Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.

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Sacraments are one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Catholic Church. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible reality. Sacraments are necessary because we do not know God directly. God is a pure spirit. The object of our cognition is material, sensible reality. As St. Thomas teaches us, “Nothing is in the intellect that did not come in originally from one of the five senses. Our cognition goes from the sensible to the spiritual, from the visible to the invisible, from the finite to the infinite. Catholics have many sacraments throughout the journey of life from the womb to the tomb.

The world is a sacrament. St. Paul tells the atheists of his day that they are inexcusable. “For what can be known about God is evident to them because God has made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse.” (Rom. 1:19) In other words, Paul is saying that the world is a visible sign of invisible reality, just as the footprints on the sand were a sign to Robinson Crusoe that a man was on the island.

We know the existence of God through His creation of the world. But no one has ever seen this God. No one, that is, but Jesus. (John 1:1-14; Phil. 2:5-11; Matt. 17:5) So Jesus is the sacrament of God. Jesus is the human expression of God. Jesus is the greatest expression of the love of God for us and the greatest expression of the human response to that love. What we know about the intimate designs and purposes of God we know through Jesus. In Jesus, “the medium is the message.”

Jesus’ life on earth was only 33 years. While he was personally proclaiming the Good News to his contemporaries he was preparing a means by which his mission would be continued when he returned to his Father. That means would be his Mystical Body the Church. The Church is the sacrament of Jesus. Jesus identifies himself with the Church. “Whoever hears you hears me.” “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4-5) The Church is the visible sign of the invisible Risen Jesus.

The Church in its liturgy celebrates seven vital actions of Jesus which are efficacious for salvation. These are the Seven Sacraments, sensible signs instituted by Jesus to contain and confer grace. Jesus calls us in Baptism to become his disciples; he sends us forth as apostles in Confirmation; nourishes us in the Eucharist; forgives us in the Rite of Reconciliation; heals us in the Anointing of the Sick; provides us with a family and social order in Matrimony; and provides us with priests in Holy Orders. The Seven Sacraments have been called “Channels of Grace,” “Encounters with Jesus,” and “Doors to the Sacred.” The three-fold purpose of the Seven Sacraments is the sanctification of the individual recipient, the building up and the unity of the Church, and worship. The grace proper to each sacrament is not produced by the personal merits of the minister, but by the sacrament itself, namely by the rite itself. But the mediation of grace to the recipient, both in its occurrence and in its measure, is essentially dependent on the recipient. “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20)

In addition to the Seven Sacraments the Church also celebrates numerous sacramentals.
They are sensible signs instituted by the Church to petition for grace. Unlike the Seven Sacraments they do not contain and confer grace they simply petition for grace through the faith and devotion of those using or celebrating them. Some of the sacramentals are: ashes, palms, candles, holy water, crucifixes, medals and statues.

Every Christian through the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, becomes an “alter Christus,” another Christ, and therefore another sacrament of God. How many times has some person been a sacrament for us, a means of grace, an inspiration, an illumination of our mind and an impetus to our will? How many times have we, perhaps unknowingly, been a sacrament to others?

Every creature is also a sacrament of God, a visible sign of God’s invisible presence. To create something is not the same as to make something. In making you organize existing material and when you are finished you can leave, it does not need you anymore.

When God creates something he must continually sustain it in existence. That is what is meant by immanence. Think of a sponge in a lake. The sponge is upheld by the lake and interpenetrated by the lake. The sponge is not the lake and the lake is not the sponge. That is the way God is the ground of being of every creature. St. Francis and St. Ignatius could find God in all things because He is present in all things. “The hills are mute but how they speak of God. There are tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stone and God in everything. Every bush is burning. The image is the icon. “I see his blood upon the rose and in the stars the glory of his eyes.” “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

The beautiful, consoling truth is that we live in a wonderful grace-filled world where everyone we meet and everything we see is a sacrament, a visible sign of the invisible Reality, a footprint of God, a sign of the love and providence of God. What a false dichotomy it is to divide reality into the sacred and the secular. And what a false dichotomy it is also to departmentalize our lives into the sacred and the secular, so that we are Christians for a few hours a week and then live as a pagan for the rest of the time.

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