The sacraments: touchstones of God’s love

V7 N4 2019

“A sacrament is a visible sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”

That’s the technically correct, yet ultimately unsatisfying definition inflicted on untold numbers of Roman Catholic children who prepared for Confirmation by committing to memory the contents of the hoary Baltimore Catechism. The predictable result was generations of RC children who could dutifully recite the information contained within the catechism while having only limited comprehension of what the words meant.

I prefer the wordier definition of a sacrament being a sacred moment between God and His children, accompanied by a physical manifestation of His love. Traditionally, liturgical Christian denominations have recognized seven sacraments which follow believers’ lives from the womb to the tomb: baptism, confirmation, holy orders, matrimony, reconciliation, the anointing of the sick and communion. Even those Christian denominations with doctrines explicitly rejecting one or more of the sacraments on the list as being true sacraments, they nevertheless create analogs that function in the same way.

Communion

Denominational differences begin with Holy Communion or Eucharist. Denominations differ on whether the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ or if that change could more accurately be described as consubstantiation. Another viewpoint is that communion is a simple re-creation of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. Who should receive communion? Some churches stipulate that only those who accept the doctrine of a particular denomination; others open it to all. Some offer communion weekly, but others don’t.

Believers can’t agree among themselves what the elements of consecration should look like. I’ve seen pieces of a recognizable loaf distributed. At other venues, the bread has taken the form of a pellet or a poker chip. Other believers’ animus toward alcoholic beverages is so strong that they’ve convinced themselves that Jesus turned the water into Welchade. 

Water Baptism

The practice of water baptism can be performed through immersion, or a sprinkling or pouring. Immersion suggests being reborn while the latter two illustrate being purified believers also diverge on the issue of when baptism should occur. Some point to Scriptural statements that baptism is necessary for salvation and argue for infant baptism. Others say that those accepting Christ should be able to appreciate the consequences of that decision. Denominations favoring this approach frequently pair baptism with an “age of accountability” for one’s actions, making it implicitly or explicitly similar to …

Confirmation

In liturgical churches, this signifies adulthood in the manner of the Jewish bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. In liturgical churches, it’s been linked to the impartation of the Holy Spirit. Those being confirmed are anointed with chrism oil.

The Rite of Reconciliation

 Sometimes called confession, it’s a concept sure to draws scoffs from fundamentalists who insist they don’t need  a priest to intercede before God. True enough, but there’s a power in hearing the words “you are forgiven” that’s absent when you simply pray to God. That’s why James 5:16 advises us Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” The words and the acts of penance become sacramental.

Holy Orders

Years ago, when I taught a sixth-grade CCD class (stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; while equally accurate, defining  the class as  Constantly Confusing Doctrine tends to earn glares of disapproval). I began  the class on Holy Orders by asking my students if they knew what a seminary was.

“That’s where they bury people,” a student responded with a look of triumph on his face. Not the answer I was looking for. But I didn’t think he was entirely wrong, either. 

In truth, Holy Orders is nothing less than the continuation of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As such, those who feel called to the priesthood should undergo a period of soul searching and avail themselves of whatever discernment process offered by the bishop of  the jurisdiction. Among the questions to be answered are a.) what gifts can I bring to the ministry; b) what form do I wish my ministry to take, and does that vision fit with the jurisdiction to which I have applied; c) am I willing to the authority of others; and d.) do I possess a servant’s heart, or am I seeking a job with regular hours that will give me the respect I believe I deserve? Paradoxically, the need for a servant’s heart only increases as one moves from the diaconate to the priesthood and from there to the episcopacy. It may help to think of Jesus washing the feet of His apostles.

Anointing of the Sick

This name is more optimistic than former titles, such as Last Rites or Extreme Unction. For many, the sacramental journey that began with water baptism will come to an end with this rite, although recovery is possible. The rite includes Reconciliation and administering the  Eucharist and prayers. It’s preferred that the recipient be conscious. 

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