The Church has defined the seven sacraments, most clearly in the documents from the Council of Trent in the 16th century. That council was called in response to the Protestant revolt against the authority of the Church. Prior to that period, the most important councils had been called to settle some matter of doctrine. It took a few councils to settle the understanding of the Trinity, that Jesus was fully God and also fully Man, and that there was one God but three Persons. In the 8th century, they had an ecumenical council to address the challenge against pictures of God raised by the Moslems. Some Christians had been influenced by Moslem prohibitions on images of their prophet and thought the Christian church should likewise be cleansed of these images, and they held a council to answer that question with the final answer being “no.”
When we study the sacraments, we generally group them as sacraments of initiation, of healing, and of service. In the early Church, and today in RCIA, one would see baptism, confirmation, and first eucharist in quick succession at the Easter Vigil. These three sacraments constituted the initiation of the unbaptized pagan into the Catholic Church. The two healing sacraments address physical and spiritual healing. And there are two sacraments of service in which one is called to glorify God by a life of self-gift either to the entire Church or to one’s spouse in marriage.
When we read the Old Testament, we see the pattern of how God revealed himself to his chosen people. He spoke miraculously to one man in a remote setting, such as speaking to Abraham or sending him three angels. God also spoke through the prophets, such as speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai and communicating through him the Ten Commandments and then the rest of the Mosaic Law. Salvation history has a repeated cycle of prophets sent to steer the wayward people of God back to his commandments, with renewals of the Covenant at various times to seal them as his people.
Along the way, the stories of the relationship between God and his people were written down, and we have books of the Bible like Genesis and Exodus and the books of the Kings. Other books, more meditative than narrative, were added to the Holy Scriptures, such as the Book of Sirach and other wisdom books.
Wisdom literature might have been the Adult Faith Formation of that day and age, as it examined the question of how to live well as a religious person. Sirach, like other wisdom writers, set “fear of the Lord” as the beginning of the answer to that question. “Fear of the Lord” is at the heart of a good and fruitful relationship with God, as it makes crystal clear who is God and who is not. As Monsignor Lopez taught the students at St. Pius X Catholic High School, “there is a god and you are not him.” Once we get that right, we are better positioned to grow closer to God. And that is what God wants from us.
Sirach goes on to explain that those who do fear the Lord – those who are in a proper relationship with him – keep his commandments. At the time of Sirach, this meant observing all the rules and rituals of the Mosaic Law.
As Christians, we understand that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and he established a New Covenant. In his long teaching in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday recorded by St. John, he explains that love of Christ means keeping his commandments. The first commandment is to love Him and obey Him, and the second is to take care of others out of love. So in a sense, there is really no break between the Old Testament and the New Testament. But there is development in how the commandments are to be followed on a daily basis. With the Mosaic Law now fulfilled, what in the age of the Church takes its place?
The answer is the sacramental life. Jesus gave more commandments than the two we just covered. In the Upper Room on Holy Thursday, he initiated the new central act of worship and participation in his grace: the Mass. And he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When he said, “This is my body” as he held a piece of bread, he introduced the sacramental life. A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. It is a mysterious presence of God’s grace. God’s grace is truly and really present in a sacrament, even as he continues to be pure spirit. All Seven Sacraments were established by Jesus Christ during His Ministry and have been in use by the Church from its inception. The Sacraments provide grace, from the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross, to the faithful throughout their lives, from birth to death. Grace strengthens the bond between Christ and his disciples. Grace is the main thing needed for us to grow in holiness, which is the universal call. Grace sanctifies us – it makes us more holy. Growing in holiness is the key to being saved and spending eternity with God in heaven.
Reception of the Sacraments in accord with the teaching of the Church is the ordinary means of salvation for all the faithful. This is an important aspect of the sacramental life: he we do not believe, we cannot receive the grace. The disposition of the recipient is important. This is why non-Catholics should not receive Holy Communion; as non-Catholics they officially do not believe in the Real Presence and it would be scandalous for us to offer it to them if we believe in the Real Presence and the apostolic mark of the Church that hands down the deposit of faith from Jesus and the Apostles.
Jesus instituted the sacraments. Most times that was consecrating an existing practice, such as baptism and holy matrimony. Other times it was a new thing, such as eucharist. In every sacrament, there is a minister; most of the time that minister is an ordained minister. In every sacrament, there is a clear definition of the form and the matter, such as the words that are prayed and the material used in the rite.
The prophet Jeremiah was sent by the Lord to warn the Hebrews about the impending Babylonian exile. He served as a prophet for more than 40 years. There are 52 chapters of Jeremiah, which is immediately followed by five chapters of his Lamentations. His message was so sad, he was called the weeping prophet and he gave us the word “jeremiad” which is a long list of woes or lamentations. If you have to be a prophet, you would much rather be Jonah with three days inside a fish and a short, successful preaching ministry than to be Jeremiah with 40 years of preaching to a community that rejects you, persecutes you, and ultimately ends up where you warned them they would go if they did no change their ways. The prophet Jeremiah had a pretty bleak ministry.
Jeremiah was telling the Hebrews they would be sent to Babylon for a couple of generations if they did not change their ways, and they did not, so they were exiled for 70 years. But even in the midst of serious troubles, even when our troubles last a long time, we still have faith and hope. In the reading today, from chapter 31, we hear Jeremiah preach faith to the doomed Hebrews. He promises, “They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them, so that none shall stumble.”
We are going to explore one of the areas where Catholics and other Christians use the same word but do not necessarily mean the same thing. That word is “Church.”
Study of the church is called “ecclesiology,” which is based on the greek word for church. Ekklesia is a word in Greek that means “those called out” so it is an assembly assembled for a purpose. The purpose of this assembly is the worship of God.
There are many ways we describe the Catholic Church, and each term draws out something true but always incomplete. At the Second Vatican Council, the document on the Church, which is called Lumen Gentium, described the church as a sacrament. This term certainly draws out the mystical nature of the church but it does not give us much to grab a hold of. On the other hand, when we think of the priests and bishops in the church, they are certainly tangible and we can identify them because of their ordination and sacred role. Sometimes we focus on the building and the decorations; that is even more tangible than the priests and bishops.