Generally, a sacrament refers to a ritual meant to invoke divine presence. Each religion has its own sacraments that serve the spiritual aspirations of its adherents, and mark dispensational events in personal life and of the life of the community. These include such things as joining a religion, becoming an adult, getting married, facing death and other such events that mark important points and stages in religious development. Sacraments carry the inner spirit of these events. For genuine religious practitioners these are not abstract and hollow rituals, but deeply practical, meaningful and intelligent ways to symbolize God's work in the world and God's love for humankind.
In Christianity, the word "sacrament" (from Latin: "sacramentum," meaning “making sacred”) has its own distinct history. The Roman Catholic Church defines a sacrament as “an outward sign of an inward (invisible) grace, instituted by Jesus Christ” (Baltimore Catechism, Article 304). It accepts seven sacraments as specific enactments of God's grace: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (Communion), Reconciliation (Penance), Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction), Marriage, and Holy Orders. Most Protestant denominations accept some of the seven sacraments (usually baptism and marriage). The Eastern Churches call sacraments “Holy Mysteries,” which can range from two to seven, or more.
Though the various world religions do not agree on the nature and number of sacraments, they concur that sacraments are important rituals to initiate individuals into the community and to enable them to grow spiritually.
Precursors to Christian sacraments
Several ancient practices of Judaism can be seen as precursors to the use of sacraments in Christianity. Among these precedents, the Levitical rites mentioned in Book of Leviticus, prescribed numerous ceremonies for cleansing, offering sacrifice, atonement, and for giving praise to God. Additionally, the Paschal/Passover sacrifice of Exodus, in which the Israelites were commanded to eat a meal of roast lamb and bitter herbs and use the blood of the lambs to mark their doorposts as a means of protection (deliverance) from the “destroyer” (Exodus 12:21-12), was viewed as an obligation for the faithful. The Israelites were commanded to celebrate the “Passover” meal annually and to tell all their children about what God had done for his chosen people. This event is interpreted by some Christians as a foreshadowing of the paschal sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the institution of the Eucharistic meal of salvation and celebration. In the subsequent Christian celebration of the Eucharist, the faithful are commanded by Jesus to continually partake in the bread and wine (Luke 22:14-20) “as a memorial” to Jesus.
Number of Sacraments (in the Christian system)
Christian groups disagree over the exact number of sacraments that efficaciously convey God's grace. Roman Catholic theology enumerates seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (Communion), Reconciliation (Penance), Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction), Marriage, and Holy Orders (ordination to the various levels of the deaconate and priesthood). These seven sacraments were codified in the documents of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which stated:
- CANON I.- If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or that they are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; let him be anathema.
- CANON IV.- If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification; -though all (the sacraments) are not necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.
While many Protestant denominations recognize some of these sacraments, others do not recognize them all, or hold that they are simply reminders or symbols that do not impart actual grace—not sacraments but “ordinances” pertaining to certain aspects of the Christian faith. One example of divergence from the Catholic view is found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England’s (Anglican Church) Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Article XXV:
- There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.
- Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Lutheran Church’s Augsburg Confession (1530) confirms the use of sacraments, but only enumerates Baptism (Article IX), The Lord’s Supper (Article X), and Confession (Article XI).
Finally, examples of additional sacraments held by some denominations are the ritual washing of feet (with or without a service of Communion) and the recitation or reception of the Holy Scriptures. If the presence of Christ is deemed essential to a sacrament he is present, according to the Catholic Church, in the priest, the community assembled, the scriptures proclaimed, and the Eucharist.
Some denominations have a much larger picture of what constitutes the sacraments and hold that all the church itself is sacramental in nature and therefore one should not limit such a concept to the above lists alone. Additionally, there is great disagreement over the Sacrament of Eucharist or Holy Communion. While the Catholic Church teaches that through the mystery of the consecration of the species of bread and wine they become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ (transubstantiation), others hold that they are mere representations of his body and blood. They celebrate communion as an annual or quarterly remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The sevenfold list of sacraments is often organized into those of: initiation (into the church, the body of Christ) under Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist; healing sacraments which are the Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation; and mission sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony.
A former view placed the sacraments in two categories—Sacraments of the Dead and Sacraments of the Living—based on the necessary state of the individual receiving them. The Sacraments of the Dead, which were Baptism, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick did not require the individual to be necessarily in a state of grace to receive them (especially true for the penitent who had not received his or her absolution). They lead the individual into a new life. However, the remaining sacraments of Confirmation, Eucharist, Matrimony, and Holy Orders, to be efficacious in the life of the individual, require a greater degree of preparation and must naturally engender a state of grace or greater awareness in the individual.
Description of Specific Sacraments
1) Baptism, or immersion in water, oil, or fire for the remission of sins, is an initiation rite within the body of Christ (the Church). Jesus, himself, submitted to baptism from John. This was the starting point for Jesus’ earthly ministry in the Biblical accounts. Jesus later discussed baptism with Nicodemus, and cryptically tells this Pharisee that in order to see God’s kingdom one must be reborn or “born from above” (John 3:3). Nicodemus’ perplexity over how a person could be reborn in a physical sense allows Jesus to elaborate and he tells Nicodemus that “unless man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God: what is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Therefore, a sacrament requires God’s action through His Holy Spirit and it leads one in the direction of his kingdom.
2) Confirmation initiates one into the adult life of the Church. The administration of this sacraments varies denominationally. The early Church conferred this sacrament at the Easter Vigil after what could be several years of study and preparation. The Orthodox Church administers it with Baptism to infants at the same time, whereas other churches simply dedicate the infant to God and allow the person to make his/her own decision regarding baptism and “confirmation” later in life. While the Roman Catholic Church requires one to be confirmed in the church prior to receiving the Eucharist, the Anglican Church of Canada holds that baptism results in full membership in the church and offers Holy Communion to any baptized person regardless of confirmation or denominational affiliation. This sacrament involves the laying on of hands (usually performed by a bishop) and its purpose is to apply Christ’s grace, through the Holy Spirit, in a way that supports or encourages the recipient to witness to Christ in his or her daily life (cf. Acts 19:5-6). The individual is empowered through confirmation to bear fruit as it were while being nourished through the Sacrament of the Eucharist.. Thus, confirmation is said to strengthen the Christian and begin a process of maturity in the faith in concert with the grace imparted by the various sacraments.
3) Eucharist (also referred to as: The Lord’s Supper; The breaking of the Bread; The Blessed Sacrament; Holy Communion; Holy Mass) reenacts the last supper before Jesus’ death in which he consecrated bread and wine, representing Christ’s body and blood, and renewing God's covenant with humanity. This act was also an allusion to the paschal meal representing God’s grace that saved the Israelites from their Egyptian overlords and their temporal slavery.
4) Reconciliation or Penance. In this sacrament, Christ is represented by the administrator of the sacrament (the lawfully ordained priest/minister) and through Christ’s grace the sins of the individual are forgiven (i.e. reconciled with God). The requirement for an act of penance (e.g., recitation of the rosary, or prayers, etc.) redirects the individual’s thoughts and actions towards God and effects a change in the person’s spiritual outlook. The authority to forgive sins lies not in any power of the administrator, but so far as he/she represents Jesus Christ, his grace and authority are thereby channeled through the human office. In the example of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the grace of the sacrament addresses the need for healing and restoration in the life of the sinner and the community.
5) Marriage refers to the blessing of God bestowed upon husband and wife in holy matrimony. Traditionally in Christianity, this sacrament has only been administered to male and female couples, but in the twentieth century some Protestant denominations have altered the definition of marriage to encompass the sacred union of any two people before God, thereby condoning homosexual relationships. The issue of homosexual marriage has raised a firestorm of protest within and between Christian denominations, and divided religious communities who feel that homosexual marriages go against God's will.
6) Holy Orders refers to the process of the ordination of priests into the life of the church. Just as Jesus conferred authority upon Peter and his apostles, it is said that the sacrament of ordination provides an unbroken line of authority passed on to priests through apostolic succession from the direct descent of Christ himself. Those receiving such ordinational authority have, for the most part, undertaken years of theological education and vocational discernment to prepare themselves for such a life of service to their respective church bodies and communities. They will have studied and grown in their knowledge of the sacraments and their efficacy in the lives of individuals and are expected to administer them as required and authorized by the church’s direction.
7) Anointing of the Sick derives from Jesus’ actions and calls in the Bible to actively care for, and address the needs of: the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). The importance of caring for these individuals in our communities is underscored in the words of Jesus to those who are condemned for their failure to act: “Then he [Jesus, the judge of the nations] will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:45-46).
This sacrament builds upon earlier anointings found in the Hebrew Bible and throughout surrounding cultures. There are numerous accounts of the healing of individuals with afflictions. A Biblical example of this sacrament is found in the story of the healing of a blind man by Jesus. The question arises about the reason for a particular man being blind. It was commonly held that such afflictions were the direct result of some sin in the person’s life or in the lives of his or her parents. Jesus explains that this blindness is not about sin, his blindness offers an opportunity to see God’s power and desire to help those he has created: “Having said this, he spat on the ground, made a paste of the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man, and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.’ So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored” (John 9:6-7).
This particular sacrament has traditionally been reserved for those only in extreme peril of dying or being mortally ill. It was formally called “Extreme Unction,” thus denoting its relationship to immanent death.
Grace and Faith
Fundamental to the efficacy of a sacrament is the presence of God’s grace and the working of the Holy Spirit within the individual. This introduces an element of participation between humans and the God who institutes the sacrament in that those receiving the sacrament do so (in some means) with an element of faith in their efficacy. Arguably, confessions that decree a rite not to be a sacrament must rationalize the individual’s faith with their decree on what constitutes a sacrament. The faith of the individual seemingly provides an avenue for grace to enter and promote its work in the life of the individual, notwithstanding the status given to the sacramental nature of the rite by a particular denomination. That is to say, if, for instance, matrimony is not deemed to be a sacrament, the faith of the couple in God’s grace present in the union is still able to work in a way that they move forward in their spiritual lives in a way that reflects growth in spiritual graces through the power of the Holy Spirit with the end result that a sacrament-like presence of Christ is indeed viable and life-sustaining in them.
In the case of infant baptism, the parents/god parents provide the initial faith and the individual will potentially grow in his or her faith in tandem with the administration of the other sacraments over the course of a lifetime. If one is in an unconscious or incoherent state, the faith of the person administering or arranging for the individual to receive the sacrament would seem to be required. Baptism can also be affected through the desire of the individual who may not otherwise be able to receive the sacrament due to circumstances beyond the individual’s control—certainly underscoring the need for faith.
Faith is fundamentally important in the reception of a sacrament. Many confessions reject infant baptism, in part because of the perceived need for participation on behalf of the person receiving baptism and personal faith in its efficacy. This brings to mind the difference between the baptism of John and that of Jesus Christ himself. This variance in baptismal views is found in Acts 19:1-7 when Paul interacts with the faithful at Ephesus:
When he asked, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they answered, “No, we were never told there was such a thing as a Holy Spirit.” “Then how were you baptized?” he asked. “With John’s baptism,” they replied. “John’s baptism,” said Paul was a baptism of repentance; but he insisted that the people should believe in the one who was to come after him—in other words Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and the moment Paul laid hands on them the Holy Spirit came down on them and they began to speak with tongues and to prophesy. There were about twelve of these men.
Therefore, the sacraments not only move the individual further along in a state of grace towards a new life, they also move the collective of individuals, known as the church, forward to carry out the commands of Christ to his followers:
Thus the Church’s mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament: in her whole being and in all her members, the Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present, and spread the mystery of the Holy Trinity...
Because the Holy Spirit is the anointing of Christ, it is Christ who, as head of the Body, pours out the Spirit [in the sacraments] among his members to nourish, heal, and organize them in their mutual functions, to give them life, send them to bear witness, and associate them to his self-offering to the Father and to his intercession for the whole world. Through the Church’s sacraments, Christ communicates his Holy and sanctifying Spirit to the members of his Body.
These “mighty works of God,” offered to believers in the sacrament of the Church, bear their fruit in the new life in Christ, according to the Spirit. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 738-739)
Sacraments in Other Religions
Historically, Christians did not consider rituals performed by other religions as "sacraments" because Christians have typically considered all other religions as false (or, at best, only partially true). However, in modern times, the Christian view of sacraments as an exclusive domain of Christianity has been reconsidered by ecumenical theologians as well as non-Christians who believe that rituals performed by other traditions are sacralizing life and connecting people to God. Other religions have rites that they believe sacralize something or bring about God's participation. For example, making food Kosher (in Judaism), as well as many Native American rituals, etc. By strict definition of "sacrilege" (the violation or profanation of any thing held sacred) are Christians and other users of the English language committing sacrilege when they call their own rituals "sacraments" while the sacred ceremonies of others are just called "rituals." In other words, is calling a sacrament a ritual a form of profaning it?
All cultures and religions celebrate important rites of passage in the events of life. Sacraments recognize important events in the lives of both individuals and the community. Such events as joining a religious community, becoming an adult, getting married, and facing death, are all important stages on the journey of life in any culture. Among these rituals, marriage seems to stands out in all cultures as the most important. Marriage not only evokes God's love and blessing of the family relationship, but also symbolizes God's own love for his children as a parent, as well as promoting loving families, and ultimately a loving world.
- The Seventh Session of the Council of Trent. Translated by J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 53-67. Hanover Historical Texts Project, Hanover College. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
- The Augsburg Confession, Article XIII. Retrieved August 14, 2007.
- The Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968. ISBN 0385011563
- Klein, P. The Catholic Source Book, 3rd ed. 2000. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 0159506530
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