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Deacon-structing Sacraments | Part 3: Mysteries, Presence, and Longings

Deacon Pedro

Sunday, July 8, 2018

A priest elevates the host in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Photo: Oleg Ilyushin
Last time we saw a bit of the mechanics of each Sacrament. We also saw that each Sacrament is instituted by Christ because each Sacrament makes Christ present.
Every Sacrament also points to a mystery. (In fact, the word Sacrament is a direct translation of the Greek word mysterion, and Sacraments are called mysteries in the Eastern Rite Churches.) They are not mysteries because we can’t explain them or because we don’t know the answer, like a murder mystery, but because there are no words to express them because they are so amazing. They are a mystery as an answer to a question that has more meaning than we can put into words. This is another reason why we need signs.


We know Christ instituted the Sacraments because these mysteries are the seven ways in which He makes himself present in our lives. These are the ways in which Christ satisfies all the longings of the human heart: as our brother who welcomes us into His Body, the Church, and gives us God’s own Life (the longing to belong); as the one who forgives our sins (the longing to be forgiven); as our Daily Bread and Sacrifice (the hunger longing); as the one who sends us “two-by-two” and calls us to be mature Christians (the longing to make a difference); as the one who heals us (longing to be healed); as the one who is our servant, priest, and teacher (the longing for Truth); as the one who is Love, exemplified in the love that should exist between a husband and wife (longing for love); and as the one who welcomes us into Life everlasting with Him (longing for eternal life and to be with Him forever). I can’t come up with any other ways in which Christ is present in our lives (or any other longings). That’s what we mean when we say He instituted them.

But remember those mysteries?

Well, Jesus also makes himself present in these mysteries: the fact that our sins are forgiven, clean slate; the fact that a man and woman become one flesh; the fact that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. I like to think of these mysteries as “metaphysical occurrences”. (Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts such as being, substance, identity, time, and space. So a metaphysical change would be a change to the substance or being of something). These metaphysical changes actually take place. And each metaphysical occurrence reflects a greater mystery. Get it?
Christ guaranteed that He will make himself present in those mysteries during those moments in our lives. So that’s the bottom line: We know what a Sacrament is when we ask the question, “where is the guarantee that Christ will be present?”
It’s true that Jesus didn’t come up with all the ritual: the form and matter of the Sacraments. The Church has perfected the Sacraments as our understanding has evolved. (Remember, the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church – in all its imperfection. God’s revelation to us is not limited to the Bible and to the time of Jesus and the Apostles.) The Church has “ritualised” the Sacraments in order to help us. God doesn’t need the ritual; we do! The ritual is the visible sign that shows our response to the action that God is carrying out.
Can you receive God’s Grace outside of the Sacraments? Is Christ present in our lives outside these “rituals”? By all means! But how many of us are constantly remembering how Christ is present in our lives, especially in those important moments?

We need reminders!

Plus, the Church is a “we”. It is not a “me”. There is something to say about how we celebrate the Sacraments as a community.
Saint Augustine thought there were about 30 Sacraments including the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, naming marriage as a Sacrament of supreme importance (which is really interesting because Pope John Paul II said that Marriage is the primordial Sacrament- because it existed before the Fall). 12th-century theologian Peter Lombard fixed the number of Sacraments at seven, and it became dogma at the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. St. Thomas Aquinas accepted the seven Sacraments that Lombard had listed. The major change in our understanding of the Sacraments is from “this leads to God” (which can be used to define a Sacramental) to “this is an encounter with God” (because Christ is made present).


A Sacramental is something instituted by the Church that points towards God. A difference between a Sacrament and a Sacramental is that Sacraments are instituted by Christ and Sacramentals are instituted by the Church. But also, the Sacramental only points towards God, but in the Sacrament, Christ is made present; God’s very Life is received. That’s a major difference!
Examples of Sacramentals are holy water, a Rosary, a Scapular, a devotional like the Stations of the Cross, a statue, even the church building. Of course, many things in life can be sacramental (small s), in that they point towards God or they reveal something about God to us: nature or friendship, for example. The wedding rings my wife and I share are sacramental in that sense. But not to confuse those sacramentals with Sacramentals instituted by the Church.

In Summary

So, Sacraments are an outward sign, instituted by Christ, of an inward or invisible Grace. A Grace or Graces are always offered with a Sacrament (but not always received; it depends on the disposition of the person receiving the Sacrament). Christ is always made present to us in the Sacraments. All Sacraments fulfill a deep longing of our existence. All Sacraments point to a mystery, and in all Sacraments a metaphysical occurrence takes place, and through the Sacraments we are able to be in communion with God. Adam and Eve didn’t need the Sacraments because they already were in communion with God; they had God’s Life. They were “in the Kingdom” - until that little incident with the serpent and the fruit of the tree. But God promises that He will be with us. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.
Jesus is the ultimate Sacrament because that is what a Sacrament is: the coming together of the human with the divine. And that’s the most awesome mystery because all the longings of the human person are satisfied by God.
This is the conclusion of a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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