What sacraments reveal best of all is the conviction that God's loving intention is to save humanity, not to judge or condemn us.

There are plenty of ways to talk about the significance of sacraments. Among the most compelling is that they are actions which reveal and conceal God. This doesn't imply that seven, and only seven, actions have this sacred power. Quite the opposite: the sacraments listed by the church (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders) remind us how many ways God seeks to be known to us. 

So we find God at work in welcome and in mission and at meals. We experience God in hours of forgiveness and healing. We anticipate God in loving relationships and the call to service. As theologian Mark Francis says, what sacraments reveal best of all is the conviction that God's loving intention is to save humanity, not to judge or condemn us. This intention isn't just the basis for sacraments, but for the church's existence altogether.

How did so many of us manage to miss this beautiful idea? Chances are we learned our lessons about sacraments without ever appreciating their meaning. The traditional definition of a sacrament we were taught is that it's an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. This formula, popularized at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), was an outgrowth of an era that loved classifying things—especially since the Protestant Reformation was in the process of challenging every practice of the institutional church. Numbering the sacraments and explaining how they impart grace (by imprinting an indelible character or seal on the soul, for one) became the lesson plan. Reciting lists and formulas became more important than understanding what these symbolic actions communicate.

A sacrament is an event emerging from mystery: it bears a hidden component of divine love and power manifesting in space and time. Saint Augustine preferred to describe a sacrament rather than to define it. He called it a "visible word." This fits more with contemporary theology, which names the incarnation of Jesus as the first sacrament, and the church as the second. If Jesus is the sacrament of God—revealing and concealing the "visible word"– and the church is the sacrament of Jesus, you and I might be rightly called sacraments of the church. We begin to understand why thoughtful participation in seven sacramental moments of church life is so significant. They train our vision to see where God is concealed, and seeks to be revealed, everywhere life takes us.

Scriptures: Proverbs 8:22-36; Wisdom 6:22; Matthew 11:25; 13:10-17; John 1:1-5, 14; Romans 16:25-27; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:7-14; 4:11-16; Revelation 7:2-8

Books: The Sacraments: An Interdisciplinary and Interactive Study, by Joseph Martos (Liturgical Press, 2009). The Sacraments and Justice, Doris Donnelly, ed. (Liturgical Press, 2014).

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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