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By Valentine Umoh

“A life which is not authentically sacramental,

would not be genuinely Christian”

Preamble[1]

In 2011, as we were eagerly seated ready for our first lecture in Sacramental Theology, the Professor came into the lecture hall and wrote on the board thus: “A life which is not authentically sacramental would not be genuinely Christian.” A course that will run for the next three years of intensive study has begun. The professor made us to understand that all what we needed to know about the sacraments and their relationship to the Christian life is embedded in the above statement. So, when discussing the importance of the sacraments for Christian life, what should immediately come to one’s mind is the relevance and centrality of the sacraments to and in the life of the Christian. It therefore evokes such questions as: “Why the sacraments?” “Have the sacraments any fundamental role in today’s economy of salvation?” “Are there non-Christian sacraments?” “Is there such thing as a non-sacramental Christian?” “What is the relationship between a Christian life and a Sacramental existence?” “Can either exist in isolation from the other?” This lecture shall therefore seek to teach, catechize and exhort its listeners on the relationship between the Sacraments and the Christian life. In the course of the discourse a deeper understanding of the Christian life will be gained by asking what the sacraments are, and greater comprehension of the sacraments, by reflecting on what the Christian life is.

What is A Sacrament?

A Sacrament is commonly defined as an outward (visible) sign of inward (invisible) grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls.

The outward sign consists of two parts, viz., the matter, that is the outward sensible things used in giving the sacraments; and the form, that is, the words said when applying the matter. There are seven sacraments – namely: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Order and Holy Matrimony. All of these have been divinely instituted by Jesus Christ as a means of giving grace to our souls. All the sacraments confer grace always but only to those who receive them worthily. Receiving it worthily means receiving it with the proper disposition. According to Pope John Paul II any sacramental life that is not based on serious knowledge of the meaning of the sacraments is impoverished and becomes merely a ritual. The sacraments are like spokes that transmit power from the hub (which is the source of power and direction) to the wheel of Christian life, which can only revolve upon receiving the power from the hub, through the spokes. In this analogy (example), the wheel is the Christian life, the spokes are the sacraments and the hub is Jesus Christ. However, apart from the sacraments the other channels of grace are prayer, the Word of God, Faith, good works, etc. The sacraments confer special mark, Character, seal. It makes the person God’s possession and marks them out for salvation just as God marked out the Jewish people for salvation (Gen 17:10-14). The sacraments are signs of encounter with the Lord.

We exist sacramentally

There is much more to the Christian belief in the sacraments than a brief definition of what we mean by a sacrament and a list of seven acts of faith that fulfil the definition. The whole life of the Church takes place in and through the sacraments of the New Covenant. Without the sacraments there would be no Church, no Christian community, no direct, certain contact with the healing and sanctifying power of almighty God. This fact, Cooker understood and summarized in his famous three-worded statement: “We exist sacramentally”.[2] In other words, in relation to the Church (ἠκκλεσια του Θευω), the sacraments constitute the centre of the Church’s life and its salvific activity.

The Council of Trent teaches that “it is through the sacraments that all true sanctity either begins, or being begun, is increased, or being lost, is restored.[3] The sacraments are the principal means by which one can lead a good Christian life and attain eternal salvation. They are the foundation of the Supernatural moral life. They are acts of cult that give glory to God. They build up the Body of Christ and give worship to God.[4] In using the sacraments in giving worship to God the Father and sanctifying men, Christ always associates the Church with himself. We can, then, with George Worgul, say that: “Each of the sacraments is tied to Jesus, the basic and primordial Sacrament. All of the other sacraments, and the Church itself, arise and flow from the one sacrament of the Father, His only son”. It follows, therefore, that the ministry of the Incarnate Word, the Word of God – Jesus, if rightly understood, brings one to the sacraments and to the Christian life (see Acts 2:37-38; 8:34-38). This is why it is said that the sacraments are sacraments of faith, drawing their origin and nourishment from the Word. Our lives as Christians derive from the sacraments since “they not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it (cf SC 59; Rm 1:17).

By means of the sacraments, the Church is built and edified. As St Augustine says

When the Lord slept on the cross (the sleep of death), his side was pierced by a lance and the sacraments flowed out, from which the Church was born. In fact, the Church is born as a bride from the side of the Lord similarly to the way Eve was born from the side of Adam.[5]

Therefore, the sacraments are not only the moments in which the Church generates her children in Supernatural life but also the moments in which the Church itself is generated as a salvific community. Simply put, through the sacraments

  • The Church gives birth to her children
  • The Church is built
  • The Church continues to serve as a community of salvation.

Furthermore, “the Church has an essentially Sacramental character, and the profound unity of its members emanates from the sacraments”, says Ehiem. Continuing, he says that “these are the mystical bonds which unify in a vital and intimate way, all believers in Christ and those who are baptized in his name”. “He we see all the social and community value of the Christian sacraments”, Ehiem concludes.[6]

In its spiritual value, the Church acts sacramentally in its entire saving mission – a life-giving mission. The Church is herself a sacrament. She is Christ to its members and to the world. In this connection, Karl Rahner opines:

“The fundamental act of the Church in an individual’s regard, in situation that are decisive for him, an act which truly involves the nature of the Church as the historical, eschatological presence of the redemptive grace is ipso facto, a sacrament, even if it were later that reflection was directed to its sacramental character that follows from its connection with the nature of the Church.”[7]

More importantly in our discourse, is the grace effect of the sacraments. There exists an intimate and indissoluble bond between the sacraments and grace. On this account, a sacrament has been defined as “a sensible sign instituted by Jesus Christ to signify and cause justification and sanctification”.[8] For St Augustine, a sacrament is a “sacred sign”; “a sign pertaining to divine things” and “a visible sign or invisible grace”. Perfecting this incomplete Augustinian definition, Hugo of St Victor (d.1141) and Peter Lombard (d. 1160) added the notion that a sacrament is not just a sign but also a “cause of grace” in the believer’s soul. It should therefore be obvious why it is appropriate to refer to the sacraments as “sacred signs”. For they are signs of something very holy, namely, sanctifying grace, or, to use other words, of God himself working in those who receive the sacraments with faith. But they are also called “sacred signs” because they not only signify divine grace but also cause grace to be present in the soul. [9]

By the express will of the Lord, the sacraments are the instruments of the grace that sanctifies, transforms and deifies man. Why the sacraments as instruments? An “instrumental cause” is one that truly influences the effect, but receives its full power from a higher agent”. St Thomas, in his ‘Summa Theologiae’ gave three reasons for the appropriateness of the sacraments as means for man’s salvation:

  • Man naturally arrives at knowledge through sensible things. But divine providence provides for each being in its way of functioning. For man’s salvation it is appropriate that divine wisdom should use physical and sensible things called sacraments.
  • By sinning, man incurred affection for physical things and so made himself subject to them; God therefore had to apply spiritual medicine to man by some physical signs. If spiritual things unalloyed and pure were to be used, his mind absorbed in physical would be incapable of accepting them.
  • Man is particularly prone to dispense with physical things. Lest it should be too hard for him totally to dispense with physical actions he was given certain physical practices to observe in the sacraments. This was to enable him exercise his powers in salutary ways and so to avoid the superstitious practices of demon worship. Through the sacraments, sensible signs are used to instruct man in a way proper to his nature.[10]

The Council of Trent therefore affirms, in ‘terminus technicus’, that “the sacraments are the means per quae omnis vera iustitia vel incipit, vel coepta augetur, vel amissa reparatus (Denz., 1600). Consequently, the sacramental signs are the ordinary means of communication of sanctifying grace, and this is done through Christ in the Church. The Church is sacramental by nature. “The Church as the great sacrament of Christ is the visibility of God’s saving grace among men. Visible are the saving gestures, the essential actions of the Church as a   saving institution of grace. Through water and word, she initiates new members in baptism, through imposition of hands and anointing in Confirmation, she strengthens her members for witness-bearing in the Church, through the Eucharist, she gathers her children for meal of unity and love; through Penance she imparts a healing remedy for sin, by imposing hands in holy Orders, and witnessing the making of a contract of marriage in Matrimony, the Church provides for her continuity through a ministry of authority and through a sanctified family life, through the anointing of the sick, she prays for their bodily restoration especially for their final spiritual healing to remove the last scar of sin. So the Church lives by the sacraments. She is most visible by her sacramental life. So all the sacraments confer sanctifying grace either as a first gift as in baptism, or as a renewal of grace if it has been lost as in penance, or as an increase of the divine life as in other five sacraments.[11]

When the sacraments are conferred and received in due manner, they produce or increase grace by the power of God, this is to say, by the performance of the rite itself (Denz. 1608). Let us listen to the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law do not contain the grace which they signify or that they do not confer that grace upon those who do not place an obstacle to its reception… let him be anathema”. And again, “If anyone says that, as far as God’s part is concerned, grace is not given through these sacraments always and to everybody, even if they receive the sacraments correctly, but only sometimes and to some people: let him be anathema” (Denz. 1606, 1607)[12]

Comfortably, therefore, we can say that the sacraments signify and cause grace; sanctifying grace ex opera operato, that is, “by the power of the completed sacramental rite” (cf. Denzinger 1608) in the soul of the believer, because grace is ultimately a sharing in the actual plenitude of God’s life an all merely habitual grace is only rightly to be understood as the ontological presupposition of that life. Consequently, the Church as historical sign of victorious grace only attains the highest actualization of her own nature when grace is victorious in this sense in the individual and also is tangibly expressed and really occurs for the individual’s sanctification. That is exactly what happens in the sacraments.[13] Put otherwise, it is only when a soul, by the sanctifying grace, the Supernatural life of grace, that divine participation and elevation in the divine life of God communicated to him through the sacraments, blossoms and lives out his/her baptismal vows, can that soul be said to be genuinely Christian. Such a life can be said to be authentically sacramental; hence, it rightly can be termed a genuine Christian existence. Such a one is properly called a member of the Church – the mystical body of Christ; Christ – that primordial sacrament.

Special Focus on the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist

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The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, together with His Soul and Divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine.

Most Christian denominations deny the Real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. At best, Christ is seen as being truly present, but His presence does not completely replace the substance of bread – ‘consubstantiation.’ At worst the process is seen as strictly a symbolic memorial – symbolic presence. Only the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church believe in Transubstantiation and it is the Catholic Church that adheres strictly to it.

First and foremost, we must understand that God has different forms of dwelling with his people. In the Old Testament God dwelt among his people in the Ark of the Covenant (Ps 68:7-8). In the New Testament, God dwelt among his people when Jesus walked the earth (Jn 1:14). The Church believes absolutely that Jesus Christ is fully present in both the consecrated host and in the consecrated cup, so that, though one be called His flesh and the other His blood, and though both be separately consecrated, they each contain the fullness of body,, blood, soul and divinity who is Jesus Christ (CCC 1322-1344, 1391-1419, 1524-1525).

The Eucharist is based on the Jewish Passover meal (Read Ex. 12:1-15). Here, the Passover is instituted by God as a perpetual ordinance. The Jewish people are to keep this sacrifice for the entire life of the people. They must sacrifice the paschal lamb and consume its flesh. The Israelites were faithful to this instruction and kept the Passover every year in memory of the Lord their God. The Passover meal is shared ‘in remembrance.’ The term used for ‘remembrance’ is anamnesis, which means to make present. For a 1st century Jew, the Passover, through faith, unites every present participant to the participants in the original Passover; they become one chosen people through this sacrifice.

Christ commands remembrance in a Passover context, as God commanded it of all Jews at the first Passover. Note that the last supper is the only time Christ uses the word ‘covenant’ in all four gospels.

The first announcement of the institution of the Eucharist by Christ is seen in John 6:22-71. Here Jesus states emphatically clear that life forever comes from eating the flesh of the Son of man and drinking his blood.

The Four Institution Narratives are:

Matt 26: 26-30

Mark 14: 22-26

Luke 22:14-20

1 Cor 11:23-26

In these we see that Christ did not say ‘this is the sign or symbol of my body or blood’ but “This is my body…This is my blood” In simple semantic, this is a categorical statement.

As the Jews were commanded to keep the Passover ‘in remembrance,’ Christ also commanded his Apostles to ‘do this in memory of me.’ We also note that the fact the Eucharist was instituted within the context of the Passover proves that the Eucharist would now be for the New Israel (Christians) what the Passover was for the Old Israel. In short, the Eucharist is the new and substantive Passover for the Christians and as such Christ commanded that it be kept in memory of him. More so as the Jews were faithful to the command of God to perpetuate the Passover in his name – the early Christians kept the Eucharist (breaking of bread) in memorial of the Lord (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 20:7; 27:34-35). In 1 Cor 11:27-32, St Paul makes it clear that because the Eucharist is the Real Body and Blood of Christ, we should approach it worthily. Worthily reception gives life; unworthily reception of the Eucharist brings condemnation and death.

The Holy Mass as we call it today is made up of two great parts that form a fundamental unity: 1) The Liturgy of the word – the gathering, readings, homily, creed (profession of Faith) and general intercession) 2) The Liturgy of the Eucharist – presentation of Bread and wine, the consecratory thanksgiving and communion. Both form one single act of worship – Eucharistic Table of the word and the Table of the body of the Lord. However, the Eucharist is not only a memorial; it is a sacrifice – because it makes present (re-presents) the sacrifice of the cross.

The sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. The victim is one and the same. The same now offers through the ministry of priests who then offered Himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different. Bloody manner (altar of the cross) – unbloody manner (altar of the Eucharist). The Eucharist is the highest worship of the Church. The Eucharist is a communion for all of us though many are one for we all share in the one bread (loaf) of Christ. The Eucharist unites us together in the Church. When receiving the Eucharist therefore always be conscious and know what you are receiving. Since we are all products of what we eat, become what you eat!

The Fruits of the Eucharist include: Makes us one with Christ, separates us from sin, preserves us from future mortal sins, unites the mystical body of Christ – the Church, commit us to the needs of the poor. As bread that is broken that we may have life, we have to let ourselves be broken that the poor among us may have life. According to St. Ignatius of Antioch – The Eucharist is the pledge of the glory to come. Every time this mystery is celebrated; the work of our redemption is carried on and we break the bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ.

Special Focus on the Sacrament of Penance

Penance is a sacrament whereby the sins, whether mortal or venial, which we have committed after baptism are forgiven.

To effectively understand the importance of this sacrament one must first and foremost understand the danger of sin.

Sin is an offence against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour. Sin is an offence against God. It is a revolt against God, through the will to become like gods (cf. Is 1:2; Bar.4:8). Sin is a rebellion against God. It is love of oneself even to the contempt of God. Sin is self-exaltation which is diametrically opposed to the humble obedience of Jesus which achieves salvation

According to 1Jn 5: 16-17, not all sins are the same and carry the same magnitude of damaging effects. As such there are two types of sin: Original sin and Actual Sin. The original sin is that which all humanity inherited from Adam and Eve; actual sin is the one we commit by our own free choice. Only the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from Original Sin – this doctrine is called Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Also, Actual Sin is further subdivided into mortal sin and venial sin. Mortal sin is that sin which causes the death of the soul (there are three conditions for mortal sin – the matter must be grave, there must be clear knowledge of the guilt of the action and there must be full consent of the will. It kills the soul and deserves hell. Venial sin does not kill the soul yet displeases God and often leads to mortal sin.

Since the reward for sin is death (Rom 6:23) and God desires that all men be saved and come to the full knowledge of salvation (1 Tim 2:4-5), God gives everyone a second chance through the Sacrament of Penance.

It is very clear and certain that only God can forgive sin (Mark 2:7; Ps.103:3; Is.43:25). However, since Jesus Christ is God, he also has the authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:5; Col.1:19; 2:9). Jesus delegated this power and authority to forgive sins to the twelve apostles as a body – the Church and not as individuals (John 20:21-23; Matt 16:19). So, the apostles after being empowered by the Holy Spirit were to begin the ministry of reconciliation. So therefore, the sacrament without doubt was instituted by Jesus Christ himself (John 20:21-23).

When talking about the sacrament of penance we have to recall that all through salvation history God has always worked with men for the salvation of men. For instance, God could have delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, but he chose to use Moses and then Joshua. God could have communicated his future plan to his people but he chose to us the prophets. God could have preached to and converted the Gentiles but he chose to use Paul. So also, God in order to redeem man by forgiveness of their sins committed after baptism used the ministry of priests and Bishops who are the successors of the Apostles for whom this ministry was directly given by Christ.

To receive forgiveness the penitent has to perform three acts: contrition, confession and satisfaction. If there is no sin, there would be no need for repentance and forgiveness of sin. Without sorrow for sins, that is contrition there will be no forgiveness. But even after contrition, you have to show your self to the priest for a one-on-one confession of the sins one has committed. The priest will then tell you what to do to repair the damages cause by your sins (satisfaction). The reality of sin and its damaging consequence makes the sacrament of penance or reconciliation a very important and indispensable sacrament in the life of every Christian. The effects of the sacrament of Penance include among others: reconciliation with God, peace of soul, revival of merit, reconciliation with the Church, freedom from condemnation and gives spiritual strength for the pilgrimage of faith.

We also have to note that the secrecy and confidentiality of what you confess to the priest is 100% guaranteed by the Sacramental/confessional seal by which a priest even under the threat of death must not divulge such matters under the pain of a latae sententiae excommunicationis As we journey in this year’s retreat I want you to resolve to always make a good confession each time you fall into sin. God is not interested on how many times you fall but on how many times you are able to rise again. St Paul tells us in Eph 5:3-5 that sin excludes us from the kingdom of Heaven as well ass makes us fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). Sin also enslaves us (John 8:34-35). The Father in the Story of the Prodigal son, God is always waiting for us to come back to our senses and attain the glory he kept for us as his sons through Jesus Christ. The sacrament of penance offers us such an opportunity to always run back to the Father like the prodigal son. Makes good use of this opportunity God offers you today because tomorrow may be too late. Remember no one knows neither the time nor the hour the Master of the vineyard will come for the recompense. Be ready at all times.

Concluding Remarks

We have exposed the crux of our discourse. At this junction, one cannot but comfortably make some evaluative conclusion, and so, make known one’s ‘locus standi’. In this connection, therefore, we make bold to submit that, in sacraments, the Church manifests itself as God’s saving will throughout history in a tangible, official, and unsurpassable way. The sacraments are God’s offer of salvation in the Church. When Christians receive the sacraments, they are responding to the offer that God has made. The Christian life is not a special kind of life but rather life as it really is, the life that God has given.[14]

The seven sacraments — Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick — are the life of the Catholic Church. Each sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. When we participate in them worthily, each provides us with graces, that is, with the life of God in our soul. In worship, we give to God that which we owe Him; in the sacraments, He gives us the graces necessary to live a truly human life. Suffices to quickly mention here that “the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life” (CCC 1324). It is the source from which we get the power to live a daily sacramental life, and it is the summit toward which we move as Christians, namely to a more intimate union with Christ.  The graces of the sacraments are always available and can be called upon constantly.  We are all called to be saints, to be holy men and women.  Who are the saints? They are those who responded daily to the graces they received, to God’s life in them.

Again, to live a sacramental life also means to be immersed in the life and prayer of the church.  The church’s liturgy is where this is most profoundly done. Full and active participation in the Mass is key.  This means being there both in body and in spirit. We must understand where we are, what we are doing and what is really going on in the Mass. The graces of the Mass are then supposed to be lived out throughout one’s life, as are the graces of all the other sacraments, for sacraments give us God’s life, and in their turn, call for response.

It is through the sacraments that the salvation wrought by the Paschal Mystery of Christ is made accessible to us here and now. We, too, can have a real share in Christ’s life, work and love. It is first and foremost through the sacraments that we do so.

We must always keep in mind that the Father, not human persons, is the source and goal of the liturgy. Liturgy is Christ’s work, not that of humanity. The Holy Spirit, not man and woman, is the “artisan of ‘God’s masterpieces,’ the sacraments of the new covenant” (CCC 1091). God is the author of the sacraments and liturgy. They are not humanly instituted rituals. This being the case should change the way we respond to these mysteries, and indeed understand that this demands nothing less than a response of faith. What comes to us from the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit to the Church in the sacraments is meant to elicit in us a response to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The sacramental economy includes such a response, what St. Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26).

As you celebrate your Youth Week this year 2016, I enjoin, challenge and exhort you to make good and proper use of the opportunities you have now to receive God’s graces and mercy through a better appreciation and more intense recourse to the Sacraments in the Church. Do not forget that as a Catholic Youth, you cannot live an authentically Christian life if the genuine sacramental life is lacking.

CYON…LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE!

[1] Originally a lecture presented to the General Assembly of Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria, Holy Trinity Quasi Parish, Ikpe Annang on their 2016 Youth Week celebration – Ikpe Annang, Akwa Ibom – Nigeria.

[2] B. COOKER, Sacraments and Sacramentality, Connecticut, 1988, p. 56.

[3] Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacraments; see DENZINGER, n. 1600.

[4] VATICAN II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 59; see also Thomas PAZHAYAMPALLIL, Pastoral Guide: Moral-Canonical-Liturgical: According to the New Code of Canon Law. Vol II, Sacraments, Christian Life and Sexuality, Bangalore: KJC Publications, 1984, p. 3.

[5] Cajetan EHIEM, Quoting St. Augustine, in his Unpublished Lecture Notes in the Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri.

[6] Ibid.

[7] K. RAHNER, The Church and the Sacraments, New York: Herder & herder, 1963, p. 41.

[8] Op. Cit., Thomas PAZHAYAMPALLIL, Pastoral Guide: Vol II, p. 5.

[9] K. BAKER, Fundamentals of Catholicism, Vol. 3, New York: Ignatius Press, 1983, pp. 166-167.

[10] A. NWABEKEE, Worship and Christian Living, Enugu: Calvary side Printing Press, 1995, p. 45.

[11] Ibid., p. 53.

[12] Op. Cit., K. BAKER, Fundamentals of Catholicism, pp. 172-173.

[13] Op. Cit., K. RAHNER, The Church and the Sacraments, p. 77.

[14] Cf. Karl RAHNER, Foundations of Christian Faith as paraphrased by Mark F. Fischer