What exactly is a sacrament?
March 29, 2020, 12:00 PM
To paraphrase the Catechism, a sacrament is a sign instituted by Christ to give us God’s grace. It is covenant ritual in which we encounter Jesus in powerful and tangible ways. In each sacrament there is a symbol that becomes a reality. For example, in baptism a person goes into the water and comes out again. This is symbolic of going into the tomb with Christ and rising again with Him to new life. As this action is performed the transformation that is symbolized (dying to one’s “old self” and rising to new life in Christ) actually happens, just as Scripture tells us it does (see Jn 3:5 and Acts 2:38, among others). The baptized person becomes a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).

In the sacrament of confirmation, a person is anointed with oil which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. At that moment, the Holy Spirit actually anoints that person in a new and deeper way. The bread and wine used at Mass symbolize the body and blood of Christ and they become what they symbolize: they actually become the body and blood of Christ (event though they keep the appearances of bread and wine).

God does not shun the material universe; after all, it is His creation. He didn’t choose to be some distant cosmic reality that we need to put our spiritual antennas up to tune in to. He took matter (flesh) unto Himself. He has a face and a name, Jesus. He gave us the Church and the sacraments and promised He would remain with us and in His Church until the end of time (see Mt 28:20; Jn 15:4-5; Eph 1:22; 1 Cor 12:27). In the Incarnation, He is a God who meets us in our human condition, as bodily creatures.

Sacraments have been an essential part of the Church’s life since its very beginning. In Acts 2, after Peter preaches to a crowd, they ask him the question that all preachers long to hear, “What then are we to do?” His response was: “be baptized” (Acts 2:38). This same passage concludes by saying that, “Those who accepted this message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day” (Acts 2:38,41). For two thousand years, the Church has continued this same practice. Those who heed the word of Christ, as taught to us by the Church, find in the sacraments the living Christ. As the Catechism beautifully says, it is the sacraments that “manifest and communicate to [us]… the mystery of communion with the God who is love” (CCC 1118).