What are the Sacraments?
Jesus grew up in a very small rural village. His was a family of craftsmen. So naturally his teaching and healing were framed and full of stories and actions familiar to his listeners. His stories and parables revolve around weeds, crops, inheritance right, salt and light. When he healed he touched tongues and ears, sometimes using his own spittle. These simple acts and objects picked up shadows of the sacred. Some became so identified with his preaching that they were adopted by his followers and became anointed with his power and mission. The Church grew and reflected on these central symbols of Christ’s presence and power; gradually, by the early Middle Ages seven of these signs had been singled out. They were called sacraments. Each represents a phase of human growth and wisdom and deeper sharing in the life of the Church.
Baptism is a sacrament of initiation welcoming a new Christian into its new family. This may be as an infant, adding the Church’s embrace and culture to that of the parents. Or it may be a joyful welcome to a new adult member. At the heart of the ceremony is washing with water, a symbol of reviving and cleansing. Every community and family carries its own dark and hidden history. Baptism begs for healing of such contagion and pledges the support of the Church community for the newly baptised.
Central to this sacrament are an anointing with blessed oil and the taking on of a new name. In many ancient cultures anointing with oil marked a man or woman off for a special role such as healer or prophet. It acknowledged wisdom and leadership often signalled by a new name. It called on the spirit of God to infuse new powers. So confirmation in Catholic thought is a turning away from personal focus to a deeper involvement in the community, marked by a spirit of loving relationship empowered by God’s own Spirit.
Reconciliation (penance or confession)
Humans learn by making mistakes. Admitting these and the damage they cause can be powerful. Often we need the ear and wisdom of another to help us uncover and address the root of our faults. Harming ourselves and others we call sin. In this sacrament the priest takes the place of Jesus. He helps the penitent to acknowledge their errors and to unmask the roots of such wrong doing. He assures them of God’s forgiveness, allowing the penitent to depart light of heart and clean of soul, more aware of how to battle their weaknesses.
This sacrament is unique in that it is built on a human contract, seated in the need for love and sexual fulfilment. It is the couple who create the relationship and sacrament; the Church comes to witness and support it. From the dawn of humanity men and women have sought a mate for companionship and family. Christ blessed children and defended the enduring nature of the marriage bond. As our civilizations have grown more complex the need for romance, compatibility and unreserved acceptance by another have, if anything, become more central. In marriage the Church blesses and stands by such unions.
Holy Orders (priesthood)
This is the sacrament of servant leadership. After careful and long training and discernment, certain men are anointed and consecrated as priests. They are called to lead but not dominate, to teach but not control, and to provide strength for their people out of a sense of their own weakness and needs.
In many ways this is the foundation on which all the other sacraments are built. It exists in many dimensions. It is the consecrated bread and wine which Catholics believe is the very body and blood of Christ hidden under the forms of bread and wine. It is also the Mass in which this bread and wine are consecrated and transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. This sacrament is a multi-faceted jewel: it is the bringer of deep relationship with Jesus, a wedding feast for the Church, a sacrifice of personal egoism, and a foretaste of heaven, all at the same time.
In time of serious illness or the approach of death Catholics can receive strength and comfort from the sacrament of anointing. It is a reminder of baptism but also a time of preparation for another passage. The prayers, anointing and support given in the rite assure the sick person of total forgiveness and strength for what is to follow, the passage into the unknown.
Each of these seven sacraments is an assured moment of Christ’s presence and action. Regardless of the merit or talent of the minister, Christ guarantees his all-powerful presence; those who receive will be blessed at the level of their faith and desire. Each of these sacraments is focused on the individual Catholic here and now yet each is also geared to the growth and commitment of the supporting Church community. Each uses symbols: oil, water, salt, to bring out the inner meaning of what is happening within. Each is a moment of revelation of God but also a reminder of that moment of total illumination when the faithful disciple will finally come face to face with their God.