THE SACRAMENTS SIGNS OF LIFE
The present division among the followers of Christ is not found only in Africa. Many of the sects that we find today originated in the western world, especially in North America. Before corning to Africa, I served for a while in a parish in the impoverished inner city of Chicago in the United States. While I was there, I frequently met a local preacher from a small Christian sect. Every time we met he would attack the Catholic faith. One day he accused me and the other ministers of the parish of cheating the people by telling them all sorts of lies about the power of our magic rituals, especially regarding the forgiveness of sins. I tried to correct his view about the sacramental life of the Church but to no avail. He would not and could not listen.
Later, I met other separated brothers who were for ever accusing the Church in the same way: ‘You are abusing the good faith of the people and you lead them astray by doing actions against the Bible.’
The Sacraments of the Church Have Been Given to Us by Christ
The liturgy of the Catholic Church has nothing to do with magic. On the contrary, in praising and praying to God in its public worship the Church is obeying a direct command of Jesus (1 Cor 11:26-27).
The sacraments of the Church have been given to us by Christ. The word sacrament comes from Latin and it means sign or instrument. A sacrament is thus a sign of the presence of the Lord in his Church and an instrument used by God to save his people. A sacrament is the outward and visible sign of the invisible grace given by God for our salvation. These signs have many meanings. Sacraments are signs of faith; they are signs of our worship of God; the unity of the Church is expressed visibly in the celebration of the sacraments; and sacraments are signs of the real presence of Christ in the Church.
Sacraments are signs of faith
The believer has faith in realities that cannot be seen: communion with God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the bond of a married couple, etc. The sacraments become a way of showing our faith in these realities in a visible way.
Sacraments are signs of our worship of God
All of us can and should pray in private. However, as a community of believers we also need to have moments of community prayer in order to support each other. By coming together in the celebration of the sacraments we pray together as a community and we strengthen our faith.
The unity of the Church is expressed visibly in the celebration of the sacraments
Catholic means ‘universal’ and indeed we can see this openness to all the peoples of the earth any time we come together to pray. When we participate in the celebration of a sacrament we state that what unites us is our common faith in God the Creator, Jesus the Saviour, and the Holy Spirit our strength. The division between Christians can only be healed if we learn to accept this common faith and allow the working of God in our midst.
Sacraments are signs of the real presence of Christ in the Church
Saint Leo the Great used to say that “since the Lord is no longer visible among us, everything of his that was visible has passed into the sacraments.”
We can also consider the sacraments as steps on our journey of faith. In fact, each one of the sacraments is built around listening to the Word of the Lord, answering this in faith and choosing the life that the believer is called to implement in his or her daily life
A. BORN IN WATER AND THE SPIRIT
The first sacrament is baptism. Through baptism we enter into communion with the Church. This sacrament is a sign of repentance; and the pouring of water on the person is the external sign of purification from sin. This kind of ritual was known even before Jesus started teaching. The Gospels tell us about John the Baptist and his baptism of purification.
To understand the difference between John’s baptism and the sacrament instituted by Jesus it is good to turn to the Word of God. In Acts 19:1-7 we find an episode from the life of the first Christians. Saint Paul went to Ephesus where he met a group of the faithful. They claimed to be baptized; however, they had never received the Holy Spirit. Paul realized they had been baptized by John. After teaching them about Jesus, he baptized them in the name of the Lord so that they could receive the Holy Spirit. Christian baptism is then a sign of repentance, but also a sign of new life. A life in which we are guided by the Spirit of God.
Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5).
The Bible Says “He who believes and is baptised will be saved.” Why do Catholics therefore baptise children who cannot choose and who are without sin?
To interpret the Bible in the right way it is necessary to read all the relevant texts in order to avoid a partial view. Jesus said that unless we are born through water and the Spirit we cannot enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5). The apostles used to baptize the whole family, which included children (Acts 16:15; 16:31). Baptism takes away sin/ but this is not its sole purpose. Jesus did not commit sin, so why did he receive baptism? The answer is because baptism gives the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:8; Mk 1:10).
Baptism is also the way of entering the Church. Even those who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit need baptism to be part of the Church (Acts 10:44-48).
Why does the Catholic Church not baptise people in rivers just as Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan?
A good Christian is not obliged to do literally everything Jesus did in order to show his willingness to follow him. Besides, Jesus did not give direct instructions on how to perform baptism. He himself received the pouring of the water inside the river and the Holy Spirit outside (Mk 1:10). The apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit in the room where they had celebrated the Last Supper (Acts 2:3-4). The Acts of the Apostles (2:41) tell us that on the day of Pentecost 3,000 people were baptized in Jerusalem, yet in the holy city there is no river. The prison master and his family (Acts 16:33) were baptized in prison. Clearly the apostles baptized by pouring water on the head of the person. Immersion in a river was used only if there was a river close by. What is important is to receive baptism, the way of administering it is not of fundamental importance.
B. OUR SHIELD OF FAITH
Confirmation is the sacrament which fulfils Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit on all his followers, in order to enable them to be strong enough to confess publicly the name of Jesus as Lord and Redeemer:
“But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Because of its close association with baptism, this sacrament was often given at the same time as baptism. But since the beginning, the Church has been aware of the distinction between the two sacraments. In fact, in Acts 8:14-17 we see the deacon Philip calling the apostles Peter and John to come to confer the Holy Spirit on those whom he had already baptized.
Why do we need Confirmation if the Holy Spirit is received at Baptism?
It is true that the Holy Spirit is given in baptism as well as in confirmation. But these sacraments have different functions. At baptism we are made members of the Church, while at confirmation we are given the strength to witness our faith.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18).
C. THE BREAD OF LIFE
Why do Catholics believe that Christ is sacrificed every time they celebrate the Eucharist? Was He not sacrificed once and for all on the Cross?
The gospels agree that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, with which he offered himself in a bloodless manner. The sacrifice on the cross was a perfect sacrifice and was accomplished once and for all (Heb 10:10). St Paul tells us, however, that the ritual sacrifice Jesus instituted during the Last Supper is to be perpetuated following the order of the Lord Jesus:
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me!” (l Cor 11:23-26; see also Lk 22:19).
The Eucharist is truly a sacrifice where Jesus offers himself for the salvation of the world. This is what he taught us.
In the bread and wine offered at Mass surely Jesus is present only symbolically!
In John 6:52 we see that the Jews could not accept the truth of what Jesus was saying:
The Jews quarrelled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?”(Jn 6:52).
Jesus answered them very clearly:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (In 6:53-58).
Since the beginning the first Christian community firmly believed in these truths, and did not think of Jesus’ presence as being purely symbolic.
D. THE EXPERIENCE OF MERCY
One of the questions Catholics are often asked is about the Sacrament of penance. Why should you confess your sins to another human being? Can’t you ask God directly for forgiveness?
To answer these questions it is sufficient to listen to the Word of God:
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18).
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:21-23).
“Many of those who had become believers came forward and openly acknowledged their former practices” (Acts 19:18).
It is clear that Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father so the apostles were to be sent by Jesus. Thus, when Catholics confess their sins to a priest, what they are actually doing is recognizing their misdeeds towards God. It is God who forgives through the priest.
This sacrament is rightly called ‘penance’ rather than ‘confession’ because there is more to it than just confessing one’s sins. By participating in a sacrament the faithful receive ‘grace’, that is the strength the Lord gives his disciples to follow him more steadily. Secondly, penance is not merely a private affair. We believe that the Church is the body of Christ (Col l:18), and so even though the faithful confess their sins in private, they are actually taking part in the communal plea for mercy that the Church offers daily to God. Thirdly, the Sacrament of Penance restores the state of purity given at baptism. Before confessing his sins, the Christian must repent his mistakes. A change of heart and attitude toward God is called for. This change is demonstrated by the act of penance. With the absolution, we enter again into full communion with the Church; our communion which has been fractured by sin is now made whole again and we can start following Jesus once more. He came to call not the virtuous, but sinners. It is no wonder then that the preferred name for this sacrament today is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Some say they are saved, that Baptism is enough for the forgiveness of sins, and that to believe in Christ is all we need to be saved. Is it true?
No, it is not true. Faith alone is not enough for salvation. A Christian is called to obey Jesus’ revelation by living the life of a follower of Christ.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
“So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
Although it is true, of course, that Jesus has saved us, no one can claim to be already saved, because we work out our salvation each day of our lives seeking, with God’s grace, to be true followers of the Lord.
If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (I Jn 1:8-10).
E. A BOND OF LOVE
Marriage, of course, existed before the coming of Jesus. Every society has its way of recognizing the importance of marriage through a public act witnessed by the community.
To a Christian, marriage is not only a social act, it is also a sacrament, the sign of Christ’s love (Eph 5:21-33). In marriage, Christians commit themselves to one another in love, faithfulness, the sharing of their life together, and the procreation of life. Jesus stressed the totality of marriage.
Why do Catholics forbid divorce, if Jesus himself permitted it?
The Catholic Church makes no exceptions regarding divorce because Jesus did not make any exceptions. In the Gospels we read that marriage is unbreakable. What Jesus permits is the separation of the spouses. They may live separate lives, but they cannot remarry.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18).
“To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband and a husband should not divorce his wife” (I Cor 7:10-11).
F. A GUIDE FOR THE PEOPLE
All Christians share in the common priesthood of the people of God. This means that each baptized person is called to exercise those ‘ministries’ to which he or she feels called by God for the good of the whole Church. However, God calls a chosen few to exercise the ordained priesthood and thus to act in the person of Christ. The fullness of the priesthood belongs to the bishops, who are helped by priests and deacons.
A priest is called to act in the name of Jesus when he teaches the good news to the people of God; celebrates the Eucharist and the other sacraments with the community of believers; and guides the Christian community to a genuine life of faith.
Ordination to the priesthood is legitimate only if it is administered by a validly consecrated bishop, that is to say, a bishop whose line of ordination can be traced back to the apostles.
G. THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK
“They expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures” (Mk 6:13). The practice of anointing the sick was customary in the early Church, as witnessed by James (Jas 5:14-15) and it has continued up to our time. In ministering this sacrament to the sick the Christian community is obeying Jesus’ command:
“They will pick up serpents (with their hands), and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk 16:18).
This sacrament shows that Jesus is victorious over pain, illness and death (Mt 8:17). In the past, the anointing of the sick was always given at the point of death (thus the name Extreme Unction which was formerly used). However, the Second Vatican Council has given back to this Sacrament its original Dimension of healing. In this way, the anointing of the sick is a sign of the power of Jesus over death; it is a sign pointing towards life.