As Catholics, we have a multiplicity of prayers and devotions to help us grow closer to God. For example, we have the rosary, the liturgy of the hours, the chaplet of divine mercy, and devotions to all the many saints we have in our Church. However, among these spiritual practices, the sacraments have pride of place. We believe that they are the principal means by which God gives us his grace, so they should play a central role in our spiritual lives.
But why is that? What makes these seven rituals so important? To many, this may seem arbitrary, but it actually has a firm theological basis. God meets us in a special way in the sacraments, a way that no other prayer or devotion can match.
Spirit and Truth
To see why, let’s turn to the fourth chapter of John, where we read about a long conversation between Jesus and a woman from Samaria. In this conversation, Jesus says something that hides a deeper meaning in plain sight:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.’” (John 4:21, 23)
To understand this passage, we need to know a bit about the Samaritans. The ancient Jews considered them at best half-breeds of mixed Israelite and Gentile ancestry, and there was great animosity between these two groups. Samaritan worship and beliefs were similar to those of the Jews, but there were some important differences too. For example, the Jewish temple was in Jerusalem, while the Samaritans worshiped at a different spot, a place called Mt. Gerizim.
With that background knowledge, something about this passage should strike us as a bit dissonant. Jesus tells the woman that there will come a time when people will worship God neither on Mt. Gerizim (“this mountain”) nor in Jerusalem, which is easy enough to understand, but what comes next is puzzling. We would expect him to contrast the Jewish and Samaritan temples with another temple, another place, but that is not what he does. Instead, he contrasts them with the way people will worship God. This means that the new temple for Christians is not a specific place. Rather, it is wherever we worship in spirit and truth.
The Sacraments and the Spirit
Now, the text doesn’t spell out what exactly that means, but the rest of John gives us some important clues. Elsewhere in the fourth Gospel, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13), and the similarity with the phrase “spirit and truth” is not coincidental. No, by using that phrase, Jesus is saying that his followers will worship by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, and to understand what that entails, we have to look at three key passages in John that mention the Holy Spirit.
First, there is a verse in chapter three that connects the Holy Spirit to baptism. He says:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
Being born “of water and the Spirit” is a veiled reference to baptism. In that sacrament, we’re born again by the power of the Holy Spirit through a washing with water.
Next, let’s turn to chapter six of John’s Gospel, where Jesus gives a long sermon known as the Bread of Life Discourse. In this sermon, he calls himself the “bread of life” numerous times (for example, John 6:35, 48), and he ends by repeatedly telling his audience that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He says things like “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53) and “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Afterwards, some people question Jesus about these words, and he responds, “ It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). This means that we do not need to eat his body and drink his blood in its then-current, earthly form; for instance, we are not supposed to take a bite out of his arm or his leg. Rather, the Spirit will enable Jesus’ followers to consume his flesh and blood in an entirely new (but still very real) way, and this new way is the Eucharist. In this sacrament, the Holy Spirit makes Jesus’ body and blood present under the appearances of bread and wine so we can consume him without offending our senses.
Finally, we can look at one of the final chapters of John. After Jesus’ resurrection, he appears to his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). These words refer to the sacrament of confession, and once again it is connected with the Holy Spirit. When we confess our sins to a priest, it is the Spirit who enables him to extend God’s mercy to us.
Our New Temples
When we put this all together, we can see that worship in spirit and truth refers to baptism, the Eucharist, and confession, all three of which are made effective by the power of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, while John only mentions these three sacraments, we Catholics can extrapolate from this and say that all seven of them are worship in spirit and truth. All of the sacraments are made effective by the Holy Spirit, so they all constitute the new worship that Jesus says his followers will one day give to God.
In other words, the sacraments are our new temples, and this is why they are so important to us. In ancient Israel, the temple in Jerusalem was God’s house, the place where he dwelled (1 Kings 8:13, 1 Chronicles 17:12), and the ancient Israelites went there when they wanted to encounter him (Psalm 63:1-2). Likewise, the sacraments are his new dwelling place. He is present in a special way whenever we celebrate them, so they have pride of place among Catholic prayers and devotions. Because of this, we should make them a priority in our spiritual lives and try to receive them as often as we can.