Monday, December 2

What Are Sacraments?

In order to begin to understand what a sacrament is on its own but more specifically in relation to Christian theological understanding, it is necessary to establish the difference between signs and symbols. A sign is usually something which points to something else – for example, a street sign which says “Wal Mart – 2 miles.” This sign is not itself Wal-Mart, but it is a sign which points to the goal. It points to the actual presence. A sign generally has one meaning, as it must be simple and understandable enough that it points to the actual presence of something else. A symbol, however, can be understood as a sign itself – yet in this case, it can have more than one meaning. For example, the Franciscan tau can be understood in a variety of ways. It may be understood to represent the signature of St. Francis, or the sign mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel, or perhaps an image of Roman crucifixion or even symbolizing the crucifixion of Jesus. On the other hand, the high tau could simply represent the first letter of my name and therefore stand for “Troy.”

A symbol can also mean something in a different cultural, social or religious setting. A sign is a simple thing which we respond to simply, yet a symbol is a much more complex and intricate sign which we tend to respond to in kind. Humans are communicators and find ways to express themselves – we not only make but also use signs and symbols in order to communicate and express ourselves. Some believe that we are actually symbols ourselves, since Being is symbolic as it expresses itself. Humans engage with signs and symbols on a daily basis, and particularly during holidays, special events and religious events. For example, we bring out a plethora of Christmas decorations of the nativity scene (the origins of which are often traced to St. Francis), and we use a variety of symbols during a birthday party or on other occasions. Religious rituals or practices such as washing, purification, marriage ceremonies or funeral services also contain various signs and symbols – or rather, these events and practices are all symbolic in nature. The same can then be applied to the Christian sacraments.

The word sacrament is derived from the Latin sacramentum, which was later used to replace the oft-used Greek mysterion (“mystery”). The mysteries of the Christian faith were often referred to in the New Testament documents as well as the writings of the early Christians. Tertullian, famous Christian writer and apologist, was the one who eventually picked the term sacramentum for Christian initiation rituals such as baptism, anointing and the Eucharist. There was a bit of confusion at first, however, on what should and should not be considered a sacrament. For example, St. Augustine famously held there to be 304 sacraments, whereas others held that there were only a few. 

The Church eventually distinguished between a sacrament – a religious ceremony done by and for believers – and sacramentals, which are objects that have been blessed by the Church which are known to help believers (such as the rosary). As time went on, however, the exact number of sacraments was still up for debate. The two that most believers (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) agreed upon as sacraments is Baptism and the Eucharist, two key sacraments found in Scripture and in early Christian practice. Others later came to be accepted by the Catholic Church: confirmation, marriage, confession, holy orders and anointing of the sick. It was in the early 1200s at the Fourth Lateran Council (where St. Francis may have derived the image of the tau from) that the sacraments were officially listed as only these seven, and later councils – Lyon II, Florence and Trent – confirmed this list.

Prior to Vatican II, there was also a large shift in sacramental understanding. The Church came to be seen as the fundamental (essential) sacrament, and Christ came to be seen as the “primordial” sacrament. These were not necessarily considered as two extra sacraments but in the broader sense of the term sacrament. It has also since been noted that St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas as well as Martin Luther all held similar notions regarding these two as sacraments and thus, the idea has been held throughout Christian history. However, when these ideas were again brought to light in the 1950s by Rahner and Schillebeckx, it was much more appealing due to the timing. Both individuals agreed with the Council of Trent’s decision to have seven sacraments but argued that there are a number of broader sacraments, such as Creation and Israel. Creation was considered a sacrament in the broader sense because without creation, there would be no sacraments. This also goes in line with Bonaventurian and Franciscan theology in the sense that God’s fingerprints on creation are a sort of sign or symbol that point to Him; evidence for God in the universe. 

Subsequently, Israel is considered a broader sacrament as it really represented the first stage in the Church’s development. Israel itself had sacrifices, the priesthood, blessings, prayers, usage of elements such as bread and wine, ritual washings, meals and a variety of similar things. Seeing Jesus as the “primordial” sacrament is the notion that our seven sacraments find their meaning in and through Jesus, and that without Him there would be no meaning to our sacraments. Finally, then, the Church is seen as a fundamental sacrament as it was begun by Christ and charged with the mission of Christ.

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