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Catholic Apologetics

Chapter 12 - Sacraments


Sacraments are a visible sign, instituted by Christ, by which grace is conveyed to our souls. Here is what the Catholic Church has to say about sacraments:

CCC #1113 - The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.

Catholics recognize all seven listed above as sacraments. Anglican and Episcopal churches likewise accept seven sacraments, but most other Protestant faiths accept only two--Baptism and Communion. Although those faiths perform ceremonies, such as weddings, they are not considered by those faiths to be sacraments.

Visible Sign

Sacramentum in Latin means a "sign of the sacred" or an "oath". Every time you receive a sacrament, you receive a visible sign of the sacred bond between yourself and God. The ceremony performed points to the sacred nature of the sacrament.

God doesn't need the sacraments for his benefit; we need the sacraments for our benefit. God knows our natures. He knows we can rationalize almost anything, even His sanctifying grace. He knows it is more efficacious to us and to each other if we rely on outward signs rather than our own inward rationalization to confirm grace was received. He set it up this way for a reason. We need to honor His decision.

We echo a certain conviction when we expose ourselves to other's witness. If we hold a wedding in a church in front of those close to us, and openly express our devotion to each other, it means more to us and to them than if we met in an apartment behind closed doors with no one around and whispered our acceptance of the other as our spouse. The latter suggests a more temporary commitment, one you are not willing to share with others in case you reneg on the deal. Likewise, when we go to confession and openly admit our sins to another, the impact on our repentence is significantly higher than if we sin, and then quickly ask God's forgiveness in private, through thought and not speech. It also builds up the rest of the Body of Christ in that it emboldens us all to confess and repent.

Animal Sacrifices

God demanded Abram sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah, which was adjacent to the City of Salem (which, eventually became Jerusalem) . On the way up the mountain, Isaac noticed there was everything needed for the holocaust, except the sacrifice itself. He asked his father where the sacrifice was, and Abram answered that God, Himself, would provide the sacrifice. At the last moment, an angel stopped Abram from slaying Isaac, and God provided a ram as a substitute.

Abram was aware that ram was an insufficient permanent substitute. Abram named the place "God will provide" (notice the future tense, or in Hebrew, "Yahweh jireh"). All Jews looked to God to one day provide the perfect substitute for the sacrifice.

Skip ahead several hundred years. Egyptians of old worshipped animals. In particular, their gods were fashioned after goats, sheep and cattle. (Since the Israelites were herders and eaters of goats, sheep and cattle, the Egyptians despised the Israelites.) While the Israelites were slaves to the Egyptians, they adopted some of the pagan practices of their captors.

After God freed them from Egyptian rule, they wandered in the desert until they arrived at Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to receive the 10 Commandments, leaving the Israelites at the base. After Moses was gone for forty nights, fearing him dead, the Israelites sensed God had forsaken them. They quickly reverted to their pagan practices and had Aaron build them a Golden Calf to worship. This, of course, was a great sin.

There were no animal sacrifices before the Golden Calf incident. In the days of Job's friends, and even in the days of the priest-king Melchisedech in the City of Salem, no one sacrificed animals as offerings to God on a regular basis.

After the Golden Calf, God instituted a new covenant with the children of Abraham and demanded they sacrifice animals, starting with the same animals they worshipped with the Egyptians. This assured two things-first, they could not return to Egypt or they would be slain for sacrificing those particular animals, and second, every time one of those animals were sacrificed, it reminded them that God was over whatever they previously worshipped.

Animal sacrifices in Moses time, much like the sacraments in our time, are not necessary to satisfy some need of God's. God created animals--He didn't need to have their blood. That was a pagan practice, and God used it to emphasize to the Israelites that He was the one, true God. Every time they had to sacrifice an animal, it was a reminder of their forefather's sin at Mt. Sinai.

Jews were acutely aware of their forefather's sin with the Golden Calf, and they pointed to God's promise to Abraham every time they made a sacrifice, the promise that God would one day provide the perfect sacrifice that would relieve the Jews of their father's sins. We recognize that perfect sacrifice to be God's beloved son, Jesus. Through Jesus, who died on the same Mt Moriah ascended by Abraham so many years earlier, God redeemed His children of the burden of their sins, and nullified the need for animal sacrifices. Through the new and everlasting covenant, Jesus instituted the sacraments as we now know them to replace animal sacrifice.

Instituted By Christ

CCC #1114 - "Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus . . . of the Fathers," we profess that "the sacraments of the new law were . . . all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord."

The Church notes the sacraments were all instituted by Christ. In subsequent chapters, we will see how Christ instituted each of the seven sacraments listed above.

Luke 5:17 - One day as Jesus was teaching, and the power of the Lord was with him for healing.

Luke 6:19 - Everyone in the crowd sought to touch him because power came forth from him and healed them all.

Luke 8:46 - But Jesus said, "Someone has touched me; for I know that power has gone out from me."

Luke emphasizes power in Jesus, and that the power came forth from Him. Jesus even stated that he felt the power has gone out from Him. This power is the power Jesus dispenses in the sacraments.

CCC #1116 - Sacraments are "powers that come forth" from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are "the masterworks of God" in the new and everlasting covenant.

Relying on verses like the three shown above from the Gospel of Luke, the Catholic Church recognizes that sacraments are powers that come forth from Jesus.

The Categories of Catholic Sacraments

The Catholic Church has three categories of sacraments.

Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist comprise the Sacraments of Initiation. These sacraments lay the foundation for a new life in Christ. As Pope Paul VI stated: "By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, [the faithful] thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity" 3 Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Divinae consortium naturae: AAS 63 (1971) 657

This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin. Thus, we have Confession and the Anointing of the Sick--the Sacraments of Healing.

Helping others attain salvation is found in the Sacraments of Service--Holy Orders and Matrimony.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders are conferred one time. Once baptized, always baptized; once confirmed, always confirmed, etc. There is a permanent mark on each Christian's soul as they receive each of these three sacraments. This is true, even if the Christian subsequently sins and falls from grace. Therefore these sacraments can never be repeated.

Eucharist, Confession, Anointing of the Sick and Matrimony can be conferred multiple times. Hopefully we receive the Eucharist weekly, and some of us receive it more often. Hopefully, we each confess our sins several times each year. We can receive the Anointing of the Sick as often as it is needed. If our spouse dies, we are free to remarry.

The Purpose of the Sacraments

CCC #1123 - "The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God."

There is a threefold purpose to sacraments. First, they sanctify us by instilling God's grace in our souls. Second, because they are outward signs, visible to all, they build up the Body of Christ. Lastly, they return worship to God for the grace He bestows on us.

2 Cor 4:7 - we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.

CCC #1128 - This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

It is Christ acting in the sacrament that makes them effective. Neither the celebrant nor the recipient can affect the grace on their own--it comes from Christ. The only state controlled by the recipient is his/her disposition in receiving the grace, and the fruits of the sacrament are correspondingly directed.

Ordained ministers, and the laity for that matter, can not change sacramental rites in any way. It takes a magisterial act, and even then, "only in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery of the liturgy" CCC 1125 Thus, you can not substitute the words "I baptize you in the name of God Most High" for "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit". The Trinitarian formula must be followed.

God knows human nature--He created us. He knows He could just will it, and we would receive His grace, but He chose to use outward signs-the sacraments--to transfer that power.

Matt 3:13-15 - Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" Jesus said to him in reply, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed him.

Jesus did not need to be baptized; he was already righteous in God's eyes. He did it as an outward sign to fulfill all righteousness-as an example to all of us.

He has His reasons. Perhaps He wants us to interact and fellowship, and rely on each other as Paul describes in the nature of the Body of Christ. Perhaps He knows our nature is such we will respond differently receiving an outward sign rather than a quiet, private and personal communication between God and each of us alone. Regardless, it is the path chosen by God, and we must humbly respect and accept it.

Parting Comment

CCC #1131 - The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

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