It is generally understood that there are seven (7) sacraments in the Catholic Church: Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. But what if I told you in truth there is only one sacrament and it is the cornerstone for all the others? Would you feel threatened? Perhaps you’d feel challenged. Maybe you just want to slap the stupid out of me and call me a heretic. Frankly, I really don’t care what you think or want to do, but hear me out and lets journey to a much more simple time, when our Christ walked this hallowed ground and taught others how to live good lives.
We all generally agree that the sacraments are special celebrations that impart God’s divine grace in some way, shape, or form and are generally for a specific purpose. Baptism, for example, is the first step in a lifelong journey of commitment and discipleship as a follower of Jesus, the Christ (remember folks – Christ is not a last name; it is a title). It is the imparting of God’s grace to the person, no matter if just born or having roamed this earth for a time, so that the person is aware of their greater connection not only to God, but to the larger community of faithful. But why? Why do we even bother to baptize? Prior to Jesus being baptized, John was “purifying” people as a way to prepare for God’s gift to the world – and we all know God gave his only beloved Son because “…he so loved the world…” An over simplification? Perhaps.
Let’s think about reconciliation for a moment. This has been something deeply personal and weighty for me. You see, I always thought it was easy to forgive others – and I’ve had a great deal of practice in the past 5 years. But it isn’t easy at all. Reconciliation is defined as having three elements: conversion of the spirit – that moment when we recognize that we have hurt others or ourselves through some action in which we engaged, confession – being able to vocalize our transgression, and finally celebration – the act of moving away from the hurt we have caused towards healing and change. But how can I forgive someone who doesn’t even think they’ve done wrong? How do we forgive those who continue to defame us? Do we only forgive because we are told to do so?
This is another sacrament that involves genuine and an almost perfect love. In order to forgive, we must enter into a sort of relationship with the other individual. For those who ask for forgiveness, there is a deeper connection – a purification between those involved. Genuine forgiveness requires us to love unconditionally and let go of our anger or grief. Forgiveness draws us closer to our Father in Heaven who forgives us through His own love. And because of love, our sins, too, have been forgiven through the Holy Sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross.
Then there is Confirmation – another initiation rite where we decide to enter into a much deeper relationship with our Creator. In a sense, this is a pre-marriage with God. Sure, many teenagers are seemingly “forced” into doing what we were taught to do by our parents, but ultimately it is a connection of the heart between us and our God. It is the day we announce to not only our community, but to ourselves that we WANT this relationship with God. How is that not love?
I’m hoping that with the Eucharist, we can all see how love is an incredibly important factor in this sacrament. If it wasn’t for God’s love, we wouldn’t have this sacrament at all. We would be still killing goats and doves to attempt to garner favor with the divine through the priests in the temple. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” How can that be anything other than love – it’s in the freaking scripture! Even Abraham was so in love with God that he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. When we take the sacred host into ourselves, we are reminding ourselves of that love and of our own forgiveness (remember reconciliation?).
Regarding the Celebration of the Eucharist – I remember many a time in seminary where priests would often act as if the celebration was a burden on them. Many tried to use their “get out of jail free” cards by expressing that the mass was an antiquated notion that needed to be replaced – the sooner the better. One even went so far as to defame the celebration from the pulpit.
In the halls I would hear other priest who did enjoy the celebration say, “I have to go do mass now”, or something similar. I have to admit, I have never “done” mass. I have “CELEBRATED” the sacrifice entrusted to me through my ordination. If we, as priests and servants, view mass as a burden, what does that impart to the People of God?
Marriage and Holy Orders are pretty much one and the same – they are both commitments of the heart – at least I hope so. No, wait, today they are matters of convenience for many. Some enter into marriage because it makes good financial sense. Others enter into Holy Orders for similar reasons or because they have been rejected by too many potential mates. No love there – right?
I should hope that in the ISM, there are no such cases of people who are in Holy Orders because they want power and control over others. I hope there is no one in the ISM who are leaders of the People of God because they have nothing better to do with their lives. I hope to God there is no one in the ISM who are where they are now because they feel they are “owed” the priesthood. When one marries, whether God or a life-partner, they are committing their lives to service and partnership – that’s “supposed” to be love.
The Sacrament of Healing – Anointing of the sick – is perhaps the greatest expression of love one could ever offer to another human being. To allow ourselves to exist in someone’s suffering, offering only comfort and grace, draws us into the depths of servitude, and can only be done if we truly submit ourselves to the Love of God. No matter whether the suffering is physical, mental, or spiritual; we embrace our own fear and mortality to give solace. I know of no other expression that allows us to enter into a more perfect union with the Divine than the sacrament of healing (other than the Eucharist of course).
“The message you heard from the very beginning is this: we must love one another.” (1 John 3:11)
“And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
There is no escaping that we express one sacrament, Love, through seven individual, yet closely connected celebrations. Yes we do celebrate seven public and private expressions of our faith, which we call sacraments, but ultimately they are entrusted to us through God’s love – the single-most perfect sacrament.
If nothing else, I hope this stretch of the imagination imparts a renewed vigor in our celebrations. I hope it revives and rejuvenates us as we march on in our service to the People of God through our call to lead others to God’s grace.
Peace be with you.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.