Words and things make sacraments visible, audible

By | June 19, 2010

Sacraments physically draw us into the encircling mystery of God’s love

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC 1131).

A circle offers nice symbolism for so much of our faith life — the encircling love of God, the embrace of couples or parents with children, the circle of the gathered church community, the bread at Eucharist.

The sacraments can be thought of in terms of a circle as well — not only the encircling love of God, outpoured on us in grace, offered through Christ and enfolded in the power of the Spirit — but also in the actions of the celebration of a sacrament.

We all know the church has sacraments; they’re the liturgical highpoints of our faith. We have seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony.

There are three things we need to understand about the sacraments (stated in the above quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church). These are that sacraments:

  • Are efficacious signs of grace. A sacrament is “efficacious,” which means that it works. It is effective. God is at work in a sacrament. And where God is at work, there is grace. The catechism teaches that, through (sanctifying) grace, God allows us to share God’s life and friendship.
  • Were instituted by Christ. The church teaches that, during his time on earth, the Lord established the foundations through which the power of his Paschal Mystery would be imparted through the church. As the church grew, understanding of the sacraments also grew and deepened into their present form.
  • Are entrusted to the church. The church is the Body of Christ. The union between Christ and his church fills that church with life-giving grace. The Holy Spirit lives in and works through the church and in the sacraments. This is why we say that the sacraments are both “by the church” and “for the church.”

These three points are true of all seven sacraments. But each sacrament fulfills a different purpose, so its exterior form — visible rites, as the catechism calls them — takes place in different ways. To explore these differences, we return to our circle image.

Let’s use a two part circle — one side red, the other white — to illustrate the external parts of any sacrament: the matter and the form, as they are properly called. The Latin term is res et verba.

It might be easier to remember res et verba as meaning “things and words.” They are more commonly called “matter and form,” but “words and things” are easier to remember. United as one, these words and things are necessary to properly (validly) celebrate a sacrament. Improperly united, a sacrament does not take place.

These things and words (matter and form) provide outward signs to show us the inner reality of the dynamic work of Christ and the Spirit taking place through the church to impart God’s grace.

Matter — the “things” of a sacrament — also has two components: remote and proximate. And these carry the image of the encircling dynamic of a sacrament even further.

  • “Remote matter” refers to things being used in a sacrament — the actual physical elements. “Proximate matter” refers to how those things are used.

For example, in the sacrament of baptism, the matter (the thing) is water. The remote matter is the particular water used. How that water is used is the proximate matter.

  • The form of a sacrament is the sacred words used. Let’s take another sacrament: confirmation. The key words of confirmation — its form — are: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The words and things (form and matter) of any sacrament work together. Almost like a turning wheel, they help us move through the sacrament into deeper union with God, who is working in the sacrament. Using things and words which our human senses can recognize — the exterior of a sacrament — reminds us of its interior reality. We may not be able to physically see or hear God’s grace at work, but — through the things and words of sacraments — our senses engage our eyes and ears in an act of faith.

St. Augustine was the first to say that a sacrament provides a visible sign of an invisible reality. The things and words (matter and form) of sacraments are visible signs that remind us of the reality of the encircling work of God, which both draws us in and propels us outward to reveal Christ to the world.

Each sacraments has a specific res et verba — specific things and words. Sometimes these come readily to mind — the bread and wine of Eucharist or the words “I baptize you …” At other times, it’s a more difficult to identify the words or crucial things. For example, what’s the matter (specific thing) that makes a marriage? (Hint: it has to do with the couple.)

During the next weeks, we will explore the sacraments through the lens of their things and words.

Next: The matter and form of Baptism

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; History of the Christian Church; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Summa Theologica; “On Catechizing the Uninstructed” at newadvent.org.

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