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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes


6. Celebrations and Signs

Sacraments are celebrations. That seemed like a new idea after the Council. Actually, the idea was there before but far in the background, behind more practical descriptions of Catholic worship like "service" and "spiritual food." Now it seems to me that "celebration" describes sacraments perfectly. Formerly, if I thought about celebrating at all, I might have thought:  Jesus comes to me in the sacrament; I'm as close to God as I can be; I should feel like celebrating. Now I can't look only in church for something worth celebrating. The reason for the celebration, the reason for going to church, is everywhere all along.

In secular festivities we might celebrate a victory, the birth of a country or of an individual, the harvest, work, an important event—something outside the celebration. Sacramental celebrations are like that. God is around us, behind us, in front of us. We come together to celebrate the many ways that God is present and all the things God is doing, has done, and wants to do in our lives, in our world, in our history—not just because we can get close to God in church.

Before the Council the fact that the Mass is a celebration was there vaguely: We called one person "celebrant"—the priest who "said" the Mass and "administered" the sacraments to us individually. We "attended" Mass, made a "spiritual offering" to God, tried hard to have the right interior disposition, and "received" the sacraments. I don’t recall thinking of my part as celebrating. Now the priest is presider; he acts, but in the name of the people, who are active, too. They participate in the work of the Mass not only through the priest but also with the priest, and they have special tasks that they alone can do. Interior disposition gets a big boost from knowing that our exterior participation matters. All of us assembled celebrate as a community.

Sacraments are signs. The once familiar catechism told us that, and it said exactly what the sign or signs were for each of the sacraments. To me it was wonderful that God came to us through water, oil, bread, and wine. It made the ordinary things of life special because they had such highly honored "relatives." The important thing, though, was the real, sacramental presence of Christ. No sign would ever look like that so we so we made the whole liturgy solemn, mysterious and deeply moving and tried think only of the reality hiding "under" the sacramental signs. What if the priest got his hands really wet, or you actually had to chew the bread and drink from a cup? What if the actions at the altar started to look like what people do when they share food and drink? Bolder signs like these might point us toward similar things outside church, and we wanted to think only of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. We didn't want to be "distracted."

But Jesus is present and goes to work for us first in all those mundane activities like sharing a meal among family and friends. The many Bible stories about meals that Jesus took part in ought to help us see that. That's what the signs of the sacraments can help us see, too. Signs do that best when they are close and large and boldly done. Today’s liturgy revels in bold signs, primary sacramental signs that are not just water, bread, wine, oil but the actions of people, making the connection between sacraments and our ordinary lives visible.  

An interesting thing happens when people become involved in a liturgy that is a celebration.  Its symbolic actions—coming together, sharing words of love and encouragement, sharing a community meal—really do look like the Kingdom of God, and it's easy to believe that Jesus is with us. Jesus’ real presence isn't so hidden in the sacramental signs as we used to think.

Celebration and sign—two ways of naming the connection between sacraments and our everyday lives. Celebrations are about something outside the celebration. Signs point away from themselves toward something else. Sacramental signs and celebrations point outward toward grace that is already occurring in our lives. They point backward to God's action in history. They point forward to what God wants us to be. They help us see that all the things around us are graced even before some of them are honored as sacramental signs. It's OK if the Eucharistic banquet looks like a meal and makes us think of other loving meals shared with family and friends or, perhaps, of meals that we wish could be as peaceful and loving as this one. That's not a distraction; it's paying close attention to Jesus where we most often find him and to what Jesus wants us to be.

Think again:

Can you name something in particular that you felt it was important to celebrate in church? What is the difference between a distraction and the real meaning of the liturgy? When have you had the feeling that something that happened in church was like the Kingdom of God?

 On to 7, Sacraments in a World of Grace