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Understanding the sacraments as signs

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.

 

St. Paul urges us “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).

 

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, St. Paul says: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also of the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:21).

 

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 Egypt was celebrated as actually occurring in the present, as a sign of what is to come in the future. So remembrance is a past event, made truly, really and actually present, as a pledge of future glory.

 

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). St. Paul goes on to say, “Therefore let us celebrate the feast . . .” (1 Corinthians 5:8). We too are supposed to “do this in memory of me.”

 

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 Calvary as much as those in the early first century. This is possible because he who died is now risen and sits on the throne of glory at the right hand of the Father, where time and space no longer have significance.

 

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 Jerusalem” (p. 74). In the New Covenant, each of the sacraments is also a pledge of future glory, not merely a pledge that we sit and await, but a participation in future glory. Christ gives us more than just words about what is to come, he gives us here and now a share in what is to come. Analogously, someone can give you their pledge by saying that they will give you a million dollars in the future, but they can also give you a pledge by giving you a share of what is to come now.

 

Speaking of baptism, St. Paul says: “We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. As to his death, he died to sin once for all; as to his life, he lives for God. Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:9-11).

 

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 Duluth. He is also a faculty member of the Theology and Philosophy departments of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England. He writes a monthly catechetical article for The Northern Cross, of the Diocese of Duluth, and is a contributing author to the Association for Catechumenal Ministry's R.C.I.A. Participants Book. Brian is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute and is also in the process of writing the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition program at the Maryvale Institute.

 

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, Ohio.

 

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April 24, 2014

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