God has willed, in the Incarnation, that the Word be made flesh and he has not unwilled that in the Ascension. Jesus retains his glorified humanity precisely so that he may, by the power of the Spirit, communicate it to us and make us sacraments who communicate it to others. The result is the giant, sprawling, glorious, and tragic mess of a divine family we call the Church. So the Catechism (688) tells us:
The Church, a communion living in the faith of the apostles which she transmits, is the place where we know the Holy Spirit:
– in the Scriptures he inspired;
– in the Tradition, to which the Church Fathers are always timely witnesses;
– in the Church’s Magisterium, which he assists;
– in the sacramental liturgy, through its words and symbols, in which the Holy Spirit puts us into communion with Christ;
– in prayer, wherein he intercedes for us;
– in the charisms and ministries by which the Church is built up;
– in the signs of apostolic and missionary life;
– in the witness of saints through whom he manifests his holiness and continues the work of salvation.
As Catholics, we believe that grace does not cancel nature, but perfects it since the same God who made the world also redeems the world. Human beings are a peculiar blend of flesh and spirit and, in the Incarnation and Resurrection, God has willed that we be saved completely in body, soul, and spirit. Jesus has therefore willed that the life of the Holy Spirit be communicated to us, not in a disembodied, but in a profoundly embodied way.
That is the first thing to notice about the list above: all of the ways the Spirit is encountered in the Church are shockingly material: books; teachers; liturgies full of more books and teachers; physical symbols like altars and candles and vestments and whatnot; ministries and charisms where other people bring us grace and we bring other people grace; apostles, missionaries, and saints. Even in prayer, the most “spiritual” and disembodied-sounding thing on the list, we fully participate with our bodies. That is why the liturgy prescribes different sit/stand/kneel postures, not to mention beating of the breast for contrition and, in some cases, acts of prostration. Indeed, perhaps the most common prayer in the whole world—the Sign of the Cross—is not just a prayer, but a physical gesture which simultaneously invokes the Blessed Trinity and the Cross of Christ. And at the heart of it all is the Eucharist, where Jesus communicates his life to us through the animal act of eating. Because of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the spiritual and the physical have met and fused in the life of the Church. That is why the primary sacrament is the Church, the Body of Christ herself.
We will cover the Church in much more detail later, but here we will briefly touch on the sevenfold way, established by Christ and his apostles, that gives us sure encounters with his saving grace which is the life of the Holy Spirit: namely, the sacraments of that Church.
What the Sacraments Are and Are Not
The Catechism tells us (1131) that
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.
It is as important to hear what is not being said here as it is to hear what is being said.
First, sacraments are symbols, but not just symbols. God acts through them. They are charged with divine power. They do things to us. Indeed, they are not something we do for God. They are something he does for—and to—us. They symbolize what they do and they do what they symbolize.
Second, because they are instituted by Christ, they are not ours to play around with. He handed them down to the Church with a trust to maintain them as they were handed down. The Church is not free to say, “We don’t see the point of this, so let’s improve it or alter it.” So, for instance, the Church cannot replace the bread and wine of the Eucharist with Twinkies and Coca Cola even if they do taste better. Nor can she change the matter of the other sacraments or play around with the essential details of the words spoken in these rites (though she can and does alter peripheral matters depending on all sorts of historical, social, cultural and linguistic circumstances). So you will see the sacraments celebrated in different ways in the different rites of the Church spread across the world. But you will also find that there is a central core of similarity among them all too.
Third, the sacraments are grace, not magic. In other words, we have to cooperate with them to the best of our abilities. The Church, in fact, warns that if we try to turn the sacraments into magical “get out of responsibility free” cards we can do damage to our souls. If we insist on living lives contrary to the gospel while hoping that, for instance, going to Communion will magically wipe away the guilt of our impenitent greed, spite, anger, lust and so forth, we can sear our consciences to the grace God offers us. God does not stop offering us grace in such a case. But we can amputate our ability to receive it and work serious—even mortal—damage to our souls. Grace is offered to us in order that we “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
Fourth, the sacraments are given to the Church, not as our sole encounters with grace, but as sure encounters with grace. Some Catholics have the notion that only those who have received the sacraments can be saved. It’s not that simple. The sacraments are intended as, if you will, the kisses of God, not as reducing valves to keep as many people as possible away from God’s grace. God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do whatever he likes. So the Good Thief was saved despite having no sacraments. That does not mean we are free to ignore the sacraments. It means that while we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound—because he is God. If we know of and truly understand Jesus’ words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5) or “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53) and do not obey them, we make clear we have no obedience to—and therefore no faith in—him. We are saying “No” to his offer of salvation. But if we do not know or understand these things, that does not mean that he is helpless to reach us. He can communicate grace in myriad other ways, including through our prayers for those who do not have access to the sacraments for whatever reason.
This brings us to the fifth and last point: we receive sacraments and share in the life of God so that we can become sacraments and share the life of God with others. You and I are called to be the eighth sacrament of the Church, since we may well be the only encounter a non-Catholic will ever have with Christ, not to mention the encounter that reaches their heart, soul, and mind with the gospel.
That said, let’s very briefly look at the sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders.