Monday, February 4, 2013

Signs and the Sacraments

When we talk about the sacraments, we return to the old cliche of what a sacrament is.  We understand the sacraments as a "visible sign of an invisible reality."  While this is true, it really doesn't tell us much about the sacraments.  A visible sign of what?  What is the reality?  As with so many aspects of contemporary Catholicism, we have the right answers, but ask the wrong questions.

To help us better ask these questions (and hopefully come to a better understanding) we should return to the sources of truth for Catholics.  In this case, we should return to the Sacred Scriptures.  When outlining what the Passover entails, the Book of the Exodus describes the point of the Passover:

And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt.
From a purely natural standpoint, a Biblical sign is meant to recall a past action.  In the case of the Passover, the paschal memorial was meant to call to mind God's deliverance of the Israelites from the cruel Egyptians.  We do this sort of thing all the time.  For sports athletes, trophies serve not only as a recognition of our triumphs, but they serve to recall those great moments where we excelled seemingly beyond ourselves to achieve that triumph.  When a spouse looks at their wedding band, it is supposed to call to mind the commitment they made to their spouse that day at the altar.  So far, so good.  Modern Catholics accept and understand this aspect of the biblical sign.

Yet there is far more to the proper understanding of a sign and what we "remember."  When the Prophet Elijah visits the widow of Zarephath, the widow believes his visit is an omen of ill news, stating:

What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son? (1 Kings 17:18)
 In the Bible, the act of remembrance also causes an action.  In this case, the remembrance of the widows sins by Elijah's presence caused the death of her son.  The Prophet Ezekiel states that when the sins of Israel came to remembrance, they were taken into captivity.  (Ezekial 21:24)  So for the Bible, signs convey a far deeper meaning than a mere remembrance of past events.   The remembrance of past events causes a present reality.

Now what does this insight do for us in understanding the sacraments?  I would actually argue that it provides quite a bit.  Remembering our previous post on the sacraments, the Sacraments were defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:

They [the sacraments] are "for the Church" in the sense that "the sacraments make the Church," since they manifest and communicate to men, above all in the Eucharist, the mystery of communion with the God who is love, One in three persons. (Paragraph 1118)

With this in mind, we can come to a certain understanding.  When we say a sacrament is a visible sign, we state that a sacrament is a visible sign of communion with God.  Since a sign is meant to recall something, I would submit that the sacrament recalls our original purpose in relation to God:  that we were created for union with God.  Every sacrament, in one way or another, points to this purpose.  Like the "signs" of the Old Testament, the remebrance of this sign enhances that reality.

So why was there a need for Christ to institute seven new sacraments?  Many times we point to the fact that the sacraments of the new covenant confer grace, whereas the sacraments of the old covenant were "merely" signs.  While grace is of supreme importance, there's more to the story here.  The sacraments of the New Covenant not only call to our original purpose, they manifest a new reality.  While we were created for union with God, what happens when we achieve such a union with God?  The grace the sacraments contain transform us to a new reality.  We are no longer living a life of anticipation of union with God.  The Sacraments don't just transform our lives making that union a reality, they conform us to the state of life that is our destination:  eternity in heaven. 

To better understand this point, we will need to do a few things.  We will need to take a trip through salvation history, and then through each of the Sacraments of the New Covenant and how they fit within the framework I have outlined.  This will be the subject of future installments in this series.

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