The Sacraments

What is a sacrament?

Before we explore the meaning and significance of the sacraments, it would only be right that we explain the force and meaning of the word sacrament itself.

According to the writings of the early Church Fathers sacrament signifies a sacred thing which lies concealed. The Greeks often expressed the same idea in their use of the word mysterion (Latin: sacramentum) or literally “mystery.” This meaning we have come to learn from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (1:9) where it is said: “That he might make known to us the mystery (sacramentum) of his will”; and to Timothy: “…great is the mystery (sacramentum) of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16); and in the Book of Wisdom: “They knew not the secrets (sacramenta) of God” (Wis. 2:22-24). In these and many passages throughout scripture the word sacrament is perceived and signifies nothing more than a holy thing that lies concealed or hidden.

The Church Fathers, therefore, deemed the word sacrament an appropriate term to express the sensible signs that communicate grace in a tangible way. According to Pope St. Gregory the Great such a sign ought to be called a sacrament, because the divine power secretly carries out our salvation under the veil of sensible things.

Why were the sacraments instituted?

While there are many reasons for why the sacraments were instituted by Our Lord, the primary reason stems from the feebleness of our humanity. In other words, the human person is a constitution of body and soul, and we are incapable of ascending to knowledge of a particular thing (especially things of a divine order) unless it be done through sensible objects.

Therefore, in order that we might easily understand the hidden power of God through the redemption carried out by Jesus Christ, this same God ordained that His power should be manifested to us through the intervention of sensible signs; namely, the sacraments. St. John Chrysostom similarly mentions the expression of these eternal mysteries through visible signs:

If man were not clothed with a material body, these good things would have been presented to him naked and without any covering; but as the soul is joined to the body, it was absolutely necessary to employ sensible things in order to assist in making them understood.

How many sacraments are there?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Christ instituted seven sacraments, which are as follows:

  • Baptism
  • Confirmation
  • Eucharist
  • Penance (reconciliation or confession)
  • Anointing of the Sick
  • Holy Orders
  • Matrimony

Baptism
As the first of three sacraments of initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist – baptism serves as the gateway to all the other sacraments. It enables one to be born anew in Christ and grants us each a share in his divine life, as Our Lord declared: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Confirmation
The sacrament by which we are nourished and strengthened in the grace of God and sealed with the gift of his Holy Spirit as “soldiers for Christ.”
As St. Augustine observed, the significance of the sacrament is manifested according to Our Lord’s command to those Apostles who had already been baptized: “…you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

Eucharist
Is the true bread come down from heaven, which nourishes and sustains us for our journey to eternal life. While the Jews ate manna in the desert but died nonetheless, anyone who “eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:59) as Christ declares “For My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink” (John 6:56).

Penance (Confession/Reconciliation)
The sacrament by which our souls are restored to health after being wounded by sin. Being fully restored to a state of sanctifying grace enables us once again to be open to the grace that God freely and benevolently offers, and is the requisite grace for us to worthily attain a blessed life with Him in heaven.

Anointing of the Sick
Serves to eliminate the remains of sin and invigorates the soul of those who are sick and who are approaching the end of their earthly life. This sacrament is attested to in Mark 6:13: “…they cast out many devils, and many who were sick they anointed with oil, and healed them.”

Holy Orders
The sacrament by which power is granted to exercise the public administration of the sacraments and to perform all the sacred functions; namely the priesthood and diaconate.

Matrimony
The primordial sacrament instituted by God to the end that, by means of the legitimate union of a man and woman, children are procreated and formed for service to God and the preservation of the human race (cf. Genesis 1:28). By the fruits of his passion, Christ elevated the dignity of the sacrament to serve as a reflection of his relationship with the Church, as St. Paul compares the husband to Christ and the wife to the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:23-25).

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