What is a Sacrament?
Imagery lies at the heart of human significance. Birthdays just wouldn’t be the same without candles and cakes, weddings without dresses and rings, the Fourth of July without fireworks, or Christmas without trees and presents. What are all of these things: the cake, the dress, the candles, the trees, and the fireworks? In and of themselves trees are trees. But a Christmas tree is both a tree and something more. Similarly, dresses are dresses, but a wedding dress isn’t just another dress; it’s something more. What is that extra thing, that “something more”? The wedding dress by its design and color suggests or bespeaks something else, namely pageantry, solemnity, grandeur, and purity. Thus, the wedding dress is an image of the significant qualities of the bride at her wedding. All imagery works like this, the natural object ordinary and meaningful in itself, but used as an image, suggesting something far more significant.
In poetry, too, we find that the natural bespeaks the significant by means of images. A rose suggests love, a ring suggests fidelity, and a rainbow suggests hope. Our imaginations mediate sensation and intellect. This means that the imagination takes an element accessible to our senses (roses, rings, and rainbows) and connects it to a concept (love, fidelity, and hope). In religious imagery we find the same structure of the natural bespeaking the significant, only the significant in this case lies in the context of religious concepts or objects. Thus, a waterfall suggests God’s power, a lion God’s dominion, a lamb the innocence and purity of Christ, and wine Christ’s blood.
All sacraments are images, but they are images of a very special kind, for sacramental images not only bespeak the sacred, they enact the sacred.
All sacraments are images, but they are images of a very special kind, for sacramental images not only bespeak the sacred, they enact the sacred. This is one of the reasons that Christianity so readily superseded paganism. Many of the ideas that we have in Christianity are found in seed form within paganism. Take, for example, the idea that the corn seed falls into the ground and dies, and then in the Spring brings forth new life. This imagery is found in pagan fertility rituals and harvest festivals throughout the ancient world, because it speaks to the fundamental human-divine concepts of rebirth and new life. Now, Christianity contains the same concepts and the same images. The word of God is sown into the ground and it brings forth fruit. But Christianity goes beyond image, because it doesn’t merely suggest this as a nice idea, it actually enacts it. How does Christianity enact the imagery of going down into death and being born into the newness of life? The Resurrection of the dead. Jesus actually did it! And when we are baptized, what he accomplished in his death and resurrection from the dead is enacted by God into us, giving us eternal life. So, while both the pagans and we Christians laud the ancient divine mysteries and imagery, Christianity goes far beyond mere myth. For us, the myth becomes fact. The myth is realized—not just the idea of God coming into the world to do something wonderful, but his actually showing up on a specific date and place called Bethlehem.
Protestantism’s insistence that the sacraments are nothing but symbol is a massive throwback to the Pagan era, as though the mere ideas of forgiveness and resurrection could suffice when what we need is an actual absolution that vanquishes guilt and a genuine eternal life that topples death.
It follows that the sacraments cannot be mere symbols. They must be fulfilled in reality just as the myth is fulfilled in the Incarnation. Otherwise we have not advanced beyond paganism. Part of the reason why Christianity morally and intellectually defeated paganism over and over again in the first 1600 years of the Church is this principle, namely that the Faith fulfilled all the human longing that lay at the core of pagan myth. Thus, Protestantism’s insistence that the sacraments are nothing but symbol is a massive throwback to the Pagan era, as though the mere ideas of forgiveness and resurrection could suffice when what we need is an actual absolution that vanquishes guilt and a genuine eternal life that topples death.
God enacts the reality of the concept in the person undergoing the sacrament, because God has chosen sacraments as the means of his grace.
Let’s use an example, the first of our sacraments: baptism. The water of baptism is a natural object, water, which bespeaks a religious concept, the cleansing of sin. Both Jews and pagans employed water cleansing rituals in their religious rites too. So, how does Christianity both fulfill and exceed the ancient religions? When someone is baptized, the cleaning of sin is not merely suggested, it is actually accomplished. God enacts the reality of the concept in the person undergoing the sacrament, because God has chosen sacraments as the means of his grace. Remember, grace is God’s action over and beyond the natural. The forgiveness of sins is an operation possible solely for God. So, it is by grace that we are saved from our sins. How does God enact that forgiveness? He provides a natural image that we already understand, namely washing ourselves with water to remove dirt, and he then uses that image as the basis of a process—a rite—that we undergo by faith to enact the cleansing of sin.
In general terms, sacraments require our faith participation in God’s divine action, his grace. We can only partially see what they are and what they are enacting. We don’t see blood or taste body in the Eucharist; we don’t see spiritual rebirth or sins being washed away in Baptism. But God says that these things are happening and so we trust what we do see (Jesus) as the basis for what we do not see (what Jesus said is happening). Thus, sacraments are how we exercise our faith in God, Baptism being the first act of faith and accordingly called the sacrament of faith (in babies, the faith of the Church stands in for the lack of ability of the child.)
God has to provide us with some means to allow us to choose him by faith without that choice being so overwhelming that we cannot resist it but also not so underwhelming that we cannot tell what’s being asked of us.
Remember, God never forces himself upon anyone. In the end, everyone chooses for or against God’s love. God cannot simply confer the Beatific Vision on people, because, were he to do so, the resulting understanding of the infinite satisfaction of God’s goodness would render any other choice impossible. False substitutes would prove utterly unenticing. As such, we would literally be unable to sin, to choose against God, something that would reduce us to mere robots. But we are free creatures for whom love must be a real choice. God accordingly has to provide us with some means to allow us to choose him by faith without that choice being so overwhelming that we cannot resist it but also not so underwhelming that we cannot tell what’s being asked of us. For Adam and Eve, it was the command concerning the fruit of the tree of knowledge. For Israel it was the circumcision and the sacrificial system. For us, it is Baptism, Confirmation, and then the Eucharist. People who say that they do not need the sacraments, that their “faith alone” is all that is necessary, are failing to understand that faith must be enacted by some means. God alone has the prerogative to establish the means of the delivery of his grace. Thus, if we reject the sacraments, we are rejecting the means that God has provided for us to know him.
It’s worth recalling the Old Testament story of the Syrian Captain, Naaman. Naaman became leprous and sought help from the Israelite prophet, Elisha. But when he came to Elisha’s house for help, the prophet merely sent out a servant to tell Naaman to go wash seven times in the dirty Jordan River and he’d be whole. Irate at the prophet’s apparent rudeness and appalled at the notion of washing in a dirty Jewish river, Naaman stormed off. But half way home, his aides calmed him down and suggested that maybe he should try doing what the prophet suggested. Naaman swallowed his pride and headed back toward the Jordan River. Once there, he washed seven times just as Elisha had commanded, and on the seventh washing, he found that his skin was fully restored. When we exercise our faith in God’s means of grace, we humble ourselves before him. Pride is a dangerous barrier to divine love.
When we exercise our faith in God’s means of grace, we humble ourselves before him. Pride is a dangerous barrier to divine love.
We might wonder why God chose the sacramental as his means of grace. But then, we should recall what grace is for, namely our completion as human beings made in his image and rendered fit to know God face to face. God chose to enter our world with a face in order to achieve that end on his side of things, an event we call the Incarnation. God incarnate is the ultimate merger of spirit (infinite divine mind) and matter (the human body), just as our own natures, made in his image, are also a composite of matter and spirit. The dual elements of our nature explain why we experience significance through images that mediate matter (natural objects available to our senses) and spirit (immaterial objects such as concepts or divine actions).
Because human beings are combinations of the physical and the mental (the material and the spiritual,) we learn and understand far better when ideas are conveyed to us with concrete examples and images.
You’ve probably noticed that rhyme and song work far better than mere rules at motivating good behavior in children. You could simply tell your son not to lie, but you could also tell him the story of George Washington and the cut cherry tree. The story will motivate your son to emulate the young George Washington far more than the mere rule not to lie. Why don’t rules and ideas offer much motivation? Simply put, we are not angels. You’ll remember that angels are huge minds, and as such, pure ideas are appropriate to their natures. But human beings are combinations of the physical and the mental, the material and the spiritual, and so, for us, we learn and understand far better when ideas are conveyed to us with concrete examples and images than merely by someone laying out the theory for us.
All sacraments are imaginative mergers of matter and spirit and are, accordingly, a uniquely human way for God to enact his grace within us. Angels cannot participate in sacraments, because they lack materiality. Animals cannot participate in sacraments because they lack spirit. Thus, sacraments are quite fittingly God’s means to bring us as fully human to himself, the unity of matter and spirit in completed persons, fitted to know God face to face. Sacraments meet the human person in the imaginative unity of intellect and physicality, the height of human experience, understanding, and significance.