simplest things can be the means to help us in our journey towards God.


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A parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark.
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