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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

5. Learning about Sacraments

I have lived through a time of renewal in the Church and in her understanding of sacraments. The renewal of my own understanding of sacraments had its own timetable and path. Throughout it was the special nature of the sacramental signs that fascinated me.  

The starting point for saying what I learned is unique about sacramental signs was that they effect, they bring about, what they signify. Protestants have long stressed the truth that our salvation is already completely accomplished by Jesus. Catholics stressed what the sacraments do. Catholics didn’t think the sacraments acted on their own. Rather, Jesus is acting in the sacraments, and the signs act the way an instrument in a person’s hand might act. Today you often hear it expressed this way: Sacraments are signs and instruments of God’s grace. I’d always known that God was doing something important when I went to church. Even if it didn’t add to what Jesus already did, it was important for me to be there.

When I went to church, God was going to forgive me or heal me or nourish my soul—and use some items, the sacramental signs, taken out of the created world, to make it happen. I had to understand which signs stood for which actions of God. Then I'd know what was going on. I'd know exactly what grace I would carry with me back to my daily life. Unknowingly, I was making the sacramental signs themselves rather uninteresting.  As long as some minimal conditions were met, what the signs looked like and how they were done didn't matter much.  God could have chosen any signs as long as I had a teacher or catechism to tell me what grace they were supposed to bring.

That reasoning about sacramental signs was reinforced for me by the liturgy. The Church was always good at ceremonies. The environment and the actions with which we surrounded the presence of Jesus in the sacraments were deeply moving. Oddly, the primary sacramental signs themselves often weren't very impressive. As we knew them, the sacramental signs were quite small—for Baptism a few drips of water, for the Eucharist a thin wafer that didn't look or taste like bread and had to be consumed in a manner that didn't feel like a meal, and no wine except for the priest. Other things were impressive, like the gathering of a devout and faithful people and the priest leading us in worship. Looking at these things, you couldn’t miss the very special work of God going on there. But we never realized that our gathering and the priest who led us were sacramental signs. We didn’t think of the Word of God as a sign either, nor did it have, except for the sermon, a very impressive place in the liturgy.

Renewal in the Church brought a new emphasis on the sacramental signs. You can see it in the place given to some of the important furnishings used in liturgy. The Baptismal font tends to be much more prominent today, and water flows more copiously. Occasionally total immersion is the sign. The ambo, where the Word of God is proclaimed, is probably smaller than the pulpit of the former liturgy, but that’s so as not to overshadow the Word itself. God’s Word, symbolized by the book of scripture, is one very prominent feature of today’s liturgy that was almost lost before. The Eucharistic table may be smaller than the former altar and not as fancy, but it has a more central position now and it has added meaning now that you can see it’s a real table. Communion is more like a meal now, especially when we partake of both bread and cup, and so it’s easier to think of Jesus as food for hungry souls than before. The most important change in the sacramental signs is the way they are done—close to or in the midst of the people and, especially, by the people, so all can see and be involved.

This new way of celebrating was much more meaningful to me and to many, but on reflection that doesn’t seem to be a good enough reason for the changes. After all, some people felt personally involved in the old Mass. Everyone knew that the Eucharist was a meal and that Jesus was food for the soul. Wasn’t it enough just to know what’s happening on the distant altar and at the Communion rail and believe and do one's best to live out the grace you received in church? What exactly is new about the new liturgy?

The new liturgy is more than just the old liturgy in a more appealing form. There’s vitality in the new sacramental signs that wasn’t there before. More things are considered signs than before, including Word, people, and priest. We don’t have to look away to a distant altar for these signs; we are the signs or we do them ourselves. There’s a new understanding that says Jesus is really present in all of these signs, not just one or two. All of that encourages a person to look for even more ways that Jesus is present. Signs are things that point, and pointers usually point outside themselves. Jesus is present and active in our world in many more ways than there are sacramental signs, and the signs point to these other ways. The sacraments symbolize and celebrate Jesus’ presence all along and all around, outside the celebration as well as in. I used to think I was finding Christ first in the liturgy and taking that grace out into the world. Now I see that I am living with Christ first in the world, for the most part unconsciously, and symbolizing and celebrating that presence in the sacraments. That means the signs have another important job, and they have to be done well in order to pull it off. Besides carrying the presence and the grace that I first was taught to find when I came to church, the signs have to be reminders of Christ's often hidden and forgotten presence in the world. That’s new. It’s something the liturgy didn’t do, or didn’t do very well, before.

Liturgists tell us the signs of the sacraments are more than just things, more than water, oil, bread, and wine. The signs are the actions we perform with these things, sharing the bread and the cup, pouring the water,anointing with oil. Whoever first told me that neglected to give a reason so it was a while before I understood.   But it makes good sense: What we are involved in is much more than a presence; it is Christ in action, God's saving work. God’s work is always Jesus’ work. It’s Jesus in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, Samaria, or Jerusalem. That presence of God in history is extended to us in the sacraments. God’s work is also Jesus already present in Old Testament times: “…before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (John 8:58) The patriarchs, prophets, kings, and other figures of the Old Testament were types or foreshadowings of what was to come. Perhaps the biggest part of God’s work is the work of Jesus that goes on anonymously in the grace flooding the whole world in every age. In the sacraments it’s as if we are plugged into the whole of Jesus’ work. That’s why the symbols are actions. It’s a very active Jesus that is present.

Believing in God's presence, whether in the sacraments or in all the details of daily living, is one of the great comforts Catholics enjoy. Sometimes it's easy to forget what Jesus' historical presence in the world led to—his death on a Cross. Years ago the phrase "Sacrifice of the Mass" was heard much more commonly than it is today. But it wasn't any easier to take the idea of sacrifice seriously then. Jesus' sacrifice on Calvary (and its completion in the resurrection) becomes present at every Mass, but that teaching was hard to set alongside the way I used to think about Jesus in Communion or any sacrament. This was an image of Jesus just coming to me like a ship with a cargo of grace so I could go out and do what I was supposed to afterwards. I didn't think of Jesus as then and there drawing me into his divine, difficult, saving work, his sacrifice. But now I have to think of the Mass and all the sacraments—Communion more than any of the others—as honest-to-goodness work. The sacrament isn't something that happens to me; it is something I do with Christ. It is not just a presence that comes but a work—that same sacrifice of Jesus. And I am part of it, along with all the assembled faithful. This only seems new because it is so old. The Sacrifice of the Mass often now is called simply “Liturgy,” an old and revived Greek word. More obviously than before, our Mass is what that word literally means—the "work of the people.” Now when I think about the presence of Jesus in the sacraments or in the everyday world, comforting as this is, the thought of work, of sacrifice, is never far away.

When I celebrate God’s saving work in the liturgy nowadays, its sacred signs often lead me to the presence and work of Christ in the everyday world. That is a grace that I respond to easily. But sometimes it's the historical events in Jesus’ life or one of the prophets that seems most real. Other times I'm caught up in the very act of celebrating, the present moment. It changes with the sacrament, the season, the mood, or the need of the time.

The first of the signs of every sacrament is the gathering of the people. A sacrament doesn't begin after the people have gathered but with this sign of gathering. This active sign even looks like a saving work—bringing together a people who were separate. The readings and homily that follow are just as active. We share Good News, the stories that show that there is meaning in ordinary lives and call forth our renewed and deepened commitments. Then, depending on the sacrament, we go under the waters of death and resurrection or the oil of healing; we give and receive a sign of peace and forgiveness; we share a meal. It sometimes looks and feels as if God's saving work is happening now, that same saving grace that flows from the cross and the empty tomb and from every corner of space and time. Looking around at all these faithful people, singing songs about Jesus’ presence and about everything Jesus means to do here and in the world outside, I can sometimes feel myself being strengthened for the work still to be done and know that we all are part of the strengthening, the welcoming, the forgiving, the nourishing for one another.

Think again:

Jesus’ presence in various ways in the sacraments is connected with the many ways Jesus is present in our everyday lives. Is this something you think about? Is it something you just feel? Is it easier to think of the signs of the sacraments as things or as actions? Does the Mass feel like work to you?

On to 6, Celebrations and Signs