Christ instituted the sacraments of the Church in order that the faithful may not only come into contact with him but be configured to him as a member of his body. As St. Ambrose so wonderfully said: In the sacraments, we meet Christ!
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 May 2016
Many non-Catholic Christians today incorrectly believe the sacraments to be nothing more than symbols which prompt us to turn our attention in faith toward God, as a sign might remind us of something we should do or a particular path we should take. There’s the idea that the sacraments are only external human actions which might, for those who are interested, evoke a desire to enter into a relationship with Christ or seek to receive God’s grace, much as one might look at a picture or hear a song and be moved to pray. This view holds that the sacraments themselves are not instruments through which Christ is really encountered or God’s grace is really received but rather ineffective symbols—albeit with perhaps some vague meaning. Communion, for example, if celebrated, is viewed as merely a symbol of the Last Supper which helps to draw Christians together in faith in remembrance of that particular historical event.
Others look on the sacraments harshly, as ritualistic inventions rooted not in the mysteries of the life of Christ but in ancient pagan practices. This attitude, foreign to Scripture and the history of salvation, has often led to complete abandonment of the sacraments.
There is also a tendency toward over-spiritualization in combination with an aversion toward bodily action in the worship of God, which also leads people to look on sacraments with contempt. It’s the idea that worshiping God must involve an interior movement of the heart only—we reflect, pray, think about Christ but do not engage in external, bodily actions. We see this manifested in the adamant insistence by non-Catholics against the exterior bodily action involved in making the Sign of the Cross as a form of Trinitarian prayer. But such a view denies the created reality of the human person: a being who is both body and spirit. The human person is a body/spirit composite forming a single, rational substance. Worship in spirit and truth, therefore, must include engagement of the body. God created man as a rational person of body and spirit; what would lead men to disregard the importance of their body in relation to the worship of the Creator who himself has made it?
The Catholic Church, however, has never in her 2000 years of living existence even remotely held to such disparaged notions about the sacraments and worship. She maintains that the sacraments effect the grace they signify when received in faith. They are outward signs through which the mysteries of Christ’s life are made present to the faithful. Through the sacraments of faith, Christ communicates his Spirit, bestows sanctifying grace or its increase, and gives to his people of faith a share in the supernatural, divine life of God. Christ instituted the sacraments of the Church in order that the faithful may not only come into contact with him but be configured to him as a member of his body! As St. Ambrose so wonderfully said: In the sacraments, we meet Christ!
This means that sacraments are the sacraments of salvation; this is so precisely because they incorporate the faithful into the body of Christ, into his saving and redeeming life by the communication of his Spirit. It is the Church who confers these sacraments on the faithful. That is why the Church is referred to as the instrument of salvation in the world, or, as Vatican II noted, the “universal sacrament of salvation” (LG 48 § 2).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments are not human inventions but are in fact the sacraments of Christ:
Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers, we profess that the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord. (CCC 1114)
Jesus’ words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his Paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries. (CCC 1115)
Sacraments are powers that comes forth from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are the masterworks of God in the new and everlasting covenant. (CCC 1116)
Our Protestant brothers and sisters today often claim that the Eucharist celebrated in the Catholic Church is purely symbolic. While there are many ways to show scripturally why such a notion is foreign to the Bible, it is St. Paul who provides one of the best arguments against this idea that, as a matter of history, was born in the fires of the Protestant revolution beginning in the 16th century:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (I Cor 11:27-30)
Here St. Paul is speaking about the Eucharist, the consecrated bread and wine which is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. The Eucharist is in fact the source and summit of the faith and the Church precisely because it is Christ, who is himself the source of the Church and our very life. Clearly St. Paul did not envision the Eucharist as merely a symbol, for that would make complete nonsense of his words. No one is judged for treating a symbol unworthily; however, to do the same of Christ brings judgment. Those who eat the bread and drink of the cup without discerning the sacramental presence of the glorified body of the Risen Lord, drink unworthily and thus bring judgment upon themselves, which has not only eternal consequences but also those of a temporal nature.
As one more example, let us consider the sacrament of Baptism. The Church has always held that we are made God’s people, born into the kingdom of God, by water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6). Through Baptism we are regenerated, made anew and re-created, cleansed of our sins, incorporated into Christ and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the life of God dwelling in us (see Acts 2:38; 22:16; Rom 6:1-4; I Cor 6:11, 12:13; Gal 3:26-27; Eph 5:25-27; Col 2:11-12; I Pet 3:18-22).
What did the early Christians, the Church Fathers, think of this sacrament through which we enter into eternal life?
For if we do the will of Christ, we shall find rest; otherwise, if we disobey his commandments, nothing shall deliver us from eternal punishment . . . . [H]ow can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we are possessed of works of holiness and righteousness? (Second Letter of Clement 6, [c. A.D. 80], qtd. in The Fathers know Best, Jimmy Akin, 257)
If a man does not receive baptism, he has not salvation; except only martyrs, who even without water receive the kingdom. For when the Savior, in redeeming the world by his cross, was pierced in the side, he shed blood and water; that men, living in times of peace, might be baptized in water, and, in times of persecution, in their own blood. . . . For you go down into the water, bearing your sins, but the invocation of grace, having sealed your soul, suffers you afterwards not to be swallowed up by the terrible dragon. Having gone down dead in sins, you come up quickened in righteousness (Catechetical Lectures 3:10, 12 [c. A.D. 350] qtd. in The Fathers know Best, Jimmy Akin, 259-260)
The sacraments of the Church are not merely symbols, but rather are outward signs through which we receive in faith the grace of Christ. Those who receive the sacraments properly disposed and with faith are thus changed, elevated, purified as they are made members of the Savior’s body. The sacraments, then, conform us to the glorified and Risen One that we may, in being configured to him and in living a moral life in him, rise with him to new life; that we may, as was he, be resurrected into eternal life and glory; that we, as he now is, enter the heavenly realm and attain the goal of human nature.
In closing, I leave you with a beautiful teaching of the Magisterium of the Church on the Eucharist, the life-blood of the Christian life:
At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 47)
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.