Celebrating Sacraments, J. Stoutzenburger
Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments, L. Boff

Levels of Meaning

Language can be used on two levels: the literal— describing things exactly as they are, and the symbolic— expressing a deeper meaning. Symbolic language uses figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, and analogy. Symbolic language is necessary to describe the intangible aspects of human experience: emotions, intuitions, spirituality, and virtues. Symbolic language is therefore very useful when communicating about religious faith.

Just as there are two levels of meaning in language there are also two levels of meaning operating within reality at all times: the natural and obvious on the one hand, and the deeper, spiritual, and less obvious on the other. It is possible for the most mundane and ordinary object to become something profound because it is associated with a person we love deeply, or a loving act someone performed for us. (Ex. A half-empty bottle of perfume.)

Some people see the world as full of wonder and mystery but do not believe in God and therefore do not associate these wonders with a Divine Creator (ex. Maslow). People of faith see the wonders and mysteries of the natural world as evidence of the existence of a Divine Creator (ex. Aquinas). To people of faith the world can be said to be “sacramental,”  meaning simply that it communicates the presence of God to us, that it is a “vehicle of divine grace”  (Boff 5).

Symbols and Signs

A sign, in general, is any object that represents something else. Signs have only one meaning. Ex. The STOP sign, a FOR SALE sign.

Symbols are more complex signs. Symbols can have more than one meaning, for example a candle or a rock. Symbols have the ability to communicate to us at a deeper level and often on more than one level at one time (Stoutzenberger 25-28).

Because symbols are capable of having more than one meaning, and are  capable of evoking a deep, personal response, symbols are very useful for expressing faith and for religious rituals.


Rituals are symbolic actions that help us concretely express our beliefs or values.  Ex. a handshake; the sign of the cross; the laying on of hands. The practice of rituals goes back to the behavior of our ancient ancestors who apparently acted out their hunt in ritual dances, and buried their dead in ritual ways   (Paleolithic Era).

sacraments  with a small “s”

In the 5th century, St. Augustine actually counted as many as 304 sacraments. Augustine believed that anything could be a sacrament because all of creation was a reflection of God. This broad meaning of sacrament was current up until the 12th century. According to this view even apparently ordinary events or objects can become vehicles for God’s grace.

Boff is using the same meaning of sacrament when he says that anything can be a “sacrament” in the sense of a window through which we see the deeper reality at work in the world, the reality of God’s loving presence or grace (Boff 5). “The world is a sacrament of God.” (8) “In a sacrament the transcendent breaks through into the immanent”  (24). But Boff points out that in order to see something as a sacrament we must be looking with the eyes of faith.

Why SEVEN sacraments?

If all of creation is potentially sacramental then why do Catholics identify only seven?

The official identification of SEVEN Sacraments did not occur until the 13th century in the Council of Lyons and was again affirmed at The Council of Trent in 1545-1563 in response to the reformers claim that there were only two true Sacraments (Stoutzenberger 116).

Jesus himself is really the Supreme Sacrament because it is in Jesus that the reality of God has been made most visible. Although Jesus did not create the Seven Sacraments they can all be said to flow from his actions and teachings.

They are all based on the understanding of life and death that Jesus gave us: that all of life is sacred; that children are especially close to God’s heart; that God is present to us in and through our everyday lives; that eating together can be a sacred experience; that God does not send us physical suffering but wishes to help us through it; that death is not just an end but also a beginning.

So, again, Why Seven?

There are seven because the Church identified seven special or pivotal moments in human life, moments in which people become most especially aware of the sacredness and the giftedness of life (Boff ch.9).  These special moments are not the only moments in our lives in which God is present;  the number is not the essential thing.  For example the diaconate and the episcopate are also real sacraments, and Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist are really dimensions of the same sacrament of initiation.

There are seven simply because these are the ones that our Church identified.

The Pivotal Moments:

Baptism — birth/welcoming

Eucharist — meals/family/community-building

Reconciliation — forgiveness in relationships with others and with God

Confirmation — maturity, growing up

Marriage — commitment in love to one other person

Holy Orders — commitment in love to serve God and the  whole community

Anointing of the Sick — sickness/death/finitude

Characteristics of the Seven Sacraments

  • The Sacraments presuppose faith: without faith a Sacrament says nothing, it is just an empty ceremony.
  • The Sacraments express faith: in and through a Sacrament people express themselves to God.
  • The Sacraments nurture faith: they help us stay connected to our faith roots and to our faith community.
  • The Sacraments call for ongoing conversion: we need to keep turning to God. The sacraments are special grace filled moments in a life which should be a constant search for God’s presence and God’s will for us.
  • The Sacraments make the “church” visibly present. They remind us of our duty as a member of the Church community to not simply “receive” grace in the sacraments but to “be” grace for others. They remind us of our own need for a community of support. We cannot easily make our marriages work on our own, we need the support of the whole community.  We also need the whole community to be involved in the faith development of our children, through their example especially (Boff 83-5).

 Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist

When did they become separated and why?

Originally the bishop performed all baptisms. But as converts grew in number in the 2nd century, priests (originally assistants to the bishops) began to perform baptisms and later the bishop would come visit and confirm the sacrament with an anointing of special oil and a prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This ritual later became known as confirmation. And was gradually accepted as a separate sacrament.  Both rituals involved adults not children.

Infant baptism developed by the 5th century for theological reasons—Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, and practical reasons—thousands of new converts following the example (and later the order) of Emperor Constantine to become Christian.  The bishop could not possibly deal with all these infant baptisms so confirmation could not take place at the same time as baptism. Children were not given Eucharist at Baptism. It was withheld until they could understand what they were receiving.  In the West, Eucharist began to be given before confirmation , which was put off even further.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches (ex. Greek Orthodox) still receive all three sacraments at once as infants.

 Eucharist: A sacred meal

The words of the Eucharist  were spoken by Jesus in the context of a solemn Jewish meal, a Passover seder.  The Passover seder remembered and celebrated God’s saving action in the Exodus from Egypt. It was essentially a meal of thanksgiving. Jesus changed the meaning of his last Passover supper with his Apostles by identifying himself with the bead and wine. The name Christians give to the Sacrament based on this meal is Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving.”

It is not surprising that Jesus chose a meal for this important teaching because he often used a banquet to talk about the Kingdom, and he acted on his teaching about the universality of the Kingdom by sharing table fellowship with recognized sinners.

The significance of the Last Supper words of Jesus become apparent only after his death and resurrection.  The invitation to “eat” and “drink” represent the invitation to participate in Jesus service to others, his suffering, and ultimately his death and resurrection. Our sacrifices, our sufferings, become joined with those of the community and with Jesus’ own suffering as we “break bread” together.

The “do this” invitation is not simply “share bread and wine in my name,” it is “live as I have lived, and even be willing to die as I have died.” The author of John’s Gospel makes this point very clear when he omits the words of institution, “This is my body….do this in memory of me” in favor of the action of Jesus washing feet.

The development of the Eucharist

Over the first three centuries the Eucharist evolved from a fellowship meal  into a ritual meal with the sharing of just the bread and wine.

In the 4th century the church went public and the ritual developed into an elaborate ceremony which took place in special buildings rather than people’s homes. The priest began to do more of the actions and the people participated less and less.

By the Middle Ages the community was just observing the priest in silence and the bread became the supreme symbol rather than bread and wine. The most important moment of the mass became the moment when the host was elevated for people to see above the head of the priest.  The table become an altar set against a wall. No one could see what was happening on the altar. Latin had been the official language of the Empire but by the Middle Ages few people understood it, yet it remained the language of the mass until Vatican II. The Council of Trent in the 16th Century standardized the prayers of the mass and little changed until Vatican II.

 The “real presence” debate

All Christians believe Jesus is present in some way in the Eucharist.  The debate is whether the presence is symbolic only, or somehow more than symbolic.  Catholics have believed that the Eucharist is transformed into the “body and blood of Christ.”   But, obviously, we don’t mean this in the physical science sense.  That would make us cannibals.

The traditional word naming this change comes from the theology of Thomas Aquinas. The word is “transubstantiation.” According to this theology the material elements (bread and wine) do not change, but the substance (meaning / inner essence) does change. The problem with our theology is that the language of  transubstantiation is based on Aristotle’s distinction between  “substance and accidents”  which we no longer use.  They are archaic. Aquinas was not describing a physical change but a metaphysical* change.  Jesus’ presence is not a physical presence in the literal sense; we cannot go up and shake his hand.

So what DO Catholics believe? Firstly, we believe that Christ is present more than symbolically.  Somehow Christ is present in the present, and in an active way not just in the sense of a memory. Participants in the Eucharist enter into the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus by acknowledging and repenting for our sins and the suffering we have caused (spiritual “death”) and then by welcoming Jesus into our lives again and committing to living  “as Jesus” in the community (spiritual “resurrection”/ new life).

Vatican II taught that Christ is present not just in the bread and wine of the Eucharist but in FOUR ways:

  • in the bread and wine (“this is my body..”)
  • in the faith of the people  (we are the Body of Christ  )
  • in the words of the scriptures (the Word of God)
  • in the actions/role of the priest  (the one who takes the role of Christ at the Last Supper, like an actor on the stage takes on the role of the character being played)

* metaphysical: of or relating to the transcendent; supernatural

The Challenge of the Eucharist

The Challenge of the Eucharist is for all of us to truly live out our role as  the “Body of Christ,” to be “food” for the spiritually hungry and to give food to the physically hungry. To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins we should become like Christ.

“For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”