7/6/2010 9:24 AM
“Why did God make you?” The answer may even come to the lips as if the lesson were given yesterday from the Baltimore Catechism, which was a standard text in the religious education classes of many youths: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”
Another easily remembered question and answer from the Catechism is: “What is a sacrament?” Answer: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” The more recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (in its second English edition from 1997) expands upon the definition given by the Baltimore Catechism. A sacrament, it says, is “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit” (Glossary).
While the two answers differ slightly in their wording, they both give us the essential components or elements of a sacrament: the “outward sign” and the inward “grace” or “divine life.”
Catholics are familiar with the seven sacraments, which are those particular channels by which Christ’s grace comes to us. What may be less readily apparent is that the liturgy itself, in its entirety, is sacramental, even when not explicitly connected to the celebration of one of the seven sacraments. This means that every liturgy uses outward and sensible signs to give the inward and invisible grace of Christ.
The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, for example, is an occasion for grace to those who pray it. By participating in the signs of the celebration—singing the psalms, bowing at the often-recited “Glory be,” and listening to the prayers and readings—Christ and his saving grace is made present and active.
Even entering the church building prior to the Mass is a sacramental experience. Going up the steps (if there are any) calls to mind the ascent to the Heavenly City. Passing through the main doors evokes Christ himself who is “the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). Dipping one’s hand in holy water recalls our death and resurrection in Christ, and the signing of the Cross over the body brings to mind the divine persons whose company is the destiny of every soul.
In short, every element of the liturgy is sacramental. All of the liturgy’s signs and symbols, postures and gestures, ministers and the assembly, art and architecture, music, and even its calendar make Christ and his saving grace present to us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it like this: “ ‘Seated at the right hand of the Father’ and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (1084).
How to see Christ in the sacramental signs of the liturgy requires a particular type of vision, a supernatural kind of sensing. The catechesis that assists this perception is called “mystagogical,” where we are led from the signs that we do see into that ultimate reality of Christ and his grace that we do not, at least naturally, see.
Language, as one of the liturgy’s sacramental signs, is also sacramental. The words we hear and sing and pray convey the Word and his grace that they signify. We’ll look more in depth and sacramentality of words in future posts.