Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Sacraments: Sign and Reality

In any sacrament, we can identify four important elements. The first is the form by which words added to actions become the vehicle for grace. The second is the matter, which consists of the material object or action which, when united to the form, becomes the vehicle for grace. The third is the intention by which the minister of the sacrament intends to do what the Church does in celebrating the sacrament, the condition for its validity. The fourth is the signs which accompany the celebration of the sacrament. Form, matter and intention are all necessary for the sacrament to be valid. Some theologians argue that all three are revealed by Christ in their specific form and as such are necessary for validity. Others have held throughout the ages that Christ has revealed their matter, but the exact words which accompany the form can and have been modified by the Church. Validity then depends on matter, intention and form as proposed by the Church.

In any sacrament, we can also identify two other important elements by which we can better understand what the sacraments are: the signs of the sacrament, which include, in some cases the matter of the sacrament and in other, the explicative symbols which point to other aspects of the theological reality celebrated in the sacrament; and the reality of the sacrament, namely what the sacrament is and what it does specifically for the human person.

All of the sacraments give grace. They increase sanctifying, or habitual grace, by which we are united to Christ and become partakers in the divine mystery. They also have a special sacramental grace unique to each one. They also can be vehicles for those transient, or actual graces, such as when someone who sees the reception of a sacrament by another and is moved to conversion.

The sacraments are celebrated in the context of a liturgical rite accompanied by ceremonies which are rich in content and symbolism. In fact, the sacraments speak a many-layered language on many levels of various distinctions. The liturgical rites and ceremonies are created by the Church, and as such are subject to the disciplines laid out for them by the Apostolic See. This authority of the Apostolic See does not extend to the matter, form, intention, or reality of the sacraments. The Apostolic See cannot change those. But the Apostolic See can modify the liturgical rites and ceremonies, as well as the signs, when they are not part of the matter necessary for validity. The Apostolic See can also depute Episcopal conferences, individual Ordinaries or even Pastors to modify these in accord with the laws set down by the Church.

The signs by which the Church celebrates the sacraments are powerful, and it is certainly inadvisable to adopt a parsimonious or mimimalist attitude toward those signs. Those signs can also be the occasion for actual graces, those transient helps which inspire a life of grace and devotion. But those signs are not the reality, even as they point to the reality.

Let’s take an example. Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism for the remission of sins and the elevation of its recipient to friendship with God. The form of the sacrament is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the of the Holy Spirit.” The matter of the sacrament is water, which signifies the washing away of sins by Christ’s grace. The intention necessary for the validity of the sacrament is that the person who baptizes intends to do what the Church does, namely unite the matter and form of Baptism administering it to someone who has not already been baptized. The reality of the sacrament is that it remits original and personal sin and incorporates its recipient into the Holy Trinity by the gift of sanctifying grace.

There are three levels of sign associated with the sacrament of Baptism. The first is the pouring of natural water, which is the matter of the sacrament, necessary for its validity. The second is the complex of explicative rites with the Church surrounds the Baptism to signify other elements of this mystery: the lighting of a candle, the clothing with the white garment, the anointing with oil. The first can never be omitted, without endangering the validity of the sacrament. The second can be omitted for reasons laid down by the liturgical books themselves. A third level of sign, however, is how the matter is conceived of in the celebration. For example, baptism can be celebrated by infusion, our directly pouring over the head, or submersion of the whole body into the water. Both fulfill the sign required by the nature of the sacrament for validity. The Church has also allowed for both, although in the West, the first rather than the second is common. It could be argued that the second is a more complete sign of how Baptism also causes one to be buried with Christ so as to rise with Him in grace. But it does not affect the reality of the sacrament. It does not increase sanctifying or sacramental grace. At the most, it could be said to increase actual grace insofar as someone could be moved by the sign towards the reality it signifies. The second and third levels of sign are under the authority of the Apostolic See to explain, modify, and legislate, the first is not.

With the Sacrament of the Eucharist, however, how the Church views this tripartite level of signs is a bit more complex. In the Eucharist, two things must be distinguished. The first is the sacrifice by which the sacrament is confected and the Paschal Mystery is re-presented in the here and now in the context of a liturgical celebration of the Church. The second is the communion by which the faithful share in the fruits of that sacrifice.

The Church has always maintained that, for the validity of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the matter is bread and wine, the form are the words of the institution narrative as presented by the Church and taken from the Scriptures, the intention is to unite the matter and the form as the Church does, and the reality is the whole Christ present. The first aspect of sign is the bread and wine, which are also the matter. The second aspect of sign is the Mass itself, the complex of liturgical rites and ceremonies which accompany the liturgical celebration of the sacrifice and communion. The third aspect of sign, is how the bread and the wine, changed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, are shared to the faithful.

The way in which the priest who confects the Eucharist in the sacrifice is different from the way the faithful share in the fruits of the sacrifice in communion. Because the Eucharist is not just an object but a liturgical action, the Paschal Mystery, re-presented in the Sacrifice of the Mass, requires that the Priest not only validly confect the sacrament, but he must also consume the sacrament.

In the post-Tridentine period, the validity of the confection of the sacrament (the union of the matter and form) was considered apart from the validity of the Mass considered as a sacrifice. The cycle by which bread wine were transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ was completed by the consumption by the priest of the transubstantiated elements. To incarnate the sign value of the one bread and the one cup, the priest consumed one entire host and the contents of one entire chalice. This was considered so necessary for the validity, not of the Communion given as the fruit of the sacrifice, but of the Mass, that another priest had to come in to “finish the sacrifice” if the priest happened to die or be taken ill between the consecration of the elements and his reception of them.

The enactment of this entire cycle, from consecration to consumption, was not considered necessary for the faithful. The priest had to complete this entire cycle for the validity of the sacrifice, of the Mass considered as the liturgical action accompanying the sacrifice. The faithful, on the other hand, did not participate in the sacrifice in the same way. They shared in the fruit of the sacrifice, the Holy Communion.

Because the priest stands in persona Christi capitis during the Mass, his actions must be entirely in conformity with the form, matter, intention, reality, and signs on all three levels. When the LORD commanded His disciples, “Take and eat, take and drink,” at the Last Supper, the sign of eating and drinking, as united to the reality of the sacrifice and the sacrament the LORD was giving to His disciples, was considered necessary for the validity of the sacrifice as re-presented in the Mass.

Catholic doctrine teaches that the sacrifice of the Mass is inseparable from the priesthood which offers the sacrifice. So she has seen the Last Supper as in some way constituting the disciples as priests of a different order to perpetuate a sacrifice of a different kind from the order of the Mosaic priesthood and the sacrifices of the Law. The apostolic succession would guarantee the perpetuation of that one same sacrifice until the consummation of the world. The LORD Jesus would often in the Gospels put some of His disciples, the chosen Twelve, in the position of intercessors between Himself and His People. In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, for example, He performs the miracle, but He then asks the disciples to distribute the miraculously multiplied gifts from God. In this way Christ prepared the Church for the role of the priest to participate in the sacrificial actions of Christ in a unique way, and then distribute the fruits of those sacrificial actions to the faithful.

The faithful are not united to the sacrifice in the same way as the priest is. They do not pertain to the validity of the sacrifice at all. But they share in the fruits of the sacrifice. How they share in the fruits of the sacrifice does not have to take the same form as the way the priest does, dictated as the latter is by the direct command of the LORD in the context of the establishment, not only of the Sacrament of the Eucharist as sacrifice and communion, but also of a priesthood to perpetuate the sacrifice which would be different, not just in degree but kind from the priesthood of the faithful who share in, but do not confect the sacrifice.

As such, the signs which accompany the sharing in the fruits of the sacrifice by the faithful can be changed by the Apostolic See for a variety of motives. The mode for the distribution of the fruits of the sacrifice, of communion, has often changed throughout the centuries. The faithful have received from both leavened and unleavened bread; they have received the Precious Blood by drinking directly from a chalice, through a tube, or not at all. They have received the Sacred Host alone, having been dipped into the Precious Blood, or by a spoon dipped into the Precious Blood. The dizzying variety of the practices by which the faithful have received communion contrasts with the uniform way in which the priest completes the cycle of the sacrifice by his mode of reception of the elements in obedience to the LORD’s command.

It could be argued that, for the faithful to unite themselves as closely as possible in every way to the sacrifice, their communion should take the same form as the priest’s. But the very fact that the priest communicates himself while the faithful are given Holy Communion points to another truth. The priest communicates himself in virtue of his being in persona Christi capitis at that moment. The faithful are given the fruits of the sacrifice in Communion as a gift, as the Body of Christ, the Church receives all it has from Christ. This explains why the Priest gives Holy Communion as an ordinary minister, because he is Christ giving to His Body, the Church, the gift of Himself.

But no matter how the faithful receive Communion, the mode by which has often changed throughout the centuries, their participation in the Mass and indeed in the priesthood of Christ is different in kind, not just in degree, from that of the ministerial priest. The signs have value. They should never be interpreted without generosity. But the relationship of the signs to the sacrifice in the ministerial priesthood and the relationship of the signs to the communion which is the fruit of the sacrifice for the faithful are two different species of relationship. Either way, the way the signs are interpreted by the Church, or modified, or lived, does not in any way affect the reality of the sacrament. No fuller expression of the sign value will increase sanctifying grace, because it is not the sign, but the reality, which accomplishes that. The reception of Holy Communion under both kinds may have a fuller sign value, just as the submersion of the body in the saving water of Baptism may have a fuller sign value. But fuller sign value is not equivalent to the grace given, and not pointed to, by the reality.

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