BLESSINGS OF THE SACRAMENTS
Jesus promised he would not leave us alone when he ascended into Heaven. He left us two wonderful gifts—the Holy Spirit and the Church—to guide us and help us through good times and bad, happy and sad. And he also gave us the sacraments to heal, feed and strengthen us.
The sacraments are acts of worship that draw people more fully under the influence of God’s grace. Sacraments are in fact events of grace. In celebrating the sacraments, we are basically responsive and receptive to God’s grace.
Now, the sacraments originated in Jesus, just as the church originated in Jesus. A person who seeks to receive a sacrament should have faith…but it doesn’t have to be the deepest faith in the world. In fact, receiving a sacrament most often increases faith. So sacraments are for all people, not just the saints of the world.
Each sacrament serves a specific purpose, just like the tools in a toolbox. In fact, you might say God has kindly provided us with a “Faith Toolbox” to get us through the many events of our life, from birth to death with everything in between.
With a regular toolbox, there is the right tool for any occasion. For example, if I wanted to pound a nail into a piece of wood, I would look in my toolbox for my hammer, because a hammer is the best tool for pounding a nail in wood. (Unless, of course, you have a neighbor like mine who often borrows my tools but rarely replaces them. In that case, a crescent wrench or the handle of a screwdriver may be the best tool available to pound the nail).
Fortunately, with God’s Faith Toolbox, the Sacraments are never missing, they are always there for us to use, with God’s blessing. You can use the proper sacrament for the purpose intended. God is good to us!
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me name the seven sacraments, and give a little explanation of each one. The whole list can be read in less than five minutes.
For many people, this is the first sacrament they receive because baptism is often performed on newly-born babies. But that is certainly not always the case either, as many people are baptized as teenagers or adults. Baptism cleanses us of our sins and brings the Holy Spirit and grace into our souls. Baptism is a sacrament that is usually performed only once per person, but that too isn’t always the case: for example I was baptized as a baby and later as an adult. I don’t recall the first dunking, I certainly do the second. The word baptism comes from a Greek word meaning to “immerse in water”, and of course when someone is baptized, water is either poured over their head or they may be completely immersed in water as a symbol of the cleansing of original sin—that is the symbolism of the water. As part of the baptism, the forehead is also anointed with sacred oil. Baptism is the first of all the sacraments by which Christ gathers to himself disciples who will share his ministry and his destiny, which is the kingdom of God. By the water of baptism, we surrender ourselves over to a new life in Christ, in which we are the adopted sons and daughters of God and by which we are ultimately connected with God. So that’s the sacrament of Baptism.
The sacrament of Confirmation is very closely related to baptism; in fact confirmation is a sacramental strengthening of the life of grace we began when we were baptized. Confirmation bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to enable them to grow as strong witnesses of the faith, just as the early disciples were strengthened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Confirmation also binds us more closely to the church and unites us more firmly to Christ. It increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit and leaves a beautiful and lasting spiritual mark on the soul. As the name implies, Confirmation also allows a person to “confirm” his or her belief in what the church teaches and confirms their desire to be strong in their faith. So that’s the sacrament of Confirmation.
The sacrament of Reconciliation—also called the sacrament of Penance or sometimes called Confession—focuses a person’s need for forgiveness and God’s loving response, when a person has become distant from God or his relationship with God has become strained or broken through sin. Sometimes on our journey through life we stumble and fall into sin. All of us do. God is always ready to lift us up and to restore us to grace-filled fellowship with him. It’s a wonderful thing about our God that he doesn’t hold grudges! Just imagine what life would be like if he did. When making a confession, it is important to be truly sorry for the sins we have committed. Unlike baptism or confirmation, reconciliation is a sacrament that can be received many times during a person’s life, as an ongoing blessing.
A number of years ago, my life changed dramatically…for the better. I was living in another state at the time, and had been at a two-day business meeting in the capital of the state. It was a Saturday afternoon and the meeting had just ended, and so I started driving towards home, which was more than 4 hours away. As I was about to enter the freeway to drive out of town I passed by a church, and something compelled me to turn around and go inside. I soon discovered that the priest was hearing confessions, and so I slid into a pew and recalled my sins. I had no great sins to confess, but I had been a lukewarm Christian in recent years…making the motions of going to church but not giving my faith the effort I would give a project at work or even a tennis game. When my turn came, I went into the confessional and had the most satisfying reconciliation of my life. When I left the church, I felt 20 pounds lighter. On the long drive home, I felt moved to pray silently to myself. About halfway home—two hours into the drive—I passed by another small church in the middle of the countryside, really out in the boondocks. Just a little white building with a school bus out front, which the church probably used to take kids to church outings. Driving past the church at 60 miles an hour, I felt a great wave of love wash over me, and I began to pray even harder. I felt something going on with me, but wasn’t sure quite what. After a while the feeling passed, and I stopped praying and kind of chalked the whole thing up to my imagination. But then I stopped at a small town and went into a supermarket to get some crackers and cheese to have for the rest of the drive, and it was then that it hit me that everyone in the store seemed just wonderful to me. The guy who accidentally ran into my back with his shopping card looked great…no problem…and I was famous for my temper. The disheveled stock-boy looked like an angel. Even the old lady checking out so very slowly in front of me—which would usually drive me nuts—she seemed like a saint. I loved everybody in the store! When I came out, I loved everybody in the parking lot. It was at that point that I realized I hadn’t imagined something happening to me earlier…I really had changed. That was exactly fifteen years ago, and as I say, it changed my life very much for the better. I’m still no saint, but I feel a lot better about myself than I did before that day, and I thank the sacrament of reconciliation and, of course, God’s love for changing my outlook on life.
Anointing of the Sick
This sacrament (sometimes called ‘last rights’ is often the last one received by a person, since it is given when someone is seriously ill or injured. It is a sacrament often received by people late in their lives, for obvious reasons, but that is not always the case; for example one of my children received last rights—and fortunately fully recovered. Anointing of the sick not only helps the person to endure illness, but it also cleanses the soul and helps the person to meet God if that is what is to be. Anointing of the Sick is not merely a demonstration of concern, but an actual conferral of grace that heals at the deepest level of human life. The sacrament helps keep the person from turning into himself or herself in fear, but rather to be one in Christ in his suffering, confident of the ultimate victory over suffering and death. When our child received the sacrament, it was not scary as I though it would be, rather it was very comforting.
Matrimony (or Marriage)
Through the sacrament of matrimony, God gives special graces to help married couples with life’s difficulties, including raising their children as loving followers of Christ. Marriage always involves three parties: the bride, the groom, and God. In the sacrament of matrimony, each partner freely bestows upon the other a promise that is not merely an exchange of rights and duties, but an exchange of lifelong love and fidelity. The couple’s pledge is made at the deepest level of their freedom and directs their life together. The grace of the sacrament of matrimony enriches and strengthens the union of the couple God has joined in the holy bond. So that’s the sacrament of Matrimony.
Jesus calls certain people to a special mission as priests, deacons or bishops. The sacrament which accomplishes this is called Holy Orders. Through it, these religious people are ordained and thus empowered to serve the church as pastors, teachers and spiritual leaders who strengthen God’s people—most importantly through preaching and the administration of the sacraments. A person is called by the Holy Spirit, approved by the People of God, and sealed by sacrament of Holy Orders, which empowers the person to live a life of dedicated service to the Church. I think we have all witnessed this with the wonderful examples of clergy who have helped us in times of grief, heard confessions, celebrated the mass, and also participated in times of great joy like weddings and baptisms over the years, sharing some of our most important moments..
I have saved the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Communion, for the last because it is such a very special sacrament and one which was instituted by Jesus himself at the last supper. All of the sacraments are very important, but this is one which can be experienced on a daily basis if desired. It is a truly beautiful experience.
Eucharist is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”. And we have a great deal to be thankful for, because—thanks to the incredible sacrifice Jesus made for us, his death on the cross—our sins can be forgiven and forever erased from our record. Our souls can be made white as snow.
When we are members of Christ’s family, he feeds us spiritually through the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, the night before Jesus was crucified, he took bread and wine. In the book of Matthew, here is what happened:
As they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread and asked God’s blessing on it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it and eat it, for this is my body.” And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, for this is my blood, which seals the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out to forgive the sins of many. Mark my words—I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.
From the very beginning of the Church 2000 years ago, followers of Jesus have done just as he asked, and remembered his death and resurrection—his return to life—through the Eucharist.
Some people say that they have never seen a miracle. But the transformation of simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus is truly a miracle that happens every day all around the world.
Prayer, while not a sacrament, is a wonderful blessing given to us by God, and the Holy Spirit always stands ready to help us with our prayers. I have seen prayer work too many times to count. It’s a powerful faith tool.
Another great blessing which is not a sacrament but which is very evident, is the help, encouragement and support we all receive from one another as members of God’s family. This helping network is also a truly amazing and wonderful faith tool.
So the church offers many, many tools to help us build a wonderful faith life. The sacraments, prayers, the support of the faith community: these are there for us to use as we need them throughout our lives.
I would like to end this meditation with one of my favorite Psalms, which is Psalm 139.
O Lord, you search me and you know me. You know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down, all my ways lie open to you.
If I take the wings of the dawn and dwell at the sea’s furthest end, even there your hand would lead me, your right hand would hold me fast.
For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of your creation.
Already you knew my soul, my body held no secret from you. When I was being fashioned in secret and molded in the depths of the earth.
To me, how mysterious your thoughts. The sum of them not to be numbered! If I count them, they are more than the sand; to finish I must be eternal, like you.
O search me God, and know my heart. O test me and know my thoughts. See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me to the path of eternal life.