Have you ever seen a picture of an iceberg? These monstrous pieces of ice that jut out of the water can cause a tremendous danger for a ship. The real power and weight of an iceberg is not so much what you see but what you don’t see. The “tip of the iceberg” that peeks out of the water is really only a third of the actual iceberg. The bulk of the ice hides below—this can cause real damage to the boat. The top is a sign of what lies beneath the surface.
Sacraments are similar to icebergs. The real power of a sacrament lies beneath the surface like the bottom of the iceberg. It’s what you can’t see that has the real “weight.” The “tip of the iceberg” points to what is hidden below the surface. You may have memorized a definition for a sacrament when you were younger that sounded like: “a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace instituted by Jesus Christ.” This is true but what does this really mean? The sacraments, according to the Catechism, are “perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (CCC 1084). In plain language, sacraments are earthly pictures of a heavenly reality. They point on earth to something greater that exists in heaven. They are something tangible that points to the intangible.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver will often teach this truth when he performs Confirmations. He will often call a girl up who is wearing a ring. He’ll ask her who gave her the ring--it is usually a boyfriend or a parent. When he asks why that significant person gave the girl the ring the answer is: “because they love me” (Chaput, Living the Catholic Faith, 33). The ring on the girl’s finger is a tangible sign of the real but intangible love the gift-giver has for the wearer.
So, signs are something we encounter in everyday life. Natural signs, like smoke, point to fire. Man-made signs, like stoplights, tell us when to stop. In sign language, those who are deaf use certain hand motions and “signs” to represent words and actions or entire phrases. Creation itself is a sign of the Creator. In Psalms 19:1, King David says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.” Creation “tells” us of an unseen Creator.
From the Beginning
Scripture also tells us how God speaks to us in signs. The story of Adam and Eve reveals God's desire for an intimate relationship with His children. Created "in His own image and likeness" (Gen 1:26) they were able to have a deep relationship with God. As His children, God charged them to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen 1:28). For their nourishment God gave them "every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit" (Gen 1:29). God charged them with one more command: they "may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die"
To show how much He loved them, God bestowed upon Adam and Eve the three-fold gifts of sonship, stewardship, and sustenance. They were His children, His son and daughter, because they were made in His image and likeness. God gave them stewardship over all of creation: God's image was to be on all they did from work to bearing children. He also promised them nourishment from all the fruits and trees of the Garden of Eden, forbidding eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Well, we know how the story went. One Saturday night, Adam and Eve went for a bite and there the trouble started. Their sin of disobedience and lack of trust in God ruptured and broke their relationship with Him. They freely chose to disobey God and the resulting punishment was the loss of the gifts He had given to them. Salvation history overflows with stories and signs of how God wants to repair and restore that damaged relationship that was lost by our first parents.
God tries to restore back to the people of Israel what He called Adam and Eve to live out. As slaves in Egypt, He sends Moses to tell Pharaoh that, "thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son" (Ex 4:22). Just as Adam and Eve were children of God, Israel is called to be the children of God. They will claim to be His children by crossing over the Red Sea and following His commandments. After this miraculous escape God tells the people that if they “will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine” (Ex 19:5). God called the Israelites to be a people set apart and holy in order to be a “light to the nations.” As stewards of God's message, they would lead the other nations to the one true God. While in the desert, God nourished and sustained them with manna from heaven and with water from a rock. Just like with Adam and Eve, He extended His invitation to the people to come into right relationship with Him. And just like Adam and Eve, the people sinned and rejected God's offer.
Salvation history not only tells the true story of our ancestors in the past but also tells the story of the human race and condition. God continues to come to His people and they continue to reject Him. These stories are not to remain in the past but they belong to us as well. We read the stories of Sacred Scripture to see where we fit into the story. This is our story. The similarities of Adam and Eve and the Israelite people should not be lost on us. God is coming to us to restore His gifts and we can reject Him or receive Him. So, how do we fit into the story now?
Back in the Family
God wants to bring us back into the story. He does this through His Son, Jesus, and the sacraments He instituted. The sacraments are covenants that restore the family bonds previously lost. In the Old Testament, God made several covenants with the people of Israel in order to show His great love for them. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the whole nation of Israel fell short in keeping all the covenant promises they made but God was and is always faithful. We should not view these past encounters with God as merely contracts because contracts signify only an exchange of good and/or services – "You give me this for that" and vice versa. A covenant, on the other hand, involves an exchange of persons. One person forges their life with another and they become related in an intimate way. God wants to forge His life with us in this way and bring us back into the family.
The way He establishes this now is through the sacraments. In Latin the word for covenant is sacramentum from which we get the English word sacrament. The sacraments are not just signs that signify something but they are actual encounters with Christ. We really meet Jesus in the sacraments. God gives us his very life in the New Covenant with His Son. God forges a covenant with us through the sacraments. He gives Himself to us and we give ourselves back to Him in an exchange of persons. In a sense, we "fall up" in Christ where we "fell down" with Adam. We are restored and elevated to a more intimate relationship with God through the sacraments.
So, the three-fold gift promised to Adam and Israel is given in a new and dynamic way in the sacraments. In Baptism we are brought into the family of God, the Church: we are made sons and daughters of the Father by the washing of the waters of Baptism. Confirmation equips us with the strength and grace to be good stewards of the message and mission of Jesus: just as Israel was called to be a light to the nations, so now confirmed Christians are called to go and share the light of Christ to everyone they meet. The whole world needs to hear the message and good news of Jesus' saving works. Through the Eucharist, we receive the strength and nourishment to participate in the mission: Jesus feeds us with His own Body and Blood.
Salvation history is full of stories of our loving God coming to meet us. He comes to meet us in order to restore us back to Himself. He freely created the world out of love in order for us to have a relationship with Him. Again and again, God reveals the intimate relationship He wants to have with us. But He leaves it up to us to respond—like Adam and Eve or Israel or like Mary.
Think of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and asks her if she would be the Mother of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38). God comes to Mary, respecting her freedom, and asks if she will have an intimate role in the salvation of the world. She could have said ‘no’ and gone on with her life. God waited for the response of Mary, and, as Mother Teresa said, “she gave God permission.” Humans have to cooperate out of their own free choice. God doesn’t force anyone to do anything. The Catechism says, “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response” (CCC 2002).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the sacraments are efficacious because it is Christ Himself who works in them. Efficacious means that they work and are effective; they actually bring about the reality they signify. Why? Because:
It is [Jesus] who baptizes, He who acts in His sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of His Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to His power (CCC 1127).
It is Jesus who is acting in each and every one of the sacraments He instituted (CCC 1114). We come into contact with Him and deepen our relationship with Him. “The fruit of all the sacraments belongs to all the faithful. All the sacraments are sacred links uniting the faithful with one another and binding them to Jesus Christ” (CCC 950).
There is a story of a monk who left the monastery to live as a monk in the big city. When he arrived at his new apartment he took the mirror in the living room down and replaced it with an icon of Christ. He did the same with the mirror in the bathroom. All the pictures that were on the wall he took down and also replaced with icons of Christ. Everyday he would get up and shave, brush his teeth, comb his hair in front of the image of Christ in the icon. And before he left the apartment he would make one last check of his appearance in the icon in the living room. For years he would follow this ritual everyday. The townspeople remarked, “Have you seen that monk? The more and more disheveled he looks…the more and more holy he becomes.”
This story illustrates how the sacraments and a sacramental worldview work. The more and more we try to model ourselves on the Son of God, the more and more we “look like Him.” This is the work of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive Him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior” (CCC 1129). The Holy Spirit conforms us to look like Jesus. Just like the analogy of fire above and the illustration of the monk and the icons, we become more like God the more disposed we are.
That’s how we can “tap” into the power of the sacraments. The sacraments work ex opere operato (which literally means by the action of them being worked). This means that when they are celebrated they bring about grace no matter how holy the minister might be. However, the fruits of the sacraments and what is gained by the person receiving the sacrament “depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (CCC 1128). We have to be open and ready to receive the graces offered through the sacraments.
Think of someone attempting to draw water from the garden hose. If they went to the hose with a thimble or a baby cup it would take a long time to water the garden. If they went to fill up a large bucket or tub it would take less time. It is the same when we receive the sacraments. The more disposed you are (the more you are a bucket and tub), the more active the sacramental grace will be.
If we know what the sacraments offer us, we will also realize why we want to be ready to receive the graces from the sacraments. The sacraments make us grow in holiness. We become more and more like the One we worship. Every time we go to participate in a sacrament we go to meet the living God. We go to meet Jesus Christ. Every sacrament is a chance to encounter our loving God who constantly comes to meet His people and to restore the broken relationship. As we grow up more and more in the family of God we become more and more like our Father.
Read Ps 19:1. Think of some of the incredible beauty and wonders of nature like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Look at creation around you. What does this tell us about God? What kind of God created these?
How do the sacraments work? Have you ever thought of them as a magical incantation? Do you think this is the correct understanding? If not, why?
Think of some commonplace signs and symbols we encounter everyday like a storm cloud or stop sign. What do they point to? Now think of some of the sacraments. What do these symbolize or point to?
Read. Rom 1:19-20. St. Paul tells us that the Gentiles are guilty for not believing in God because of His “stamp” on creation. In what ways, other than the ones in the text, can you see the “stamp” of God in creation?
Is there a time in your life where you felt moved and touched by God after you received a sacrament? Describe the experience.
Read CCC 950. You have heard the saying, “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” How can you better strengthen and unite yourself with your fellow Christians? With your family? Your friends or classmates? With people you don’t even know yet?
What are some practical ways you can be open to the graces that God offers to you in the sacraments?