“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”
1 Corinthians 4:1
The Holy Sacraments have been a topic of heated discussion within Christ’s Church since the earliest days of Christendom, spanning even as far back as the Apostles themselves. Chapter ten of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians details a rebuke against the Church sojourning there for their irreverent misuses of Christ’s body and blood, what we commonly refer to as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Since then all manner of saints and sinners, holy men and knaves, have set their pens to paper in order to describe what, in their estimation, seemed to be the truth consistent with God’s Holy Word and Sacred Tradition. Every theologian from the saintly Clement of Alexandria to Dr. Martin Luther the prestigious Reformer, have done their utmost, in much fear and trembling, to encompass the right understanding of these holy treasures that are to be found in the Church. But before entering into such nuances of history, and especially before, in that very same fear, presuming to contribute to that millennia old and lofty discussion, it would seem right and proper to first describe the nature of these things we call Sacrament and Mystery. So too would it be wise to look upon how humble Man should respond to such great things.
The term sacrament comes from the Western Church’s Latin heritage. It denotes something that is Sacred, or more literally, it is something that is devoted to something else. It is oft said that the sacraments are set apart, they are holy in a very real and true sense. In fact this is what is meant when the term consecration is used. The sacraments are dedicated to God’s particular use and purposes. It should be rightly noted then that since these things are dedicated to, and in the possession of Almighty God, it is God Himself who has defined these sacraments, and it would be foolish to depart from what we know of them as derived exclusively from His divine revelation and providential wisdom within the Church. It is also a significant thing to mention that it is God Himself, in Christ, through the invisible working of the Holy Spirit that gives the sacraments their efficacy and value. They are of His design and therefore not to be subjected to the mere speculations of simple men as if they were but an abstraction for philosophers to poke at. The first lesson then that should be learned concerning these things is thus: awe. The very same awe of the Prophet Isaiah when he saw the Lord “high and lifted up” in His temple, and the sacred things of that very same temple all about him. He looked upon the altar of God, that very same altar which is the hope of all Christ’s saints and martyrs, and finding himself in the presence of the Almighty declared: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”. Beloved, draw close with the very same awe, and in it foster a boldness unlike anything that can be inspired by earthly treasures. The kind of boldness that could be found in God’s servant Jeremiah, that weeping Prophet. For the revelations that he had received from the Lord in silence later burned within him like a fire in his bones, that he could not help but speak of the mysteries of God. So too let us with all fervor speak of these profound things.
This being said, and putting off the question long enough, it may now be asked what is a Sacrament. It is of great comfort, and to the credit of divine providence, that the Church universal has agreed upon, in one accord, as to what it is that makes a Sacrament. This is not to say that the Church has agreed perfectly as to the nuances and number of those things that bear the title of Sacrament. However, Christ’s people can find their position summarized in the brief explanation of St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo: That is to say, a sacrament is
“an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”
Therefore there are initially two parts to any given sacrament: there is the visible sign and the invisible thing that is signified under the physical elements. For example, concerning the Lord’s Supper, the sign is the elements of Bread and Wine whereas the thing signified and received is the very Body and Blood of Christ. Within any sacrament is a union of sorts between these two. It would be wrong to think that it is the Body and Blood only, or the thing received only, that makes the sacrament, but rather together the sign and the thing invisibly received, when rightfully administered, make the sacrament. They cannot be severed from one another. This union between word and element is so intimate in fact that the sign is oft called the thing it signifies. A most wholesome explanation for this phenomena is to be found in an analogy put forth in the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux to describe the union between Christ and the faithful (the unio mystica). He teaches that were steel to be put into a fire, it would grow so hot and glow so red that there would be little distinction between the metal and the flame. Similarly, the sign is so close to the invisible thing received that there is seen little distinction between the two. Due to this union, the two cannot be separated by reception either, for it is through the right reception of the outward sign that one receives the thing invisibly communicated to the recipient.
Christian history echoes with the affirmation of St. Augustine’s explanation. This continuity is necessary for the establishment of Catholicity. The Christian ought to be diligent in obeying the exhortation of St. Jude who says: “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”. Thus we must strive to hold to the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church as established for all ages. John Calvin the 16th Century Reformer likewise did not allow the Reformed Church to depart from Catholic teaching. Claiming to be consistent with St. Augustine’s definition, he more clearly defines the sacraments thusly:
“an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn satisfy our piety toward him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men”
This newer definition is not foreign to medieval thought either, as found in the writings between the Patristic writers and the Reformers. St. Thomas Aquinas, that Angelic Doctor, upon discussing whether or not the sacraments are truly signs begins his reply, or respondeo, to those objections that would say otherwise by explicitly quoting St. Augustine’s aforementioned definition. Like Calvin, immediately following this article St. Thomas goes on to express the truth of St. Augustine’s definition more precisely stating:
“properly speaking a sacrament, as considered by us now, is defined as being the ‘sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy’”
These later clarifications of that one faith are good in that they specify that there is an effect that takes place within the faithful through the receiving of the sacraments. To put things even more simply, the sacraments are oft referred to as “a means of grace”. Despite the diversity of views on grace, Christendom agrees that grace does something to the believer, and therefore so does the sacraments. For example, the Byzantine mystic St. Nicholas Cabasilas teaches concerning the Eucharist that chiefly “its aim is the sanctification of the faithful”. It is right to conclude then that the sacraments carry with them a sanctifying character. Jesus says as much Himself in St. John’s Gospel. Concerning baptism, He says to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God“. Similarly, Christ says concerning His Body (i.e. the Eucharist): “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”. Scripture leads the faithful to believe that the invisible thing received is not some badge worn upon the soul but, in the reception of God’s Grace, it changes and conforms the soul to the likeness of Christ. It is because of this grace affecting nature of the sacrament that the catechism accompanying the 1662 Book of Common Prayer explains the sacrament thusly: “What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?” to which it answers
“I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us… as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof”
This definition finds itself quite at home among the Eastern Churches as well and their lofty understanding of Divine Grace. The Russian Orthodox theologian and Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, for example, stated:
“Thus, a mystery (sacrament) is a sacred act which under a visible aspect communicates to the soul of a believer the invisible Grace of God”
This grace is so paramount, in fact, that it leads to one of the most unrecognized aspects of a sacrament: the appropriate action thereof. If there is a profound effect within the recipient (the reception of grace), as both East and West seem to agree, then there also must be a formal giving, or use, that accompanies the sacraments. The above quote from Protopresbyter Pomazansky hints at this by including the term “sacred act” within his very definition of a sacrament. For example, the Trinitarian formula (word) coupled with water (element) without the sprinkling or submerging of the candidate for Baptism (act) is not a sacrament. In short, there is no baptism if there is no one baptized. This threefold definition of a sacrament is generally understood by most with St. Thomas taking special exception to the Eucharist. He says:
“The difference between the Eucharist and other sacraments having sensible matter, is that whereas the Eucharist contains something that is sacred absolutely, namely, Christ’s own body; the baptismal water contains something which is sacred by relation to something else, namely, the sanctifying power: and the same holds good of chrism and such like. Consequently, the sacrament of the Eucharist is completed in the very consecration of the matter, whereas the other sacraments are completed in the application of the matter for the sanctifying of the individual”
He goes on to explain that the Eucharist is different because the grace of the sacrament rests within the physical elements of bread and wine, rather than within the individual receiving the sacrament. Despite this thoughtful argument, we will here disagree with St. Thomas for the following reasons: Firstly, the presence of Christ cannot be sufficient cause for the Sacrament of the Altar. Christ dwelt on earth for approximately 33 years, and yet his dwelling was not called the sacrament. Christ was present at the last supper and it was Him who broke the bread and blessed the cup, and yet, Christ being present with His disciples was not the Supper, but their feeding on Him was. This is in fact seen in the very text of St. Luke’s account of Christ’s institution of the Supper. Our Lord said firstly “This is my body, which is given for you” The very nature of the bread is in act, it is given. Secondly, Christ says: “do this in remembrance of me”. “This” includes the receiving and feeding upon the sacramental elements and comes after the giving. The “this” (i.e. the sacrament) then includes the blessing, breaking, and giving of the elements. The giving of the bread and the wine then are in fact a part of the sacrament itself and not simply a use of something that is already a sacrament by its very nature. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians gives the reader a helpful lens for viewing these things. Upon describing the sacramental union between Man and Wife, the Apostle says: “This mystery (sacrament) is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”. It is the union of the faithful with Christ that is the sacramental end, not just the real presence of Christ Himself. The 39 Articles of religion summarize this position succinctly by stating:
“The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them”
Similarly, concerning the Church, the Articles teach that the Sacraments are to be “duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance” which explicitly shows the giving of the elements to those present. Even St. Thomas would find himself affirming this latter Article as he himself taught (concerning the Eucharist):
“This sacrament was instituted by Christ, of Whom it is said that ‘He did all things well’”
What St. Thomas is expressing here is the perfection of Christ’s institution, it would be unwise to depart from said perfection. In light of all these things and put simply, the sacraments consist of two things (word and element) and one action joined together in perfect harmony by the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of the Church. In conclusion, this writing will use the following explanation for the Christian Sacraments: “An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace rightly administered”.