By Brian Pizzalato
“What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”
Does this question and answer sound familiar? It should ring a bell for at least some. It is a question and answer from the Baltimore Catechism.
In this article, I would like to dwell a bit more deeply on the fact that each of the sacraments is a sign. To aid in this, I would like to bring to your attention the thought of Dom Cyprian Vagaggini, OSB, as reflected in his nearly 1,000-page book “Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy” (The Liturgical Press, 1976).
Vagaggini helps us to understand that each of the liturgical signs of the sacraments has four dimensions, which bring together the past, present and future.
The four dimensions of the sacraments as signs are: a sign demonstrative, a moral sign obligating, a sign commemorative and a sign prophetic.
First, each sacrament “is a sign demonstrative of the present invisible sacred realities . . .” (p. 74). Another way of saying this is that each sacrament is an efficacious sign; the visible sign actually effects in us the invisible reality that it signifies.
For example, the visible sign of water in baptism indicates cleansing. When someone is baptized, there is a cleansing of the flesh when the water is poured. But that indicates the cleansing of the person of sin by the invisible reality of Christ’s sanctifying grace being poured into our very being.
We also know that water is necessary for life, but can also bring about death. This natural sign signifies the fact that “we were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Second, each sacrament “is a moral sign obligating even now in the present to the future actions in the life of him who receives the sanctification and renders worship” (p. 74). When we receive the sacraments, we swear to God to a life in imitation of Christ.
Speaking to the Christians in Rome, those who have been baptized, St. Paul also says, “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (Romans 2:5-8).
In relation to the Eucharist,
In the sacrament of reconciliation, we swear to God to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. In matrimony, we swear to God to a lifelong fidelity to our spouse and to openness to children. In confirmation, we swear to God to spread and defend the fullness of the Catholic faith in word and deed.
Third, each sacrament “is a sign commemorative of Christ’s saving action, especially of his Passion and death . . .” (p. 74). When we speak of a sign commemorative, this should bring to mind the institution of the Eucharist when Jesus says, “Do this in memory [or remembrance] of me” (Luke 22:19). We must also recall that this was said during the Passover liturgy, and the Passover was said by God to be “. . . a memorial feast for you . . .” (Exodus 12:14).
Scripturally speaking, remembrance is the celebrating of a past event, but not merely as past. When the Passover was celebrated, the past event of the first Passover and exodus from
The Passover of the old covenant is brought to fulfillment in the Last Supper and Jesus’ Passion, death, resurrection and ascension. We know that “. . . our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Therefore, in the Mass the past event of the Last Supper and Christ’s death on the cross is made actually present. We are at the cross of
This also goes for the other sacraments as well. They are all an actual, real participation in the saving action of Christ.
Fourth, each sacrament “is a sign . . . prophetic of the heavenly glory and of the worship in the future
Speaking of baptism,
In conclusion, as Vagaggini says, “The liturgical signs . . . gather into one place the whole reality of sacred history, present, past and future” (p. 75). Let us praise God for the glorious gifts of the liturgy and the sacraments.
Printed with permission from the Northern Cross, Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.
Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate for the Diocese of
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville,