Gifts of God’s Abiding Love
A Primer on the Sacraments for High School Students
Leo R. Ocampo
The Sacraments, together with our beliefs and lifestyle, comprise the Catholic faith that we profess, live out and celebrate. For us, they are not just rituals to perform or events to attend. Rather, sacraments are precious gifts from God to help us grow in his love, visible signs of his abiding presence in our life and constant invitations for us to enter in his divine life of love. Below are some essential concepts from Fr. Kenan Osborne’s “Sacramental Theology: A General Introduction” that are important to understand.
1. The sacraments are instituted by Christ.
Like our parents, the Father makes his love felt in the best way we can and he did that above all by gifting us with his only beloved Son. Christ is “the” Sacrament, the ultimate concretization of God’s love. He is the one sent to help us grow in relationship with God, the incarnate God sharing our life, calling us to live in God’s love. While Jesus lived here on earth he made people feel the love of God: he accompanied them in all their joys and sorrows—touching, healing, forgiving, feeding, teaching. Finally, by giving up his life, “he showed the depth of his love.” While we did not have the same opportunity to see, hear, and touch Jesus during his lifetime, the sacraments allow us to experience him today. Saint Leo the Great tells us: “What was visible in Christ has since passed on to us in the sacraments.”
In the sacraments, it is Christ himself acting through his Mystical Body, the Church, who continues to touch, heal, forgive, feed and teach. The Church is the continuing sacrament of Christ in the world. In its broadest sense, everything that the Church does is a sacrament that continues to reveal the love of God in Christ. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who spent her life helping the poorest of the poor, loved to pray: “May they see in us no longer ourselves but only Jesus.” Her charity and compassion seen in concrete acts of love and service was a true sacrament, which allowed those who encountered her to experience Jesus! Saint Teresa of Avila reminds us that we are the hands and feet that continue his mission in the world.
So from earliest times, the Church has continued the work begun by Christ and belonging to Christ. This is what we mean by the term “institution.” It is not as if Christ himself designed seven rituals and prescribed them for our use. Rather, sacraments are the Church’s dynamic way of continuing the work which is truly and ultimately Christ’s. This she does primarily though the seven ritual sacraments. Through them, Christ himself accompanies people at every moment of their life.
When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who bestows the gift of new life. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, it is Christ who grants the forgiveness of God through the priest who says to us in his behalf “I absolve you.” That is why in the Eucharist, the priests do not say, “This is his Body.” Instead they boldly yet humbly, relying on the promise of Christ himself to remain with us until the end of time, proclaim: “This is my Body.” We celebrate these sacraments neither of our own accord nor by ourselves but always in his name and “through him, with him and in him”.
2. Sacraments are symbols of sacred things.
As humans, we need to hear and to feel love. Even among ourselves, we need to express and to show our love like when we send text messages or give gifts to our loved ones. The same is true of God who revealed his love “by words and deeds.” He designed for us a beautiful world to live in and gave us life. He established a Covenant with his chosen people, making known his plans to the Patriarchs and through the prophets, and showing his fidelity in his unfailing efforts to save them and lead them to himself. He showed his love most of all in His Son who by his Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection, revealed God’s love to us in all its fullness. This is the divine condescension or simply put, God’s way of reaching out to us for it is impossible for us to know his love without the aid of words and deeds.
The Church, as the sacrament of Christ, continues today through her sacraments, this revelation of God’s love through “words and deeds”. Sacraments as symbols make that love, which is otherwise invisible and beyond our grasp, heard and felt. Our immersion in and coming forth from waters of baptism outwardly expresses our inward sharing in the death of Christ and our rising to newness of life with him. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we hear only the words of the priest but it is God himself who bestows his forgiveness through his human instrument. In the Holy Eucharist, we see only bread and wine but we believe in faith, because Christ himself assured us so, that this is truly his Body and Blood, his gift of himself.
That is why in celebrating the sacraments, we need to take these signs seriously. Although they derive their effect primarily from the desire of God to communicate his saving love to us, our understanding and reverent execution of these signs will definitely help us to open ourselves more fully to his invisible action in our soul. When you will marry you husband or wife in the future, the sacrament will still have its full effect for as long as you satisfy the minimum requirements of the sacrament that is, that you truly love each other and express that commitment by proclaiming your vows before the Church. But knowing the meaning of and paying close attention to the signs, such as the joining of your right hands, not only brings out their great richness and beauty but also makes you experience more fully and enter more deeply the profound union that you will now live out together in Christ. (And that is why our study of the sacraments is very important!)
For those of you who read or serve at Mass, do you utmost to give justice to these holy signs. Proclaim the word of God as clearly as you can so it can more effectively penetrate the hearts of his people. Handle the things of the Lord with all reverence and devotion so that his people may be better led to pray and worship.
There is a movement today, popular among youth, called “I am Ninoy/ I am Cory.” The whole idea is to continue the legacy of these great Filipinos by concrete, even if small acts of heroism today. The sacraments also invite us to continue the work of Christ today. But there is something more here because it is Christ himself who continues his work in us. We are his living body, the signs of his love for the world. Most importantly therefore, all of us, as members of the Church that is the sacrament of Christ, need to be authentic signs and to signify by our every word and action, both within and outside the liturgy, the love of God in Jesus Christ.
3. There are seven sacraments.
Just to make sure that this wider, more basic notion is clear to you by now, let us take another look at the relationship between love and its signs. The most important expression of love is the person of the lover himself who shows love by his or her very self. Now that is rather abstract and too general so the lover needs to make use, as we said, of concrete and specific words and deeds, like text messages or gifts. In this case, God is the Lover and his revelation of his very self in Christ is the basic sacrament which continues in the Church. Concretely and specifically, the Church reveals the love of God through her words and deeds, which we also call sacraments. Why then do we speak in particular of “seven sacraments”?
The Council of Trent fixed the number at seven in reaction to some Protestants who denied the other sacraments and acknowledged only Baptism and Eucharist. Although this numeration is the result of historical circumstances, it is not without significance. Among the words and gestures that manifest love, there are some that stand out more than the others because of their solemnity and timeliness. We can say to our loved ones “I love you” on a regular basis but there are “I love you” moments that rise above the rest (like when you declare your love to your special someone for the first time?). The same is true of these seven special sacraments.
The Church has many ways of communicating the love of God to people. We do it by our service to the poor, which is a very important thing. In our family prayers and even our personal prayers, we truly encounter the God who loves us. At the same time, Mother Church, as a truly good mother, lovingly attaches particular importance to certain moments of our lives and accompanies us through these pivotal moments with specific sacraments. Baptism marks our entrance into the life of faith. Confirmation signals our attainment of maturity. Anointing of the Sick accompanies us in our struggle with old age and infirmity. Marriage and Orders put God’s seal on our life-charting commitments. In so doing, she makes them sacred, which means “set apart,” made special by no less than God’s sanctifying presence. Any man can say “I love you” to a woman and do it anytime. But when a groom says that to his bride as he proclaims his vows on the day of their marriage, it becomes an outstanding sign of his love in a most significant and very deep way. And God himself through the Church seals that commitment, making it his forever.
Apart from these “events”, there are also moments when we experience love in a truly special, even if more ordinary way. When you say “I love you” again to your parents after a long and serious misunderstanding, it is surely an “I love you” unlike any other. The same is true of more frequently received but no less sacred sacraments like Reconciliation. After hurting our relationship with God because of sin, we humbly express our love to him again. We experience the warm embrace of the father of the prodigal son and find ourselves home. Now that is a moment!
The Eucharist is the most special of these sacraments because it does not only mark “special moments” in our lives but makes every moment of our lives truly “special” that is, sacred, by uniting them with the life of Christ himself. Our weeks and years become marked not only by our own schedules and anniversaries but by the very life of Christ which we celebrate, and in which our celebration brings us to live and participate. In the Eucharist, we enter the life of Christ and Christ enters our life.
We may celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday or even everyday. Yet each time Christ not only repeats his great “I love you” to us, as though redundantly. He did that “once and for all” on the Cross! But in every Eucharist, we enter again and again into his sacrifice of love, the greatness and immensity of which we can never ever exhaust. And as often as we do so, he ever more deeply, ever increasingly, gives his very self to us, so we may grow in his love and his love may grow in us.
4. Sacraments confer grace.
Contrary to the impression some of us may get that we, even if as the Church, are the ones “performing” the sacraments, it is actually God who is the primary doer of the sacraments. God does not need our service but it is we who need God. In the Fourth Preface for Weekdays, we pray: “You have no need of our praise yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but makes us grow in your grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Thus, we are not really the ones giving to God just as some of you may think because of the fees we are asked to contribute (these are actually not for God himself but the support of the ministers and other expenses of the community.) In return for our meager gifts, it is God who confers grace on us. O happy exchange! Sacraments do not just accompany us in our lives. They also produce an effect in us which is called grace. Grace here is more than those things that we usually ask from God in prayer like passing an exam or healing for a sick relative. It is even more than particular “graces” we can ask while receiving a specific sacrament like a deep sense of responsibility as we receive confirmation or becoming a good spouse and parent in marriage. Grace here is best understood as our participation in the life of God or more simply put, our relationship of love with him. Grace is first given in Baptism, which is the beginning of our life in and relationship with God. From there, it continues to grow with us and in us throughout our lives. (These two may seem different but they actually express aspects of the same truth.)
Grace grows with us. Most of us are baptized as infants and our way of living out our relationship with God must obviously grow as we advance in age. Even for those who were baptized as adults, there should always be some growth as one progresses in the Christian life. Thus with Confirmation, we begin to live this grace as mature individuals. As we enter into Marriage or Holy Orders, we live this grace in the specific context of married life or ordained ministry. Anointed at the coming of old age or infirmity, which are particularly trying moments of our life, we live this grace in heroic trust and sacrifice. Grace, which increases in us as we receive the various sacraments enables us to live our vocation according to our state in life. Sacraments therefore help us to grow in holiness as we go through life’s stages.
Grace also grows in us. Here, grace may be likened to a seed, which is initially planted in our souls at Baptism. For it to live and grow, to blossom and to bear fruit in us, we need to cooperate with God. The sacraments therefore are ways for us to constantly reconnect with him so that the plant that is our relationship with him may not wither but thrive to fruition. The sacraments act like the water, the sun and the soil and thus provide the refreshment, energy and support that we need to grow in the spiritual life. They continually sustain and nourish our relationship with God.
However, sacraments do not operate automatically. “It always takes two to tango,” as in any relationship. Although God himself and his desire to give his grace to us, guarantees their effectivity, we need to dispose ourselves to receive them worthily and celebrate them actively. For even if God is the one who bestows and maintains grace, we need to cooperate with him by opening ourselves freely and fully to his action and trying to minimize blocks and obstacles that come only from us like sin. It is also not enough to limit our life of grace to the sacraments or the spiritual life. We must also let this grace that we receive through them to overflow, permeate and transform the totality of our lives, even the lives of those we meet everyday. We must use, take care of and share the grace we receive through the sacraments.
5. Three sacraments confer a character
Three sacraments in particular produce a unique and abiding change in us, which is called character: Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders.
These sacraments produce a unique change in us, accompanied by mission.
Baptism transforms us, to use Biblical imagery, from being “no people” into God’s priestly, royal and prophetic people. We become no longer just children of our parents but children of God, truly belonging to him. Just as in the story of Harry Potter, the sacrificial love of his mother marked him for life, Baptism is the hallmark of our distinctly “Christian” identity as God’s beloved in Christ.
Confirmation, the extension sacrament of Baptism, also has the same effect. This second anointing, in affirmation of the first, strengthens us in our identity that we are Christ’s and Christ’s forever. It thus reminds us—usually in what is for most us, a crucial time of identity-building called adolescence—that our truest identity and therefore our mission in life is in our belonging to him.
Holy Orders has a similar effect on bishops, priests and deacons. Through the laying on of the bishop’s hands, they are incorporated permanently into the sacred orders. This signals change not only in their rank or dignity (for in truth, we are all equally children of God in baptism) but marks them out forever for specific roles of service in the Church. They are no longer their own persons, belonging to their own families, and justly pursuing their individual needs. Instead, they now belong to the entire Christian community and they are to look after not only themselves and their needs but the entire family and flock of God.
These sacraments produce an abiding change in us that lasts, even despite us.
They leave an “indelible mark” on the soul. In previous elections, you may have heard about the use of what is called indelible ink, which stays for some time but fades in a week or so. But this indelible mark that the sacrament imprints last a lifetime and that is why these sacraments cannot be repeated.
Through Baptism and Confirmation we gain our identity as children of God—truly his and his forever—even if sadly, we do not always measure up to this deep truth. Through Holy Orders, the sacred ministers radically become servants of God and the Church even if unfortunately, the lifestyles of a number of them as you may have heard of in the news, do not make the grade.
This doctrine may sound highly technical but it is actually very significant because it affirms a very important truth of our faith: God remains and will always remain faithful in his love for us, despite all these tragic and disheartening realities. He is not an “indian-giver.” He does not withdraw a character already bestowed. He does not take away a grace already given. He does not revoke his constant invitation to a uniquely personal relationship with him. Thus, even with sin, there is always hope of return and conversion. His abiding and unconditional love for us, his people and his ministers, far outstrip our infidelity. It transforms us for ever.
6. God’s action in the sacraments does not depend on the intention or probity of the ministers.
As we have repeatedly affirmed, the effectivity of the sacraments is guaranteed not by our worthiness or disposition, or by our doings and efforts but by God’s own saving action and unconditional love. Hence, even if the ministers are unworthy and unfit, even if completely unworthy and unfit as when they are in mortal sin, God is still able to communicate grace to the gathered assembly through the sacraments where they preside. So while it is truly tragic if the minister himself will not be open to the work of grace, he remains a channel of grace to many people, not because of himself but even despite himself—because of God’s merciful love. Sacraments at which he presides will remain valid, i.e. effective for those who are properly disposed to receive the grace that flows from then. If we can only make those priests realize what they’re missing! We must pray often for their conversion.
On a wider level, ministers here may be more widely understood not only as referring to the ordained ministers but to all of us. After all, it is ultimately Christ and the entire Church who celebrate the sacraments as one priestly people, which includes all of us and not just the ordained ministers. Here on the one hand is the assurance that God will continue to bestow his grace but it bears a strong reminder as well that if we truly desire to receive the grace of the sacrament in its fullness, we personally need to be open and receptive to his actions and not obstruct them.
Nothing can hinder God from his desire of communicating grace to us except our personal freedom to reject it which he himself has given to us so that our response to him may be authentic and not out of coercion or matter-of-fact. The sacraments too do not work just by coercion or matter of fact. Even if they always remain valid when carried out properly according to the mind of the Church, it is important to come to them freely as well as worthily, not being forced or out of mere obligation.
For this, the Second Vatican Council wisely declared that “something more” is required in the celebration than just validity and proper execution. More positively, we must concern ourselves with how we can BEST celebrate the sacraments and benefit from the grace they confer by participating in them as actively, as fully and as worthily as we can. Participation here means more than just singing or standing during the liturgy but also implies an attitude of co-operation, involving our whole mind, heart and strength, with God’s steadfast efforts to lead us to salvation.
But who among us is completely worthy? The Psalmist asks: “Who can climb the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place?” None among us I believe, can ever lay claim to being the blameless one. Hence our attitude towards the sacraments must not be one of fear and paranoia, like some who even avoid receiving communion even if they only have venial sin, but of faith and confidence in God’s love merciful. One of my students confided to me his experience of learning about the sacrifices his parents were making despite his rebellious attitude. This realization turned his fear of his parents into love. So should it be with us when we realize the great generosity of God to us, especially in the sacraments.
Here we realize that the sacraments are truly signs of God’s love, truly gifts of his unconditional love. If we are given a “gift” because we are worthy or we “earn” it, it is no longer a gift but a reward. A gift is always given freely, without ifs and buts. Christ alone is the perfect and blameless sacrament. We, the Church despite our flaws and failures, remain a sacrament only because of Christ. The sacraments too despite our unworthiness remain sacraments because of his unfailing love.
7. The Teaching of the Church
The Church, through her official teaching, which is technically called Magisterium, carefully puts order to the celebration of the sacraments. This order is meant to foster our active, prayerful and joyful participation in the celebration but not to hamper it. The lack of order, even in a school program for example, causes the people to be distracted and disoriented. In the liturgy, the lack of order also makes it difficult to attain an atmosphere conducive to prayer and encounter with God. However, too much emphasis on order can cause people to become rigid and stiff, spoiling their experience of the sacrament, which then becomes a chore rather than a celebration. Order should create harmony and not stifle the joy of the Spirit in us.
Those of you who are quite active in church will know that liturgy and sacraments, particularly the question of how they are supposed to be celebrated, can sometimes (even oftentimes!) be a highly contentious and alienating topic among believers. Ironically, these sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which are supposed to express and strengthen our unity in Christ, can sometimes become the unhappy source of our division! This even leads to the point when lectors and altar servers would flinch and quiver during the Mass for fear of committing mistakes, robbing them of the sure sign of the Spirit which is peace and joy. That is why I would emphasize to our lectors and servers in Xavier School whenever I would prepare them for their tasks, the summons of the Psalmist: “Serve the Lord with gladness!”
We must always remember that the sacraments belong to the Church, to all of us. They reflect and contain what we believe in and value most as Christians. Thus, we should not tinker with the rites based only on our personal preference or ingenuity. For example, in preparing the rites for a marriage (some of you may become wedding planners in the future!), we must follow faithfully what the Church does. We should not invent our own vows or come up with supposedly “unique”, but often turning out to be silly additions, to what is an already rich and meaningful ritual that is offered to us. The sacraments are ecclesial celebrations and do not need to be “personalized.” The principle here is always to be one with the Church in the celebration of her sacraments for it is only when these sacraments are truly hers can they become our sacraments as believers.
The Church’s teaching on sacraments reflects her attitude of care and reverence towards them. All this, because we truly believe that the sacraments are signs of God’s love, gifts of God’s love. When one is grateful for the gift and even more importantly, deeply values the giver of the gift, he treasures and cultivates the gift with the same love with which it was given.
We end with some lines from an ancient Eucharistic Prayer (of Addai and Mari) that beautifully captures what we do in the sacraments and how we must do them:
And we too, Lord, your weak, frail and lowly servants, who have gathered and are standing before you at this moment, we have received from tradition the rite that has its origin in you. We rejoice and give you glory, we exalt and commemorate, we praise and celebrate, this great and awesome mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And the deacon says: Be silent and reverent. Pray! Peace be with you.