Here on WordPress, blog-writers are able to view a list of search phrases people use to find our blogs. Every now and then an interesting phrase or question pops up, and the title of today’s post is one of them.
What do sacraments do in the modern church? The quick answer is “pretty much the same thing they have done for the past 2000 years” but since this answer isn’t particularly helpful, let me unpack the question a little.
First, a definition. The best definition for sacrament I have ever heard is “an outward sign of a spiritual reality”. In other words, a sacrament is something that teaches us about God, who we cannot touch or see, in a way that we can touch and see.
Second, a list of sacraments to work with. Catholic and Orthodox churches teach that there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, communion, confession / reconciliation, matrimony, holy orders, and anointing of the sick. Protestant churches recognize only two: baptism and communion. I don’t think it’s helpful to take sides in this disagreement, so I’ll just add this comment: even though I’m a lifelong Protestant, I find the Catholic list of sacraments to be (at the very least) both helpful and informative where it comes to understanding the faith.
I think the important question is actually “what do sacraments mean?” and to answer this I need to take each one individually.
Communion – In my opinion the most meaningful and powerful of the sacraments, the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, communion reminds us of Jesus’ dying on the cross in our place. In taking the bread and wine we are able to touch, taste, and see how very much God loves us; and to witness (since members of the church take communion together) how we as Christian believers stand united in His life, death, and resurrection.
Baptism – In the 21st century, baptism usually has the meaning of dedicating a child to God, but originally it was very different. As taught by Jesus, John the Baptist, and the early church, before a person could be baptized they had to confess their sins and speak out loud their faith in God. Therefore baptism was considered THE rite of initiation for new believers and was restricted to adults old enough to understand what they were doing.
In those days baptism was performed by immersion (dunking the entire person under water), with the meaning: as a person’s body is washed by water, so their souls are washed clean by God. (Note: there are churches today — Baptists and some nondenominationals — that still practice baptism of adults by immersion.) Nowadays most churches baptize babies by sprinkling with water in the hopes that they will grow up to be God’s children — which alters the meaning of the sacrament — and I personally prefer the word “dedication” for what most churches do today.
Confirmation – In the Catholic church, one of the “sacraments of Christian initiation”, confirmation is a ceremony performed by a Bishop immediately prior to a person’s taking First Communion. It is “confirmed” that the person understands the meaning of communion, since taking the sacrament without understanding is forbidden by scripture. In the sacrament the individual is anointed with oil, representing the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Confession and Reconciliation– Involves the confession of one’s sins and receiving of pardon. As a sacrament, sins are confessed to a priest, who represents an intermediary between the sinner and God; in other churches which do not see this as a sacrament, confession is a private matter between the sinner and God alone. In either case, whether formally or informally, confession of sins is required of all Christian believers.
Matrimony – According to scripture, the marriage of a man and woman is meant to be a reflection of the marriage between Jesus and His bride, the Church, which will take place after the second coming of Christ. This is why marital unfaithfulness is considered such a serious sin — because Jesus would never be unfaithful to His church, and His church should not be unfaithful to Him. In the church, marriage is always performed by ordained clergy and includes prayers of blessing for the couple.
Holy Orders – Reserved for bishops, priests, and deacons, Holy Orders is a laying-on of hands, with prayer, by a bishop, and represents a special anointing of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of ministry in the church.
Anointing of the Sick – In the Catholic tradition, this is performed when one is ill enough that death may be near. The sacrament involves a priest anointing the sick person with oil and praying for healing, as prescribed in scripture. It should be noted that other churches, particularly among evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals, often perform the same ceremony (with or without a pastor on hand), on the basis of scriptural command alone.
I hope google-ers and others will find this helpful!