What the Sacraments Really Are

Too many times we are trapped by our metaphors, and I’d like to try and dilate our vision by coming at the idea of sacraments from a couple of angles. The metaphor operating for most people about sacraments is that they “contain grace.” Containers are of various kinds: bottles contain beer, cans contain paint, gelcaps contain slow-release granules of cold medicine, and so we are tricked by our metaphor into thinking of the sacraments as containers of slow-release grace granules. But this “medicinal model” of sacrament has an unintended side-effect, and I don’t mean drowsiness. We all know two rules about medicine: don’t take it unless you’re sick, and don’t take too much of it. So sacraments are thought to be confined to certain times of our life, special times of life – birth, maturation, marriage, sickness and sin, a special one for priests, and one you can have weekly. Approach the sacraments when you want grace to come down to you.

Another metaphor in operation is this directional one I just used: saying that a sacrament is how God comes down to us. We use it because we are embodied creatures. But if we are spatially oriented creatures, then why not employ other spatial metaphors, as well? After all, God is present everywhere.

  • A sacrament is how God comes out to us – from the holy gates of the heavenly Jerusalem
  • A sacrament is how God comes over to us –from the Emperor’s Country beyond the sea
  • A sacrament is how God comes across to us – overarching from the parousia at the end of history to our present moment. (“How did God come across to you?”)
  • A sacrament is how God comes up to us – from the depths of our hearts, where “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42). He undergirds our being.  “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep” (Psalm 36).
  • A sacrament is how God comes through to us – what must God do to get through to us? Like Israel, our hard heart must be taken into the desert to be broken and reformed.
  • A sacrament is how God comes over to us – like a friend comes over from across the room.
  • A sacrament is how God comes under us – to raise us up to eternal life

You get the point – sacraments are how God comes around us and to us, to be by us and with us. So I’d like to offer an alternative view of sacrament intended to open up their place in our life.

Symeon the New Theologian was a Byzantine monk and mystic of the 11th century. He composed a series of Hymns to God, and there is one which creates a sensation I want to try to reproduce in you. Here is its central portion:

He called me to repentance
and I at once followed the Master.
When he ran, I also ran after him.
When he fled, I likewise pursued him,
as a hound chasing a rabbit.

And when the savior went far from me and hid himself,
I did not lose hope,
as though I lost him.
I did not turn back,
but right there in the place where I found myself,
I sat and groaned.

I wept and cried out to the Master hidden from me.
Then he appeared to me who had rolled in the dust and cried out.
He approached near to me.

On seeing him I jumped to my feet,
and I threw myself forward to grasp him
and he immediately fled.
I ran vigorously
and often, as I ran,
I succeeded in grasping the fringe of his garment.

He stopped a bit.
I was greatly filled with joy;
and he took off
and I again in pursuit.
So he would hide, then appear.

But I never turned back.
I never became completely cast down.
I never gave up the chase.

  Symeon, Hymns 154

One of the best definitions of theology I received, and the most amusing, was from a professor who said “theology is firing where the enemy was last sighted.” God will already be gone by the time I train my lexicon on Him. Before I can squint down the sighting barrel and let fly a proposition to capture Him in the net of my own reasoning, God will be long gone from behind the hill. An Orthodox prayer for after communion is addressed to Our Lady Theotokos and pleads, “Grant me compunction and contrition of heart, humility in my thoughts, and a release from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

This was Symeon’s experience of God, and maybe ours, too, if we’re honest. He “pursued God like a hound chasing a rabbit,” but God disappeared from his sight. At that point, all Symeon can do is sit down in that place where God was last sighted. He waits; he groans; he rolls in the dust; he weeps. (I think he is praying.) Then God appears as if within arm’s reach; almost as if Symeon can now feel God’s breath on his neck. On seeing God, he jumps to his feet but only succeeds in grasping the fringe of his garment. But the very chase itself fills Symeon with joy. And each time he runs after God, he goes a little further toward heaven. Each time God appears to Symeon, it is to draw him further up and further in toward the beatitude that is planned for him.

My point is that Christ does not give us the sacraments instead of Himself, he gives us Himself sacramentally. The sacraments do not stand between us and Jesus like a wall, they extend from Jesus to us like a bridge – they cross the centuries and lift us out of historical time and set us into an eternal encounter.

It begins in baptism. The font is the uterus of mother Church from which new Christians are born when her water breaks. With the baptismal character imprinted on a person comes the right of membership within Christ’s body, and the obligation to make the eucharistic sacrifice. But life such as this is not only inflowing, it must also become outflowing in an apostolate, and this is recognized in the sacrament of confirmation, which makes a person Christ-like in self-giving charity. The priesthood of Christ that makes this possible extends from the historical cross to the present day through an apostolic succession. The sacrament of ordination composes an hierarchical structure that connects members of the body, like ligaments connect bones, and nourishes them, like the circulatory system brings blood to the tissues of the body. When the life of the body is threatened by sickness, a sacrament is available to heal the Christian, and when the life of the soul is threatened by sin, a sacrament stands ready to encourage or re-engender charity. And marriage is sacramentalized to raise the sacred hearthfire of the home to be a road to holiness and a sign of the mystical union Christ has with his bride. Eternal life must be nourished on the Eternal One himself at the table of the Eucharist where his body and blood, soul and divinity are given for our sustenance.

And all this requires a response, which is my closing point. Our life must be disciplined as Ordo Amoris in order to integrate or conform to the sacramental bestowal of divine life. The sacraments are unmerited, but they are not automatic! They call for a response to grace by the recipient of grace. To the divine energy of God must correspond the human synergy of each person. This God-man has made the cosmos symbolic: he has tied together the disparate elements of heaven and earth, angel and human, the Uncreated and the created. But these acts of unification are supposed to be repeated in you. The seven sacraments of the Church are not exceptions to your daily life, they permeate your daily life with the Kingdom, the way perfume suffuses the water into which it is dropped, the way your cells are oxygenated by the air you breathe, the way the dawn colors the landscape. The church building cannot contain the sacraments: they are explosions from the altar that spiritualize everything. 

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David W. Fagerberg is professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His field of study is liturgical theology. He is author of Liturgical Dogmatics (Ignatius Press), and The Liturgical Cosmos (Emmaus Press).

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