Brother Thomas P. Draney, CFC
Our sacramental system is what distinguishes us from ethical societies, other religions, and even many Christian churches Our sacramental system speaks to the reality of Spirit, God present in creation. Sacraments are not mere symbols or magic acts, but rather doors to the sacred. How we understand and explain the reality underlying sacramental actions is not just an academic issue; the ramifications are hugely important today. This understanding must be based on history, scholarly theology, and sciences such as psychology. We cannot expect people, particularly young people today, to join or remain in a church which seems to operate on the basis of superstition or magic.
Many Catholics today, both young and old, are ill-prepared to appreciate and explain sacraments because their religious education stopped with the catechetical preparation for first communion and confirmation. I do not mean to fault such program. As an educator whose first experience teaching was a class of 67 second graders, I understand fully the difficulty of presenting abstract and complicated concepts to children. But we cannot leave a child with the impression that a stork brings the baby! There comes a time for more detailed and accurate information!
We are bombarded today, by TV, movies,. and media generally, with images of religion as rather folksy, quaint old customs that mean little today, or as institutionally structured superstition. What we need to do today is to give an understanding of the very nature of sacraments, an explanation that resonates with all that we know and experience in their everyday world of physical, psychological, and social realities. I propose that the three lenses that best focus the meaning of sacraments are:
It is so easy for us to think that our consciousness revolves around objective reality. A moment's reflection reveals that we live in a world of symbols. Our language itself is nothing but a complex web of symbolism. The clothes we wear tell what world and what culture we belong to; they may also identify our age and status. The currency we use every day is worth almost nothing in itself, because it is only a symbol. We sign a contract with our signature to signify the acceptance of the details of an agreement! A handshake, a hug; a hand raised in salute or in defiance; the photos and keepsakes we treasure for their memories - all these remind us we live in a world of symbols that convey a reality.
Genesis says that we are made in the image of God, and perhaps that can be best seen in that we are also creators. Human intentionality allows us to create the union of a couple in marriage, to adopt children, to form corporations, political boundaries, games of chance and athletics, political parties – and much of the fabric of our social life. Intentionality also is a factor in quantum physics; we are told that the intention and position of the observer is a critical factor. In the area of medicine, the placebo effect is well documented.
In ancient times the existence of the individual depended
very much on the existence of the clan, and the tribe, the larger corporate
reality. In our world today which is highly individualistic, the corporate
reality is not fully apprehended or appreciated. We do appreciate the reality
of groups such as an army, athletic teams, clubs and firms that do business, but
by and large these are groups we are free to join or not join. It is difficult
for modern men and women to think instinctively in terms of the group, except
perhaps in the case of the family. Nuclear war and climate change with its
drought and rising water table are the kind of things which are forcing us to be
more aware of the corporate, reality: what happens will affect all.
is an island.
Unfortunately the focus of some Christian groups and
doctrines is centered on the individual -
Jesus has saved ME! The most
cursory reading of Scripture will show that God was focused on the people, and
saw individuals in relationship to the community — the people of God. In the
apostolic church it was not uncommon for whole households to be baptized.
when the father or master of the household was converted and baptized. That
society had a very strong sense of community as the very fabric of their lives.
Individuals were important for what they did for the people, not in themselves.
Sacraments, by the same token, were acts of the community that were to strengthen community through the welfare of the individuals. Jesus came to save the world, the whole world.
Sacraments, when seen through these lenses, are actions of God's people which access the promise of God, They do not give us power over God, because no one has power over God. They are effective because of God's promise, power, and presence.
That Jesus established the seven sacraments is true, but not in the way that most people interpret the catechism response. He did not establish seven sacraments during his earthly ministry before the crucifixion. He did establish the Eucharist in the Last Supper when he said he was establishing a new covenant and we should do this to re–member him (The major Jewish feasts were based on the concept of cyclical time, that the power behind the event being celebrated was made present again, viz.. love renewed for a couple renewing their vows on the 25th anniversary.) Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, as a sign pf endorsing the message of John for renewal. The gospels record the apostles were told to baptize new disciples. Baptism and Eucharist were the two sacraments recognized in the primitive church. The other sacraments were a recognition of Christ's risen presence, in the community after the resurrection. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1545 that a clear division was made between what were sacraments which conveyed the Presence of the risen Christ to the community, and which were sacramental or pious actions.
All the sacraments were based on signs or actions that were part of the human experience already; they were not new signs. Anointing with oil, laying on of hands, contracting marriage, etc. – ancient signs which spoke in a new way of the presence of the risen Christ.
The understanding of and form of the signs could and did change in time. Baptism originally was ordinarily the complete immersion in water of adults to symbolize a rebirth of a new person in Christ; today we dribble water on the forehead of an infant; a sign too often understood to symbolize the removal of a sin that never existed! We must understand baptism of infants now as a rite or sign of bringing infants into the Christian community. We don't allow infants to decide when they would like to be potty trained, what language they prefer, or what family to join; in the same way parents can speak for their child at this time, realizing the child must eventually give his or her assent to being a disciple. Confirmation is probably the time when this happens for most.
This concept of baptism having a corporate dimension is difficult for modern man to accept, but as already mentioned, the New Testament tells of whole households being baptized because of the conversion of the master or head of the family.
Eucharist went from a ritualized meal for a small group of
disciples to a liturgical sacrifice for the larger community. Priesthood
developed and evolved over the centuries. The first disciples were still Jews;
they went to the Temple to pray and broke bread in their homes. They
did not think of presiding at the Eucharistic meal as a priestly act, because
priesthood belonged to the Temple. They did, however, believe that the power
of the risen Christ was among them, and that when the assembled community
designated someone to preside, that person (the host/hostess or an elder?)
could do for them what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He would preside over the
offering of their lives to God as
people of the way and give them the
bread of life to eat, the body and blood of the risen Christ.
After the expelling from the synagogue and later destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, along with the growing numbers of communities, central authority was established in a priesthood transmitted by the laying on of hands. St. Paul told the community to elect presbyters (elders) as administrators; this was the beginning of institutional authority being invested in the priesthood, not in the spiritual power of the priesthood. Whoever presided at the first Eucharist, the meal, had to have priestly power or the community had been living a huge fraud.
In the Middle Ages priesthood went from being associated
intrinsically with a specific community, to being more like a personal charism.
orders were added in imitation of the mystery cults many levels
of initiation. Theologians who wrestled with how one sacrament could be divided
into six or seven steps, finally agreed that only the ordination was a
sacrament. Paul VI abolished several of the preliminary steps. Vatican II has
softened the concept of there being an ontological change at ordination, and
described the priest as presiding for the assembly, not offering the sacrifice
as an individual with the congregation as an audience.
It is important to remember that sacraments, particularly
priesthood, has had many forms. The Worker Priest movement in Europe was
modeled on the early church when a priest could have a
regular job and
in effect be a part-time priest. In the Middle Ages men with little education
were ordained as Mass priests, who only function was to celebrate the Mass.
The priesthood of the Orthodox church is apostolic and totally legitimate, and
in that branch of Catholicism a priest can be married — but only celibates can
be consecrated as bishops! It is the teaching of the church that the priesthood
of the parish priest, bishop, cardinal, and pope is the same priesthood; the
difference in these positions is that of authority. The growing question is
why is the presence of Christ in the baptized not considered a legitimate
priesthood, something much more than
pay, pray and obey. If the
baptized Christians return to celebrating Eucharist as a meal for the small
group, the cell structure of the community, they will not be introducing
something new. It will be
radical in the sense of returning to the very
roots of the faith.
The other sacraments went through development also, usually an evolution to meet the needs of the social fabric and to reflect a deeper understanding of the presence of the risen Christ.
It is important to remember that God is not chained to or
limited by the sacraments. The great sacrament is truly Jesus, the Christ, and
God can give God's love and God's grace to whomever God pleases. Peoples who
have never heard of Christ and sacraments can be given grace and salvation
through the great sacrament of the Redeemer without being aware of it. The
sacrament system was never meant to divide and conquer, but rather to embrace
Bibliography — three pointed and concise works, which give
an excellent historical overview Fr. Brown is recognized as one of the
pre-eminent NT scholars of the 20th century.
Priest and Bishop, Biblical Reflections, Raymond E. Brown,, Missionary Society of St. Paul, Copyright 1970 (Reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 1999) ISBN 1-57910-277-8
Why Priests, Hans Kung, Doubleday and Co, Copyright 1972, Library of Congress 70-186656
Doors to the Sacred, Joseph Martos, Liguori/Triumph, Copyright 2001, ISBN 978-0-7648-0718-3 pbk.