The Word Among Us

January 2012 Issue

A Sign for All to See

The Church As Sacrament

A Sign for All to See: The Church As Sacrament

We all know the seven sacraments of the church: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. But did you know that there are two other sacraments? Did you also know that these two sacraments, while not part of the “official seven,” are the source for the seven sacraments and the entire reason why these seven sacraments exist in the first place?

These two sacraments are not liturgical acts, like Baptism or Confirmation. They aren’t “things” we do at all. One is an individual person, and the other is a group of people. One is eternal, and the other spans centuries of history. One is in heaven, and the other is on the earth. One is human and divine, and the other is human but filled with divine grace.

Have you figured it out yet? The first is Jesus, and the second is the church. While it may seem like just wordplay to call Jesus and the church sacraments, some very important truths of our faith are con­tained in these words—truths that will help us reverence the church on a deeper level. So let’s unpack what all this means.

What Is a Sacrament? The tradi­tional definition of a sacrament tells us that it is an outward sign of an inward grace instituted by the Lord for our sanctification. More than just a symbol or representation, a sacrament actually brings about the very thing that it signifies. So while pouring water over a person may sym­bolize an interior cleansing of the soul, in the Sacrament of Baptism, that action of washing really and actually does cleanse a person of original sin. Similarly, when a bishop anoints a person and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit,” the sacred chrism used in that anointing actually does bring about a deeper release of the Spirit in that person’s life.

In the sacraments, God does what he has always done. He uses ordinary things—bread, water, oil, wine—and everyday words—“I baptize you,” “I absolve you”—to communicate his grace to us. Throughout the Bible, we see God using the tangible, vis­ible elements of our world to reveal his mysteries and his plans to us. He spoke to Moses in a burning bush. He used a rainbow to remind us of his promises. He wrote his command­ments on tablets of stone and made a golden ark his dwelling place.

In a sense, all the words, deeds, and signs of God that we read about in the Old Testament have a sacra­mental element to them. All of the magnificence of creation—the birds and the trees and the sky and the stars—are sacramental. We could even say that there is a sacramen­tal element to things like reading Scripture, praying the rosary, and reaching out to others in love. They all disclose God’s presence and his mind. They all have the capacity to bring us closer to him.

The seven sacraments of the church stand out not because they are the only ways God works but because they are the foundation for our entire life in Christ. Without these seven sacraments, we would find it much harder to receive God’s grace in all the other ways he offers it to us.

Jesus: The Primordial Sacra­ment. As wonderful as all these signs, words, and acts of God are, none of them can compare to Jesus himself. He is the source of every sacrament and sign and symbol. What’s more, he is the goal, the very reason why God pours out all the grace that he does. All the sacraments are rooted in him and find their power in him. He is the one who really baptizes, con­firms, and reconciles. He is the one who binds a man and wife in mar­riage and ordains a priest and heals the sick. And of course, he is the one who gives us the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

But there is more here than Jesus as the prime giver of the sacraments. He himself is the primary sacrament. He is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, and yet he came to us in visible, bodily form. He took upon himself the very elements of creation—flesh and blood. And it was in his own bodily form— through his words and deeds, his teachings and miracles—that he revealed the gospel. It was through his death—a bodily death—that he revealed God’s boundless love for us, releasing us from sin and opening the gates of heaven for us. He is the highest, deepest, and most sacred revelation of God.

Jesus is not just a sign of God’s redemptive love. He brings us God’s redemptive love. He makes God’s redemptive love present to us. As the theologian Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx put it, Jesus is the “primordial sacrament.” In his body, he is both the sign of our redemption and he brings about our redemption. He himself is the font of all the grace God wants to pour on us.

The Sacrament of the Church. We know that after he rose from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven, where he will remain until he comes again in glory. But this doesn’t mean that all the grace available when he walked the earth is gone for good. No, we have the miracle of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the first believers and empowered them to spread the gospel to the world. The grace of Jesus, our sacrament of redemption, isn’t gone! Through the Spirit, all that grace and power, all that love and mercy and wisdom, is still present—in the church. Now we have the church as the sacrament of Christ. Through this gathering of believers, through this congregation of the baptized, Jesus continues to be present to the world.

The church is a sacrament because she is the visible, tangible witness of the presence of God. Like all the other sacraments, the church is both a sign of God’s grace and the agent of that grace. As the gathering of the redeemed, the church is a sign to the world of the new creation that Jesus made possible. And at the same time, it is through the church that we can all receive Jesus’ redemption and become part of the new creation that the church reveals.

Another theologian, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, once explained it this way: “If Christ is the sacrament of God, the church is for us the sac­rament of Christ. She represents him, in the full and ancient meaning of the term. She really makes him present.” To see the church as a worshipping community, to see its members teach, minister, and evangelize, is to see Jesus himself at work in the world. The church doesn’t just reveal Jesus to the world; it actually brings Jesus to the world. It is Jesus himself, work­ing through the church, who touches lives, heals broken hearts, and saves those who are lost in sin.

This connection between Jesus and the church is so deep that the Fathers of Vatican II compared it to the mystery of the Incarnation: “As the assumed [human] nature, insep­arably united to him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a somewhat similar way, does the social structure of the church serve the Spirit of Christ who vivifies it, in the building up of the body (On the Church, 8). Physically, we may see just the “social structure” of the church, with its hierarchy, its minis­ters and ministries, and its network of parishes and dioceses. But in our hearts, we can tell that the Holy Spirit is giving life to this structure, filling it with divine grace, and empowering it to do nothing less than raise people from spiritual death and bring them to the gates of heaven.

A Call to Repentance and Exaltation. All of this talk of sac­raments can sound theoretical. But it has its practical side as well. The more we see the church as the sac­rament of Christ’s presence in the world, the more we will be moved to examine our own attitudes about the church.

First, let’s ask: “Have I allowed a narrow or disrespectful attitude toward the church to enter into my mind? Have I reduced the church to a merely human reality? Has recent news of difficulties and scandals caused me to lose sight of the church as the bride of Christ?” If we see such an approach coloring our thoughts or actions, let’s repent and ask God to strengthen our view of the church.

Let’s also ask: “Do I love the church as Jesus loves the church?” In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes that Jesus cherishes the church. He says that Jesus has already pre­sented the church to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27).

According to Paul, the church is nothing less than the beloved, exalted bride of Christ. And just as Jesus glo­ries in his bride, he wants us to do the same. He wants us to say: “She is beautiful. She is holy. Not even the gates of hell will prevail against her.” We know that none of us lives up to the beauty and perfection that Jesus sees in the church. But no one’s failings or sins should keep us from loving and honoring the church. After all, as Paul makes clear, the church is so much more than any of us.

Brothers and sisters, we are part of God’s holy people! This amazing priv­ilege brings with it a host of blessings as well as a high calling. Let’s take hold of all that Jesus wants to give us through his church. Let’s open our hearts to the grace that has the power to change our hearts and change the world!