Sacraments and the Rythym of Life
For every stage of our life Jesus is there in the sacraments. The Holy Spirit is there to sanctify you in that moment of your life. Jesus lived a full human life and experienced the sanctification of every aspect of human life from the inside-out. "He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. So likewise He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise." -St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
The sacraments mirror life. Because humans are a body-soul composite, it is easy to see the unseen effects of sacraments by highlighting the mirror effect that they have with the body. Just as the body has essential needs to sustain biological life so too does the soul have needs to sustain divine life. The body needs water, food, healing balm and it grows and changes in time. The soul needs spiritual food, drink and healing. Beyond this, when we consider the stages of life we see that for every stage from birth to death the sacraments are our great companion on the journey- present at every turn.
For the infant, Baptism is a birth into the life of grace, divine life. For those who reach the age of reason, Reconciliation is the necessary bath for spiritual hygiene by which we are cleansed from sin and reconciled to God and the Church. For the child, The Eucharist is our daily bread, our intimate exchange, without which we could not sustain the divine life within. For the teen, Confirmation is the sacrament that calls and equips the warrior of love and goodness to perpetuate the Gospel and kingdom through the land and throughout the spiritual realms through words and deeds. She is equipped to spread and defend the truth of the Church aided by an abundance of spiritual grace in the form of gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. For the mature adult, Holy Orders and Marriage provide an avenue to transform our natural, puny human love into a great participation in the love of God who is love. For the sick and old, Anointing of the sick takes our human weakness, the cross of illness and old age and refines them into a sweet oblation of powerful intercession and thanksgiving in an offering of redemptive suffering united to the Cross.
Sacraments are for the Health of Our Divine Life
The sacraments can be categorized into two main areas. There are sacraments that are received only once and there are sacraments that are repeated in a cyclical way throughout life. This categorization too, mirrors life. There is only one birth and one death in nature. There are many other man-made rituals to mark the passing of time as major rites of passage. A baby’s first tooth, first steps, first birthday are all occasions that are celebrated and remembered. A teen getting his driver’s license, graduating from high school and going on his first date may be thought of as rites of passage. These are life-changing events that only happen once. So too in the sacraments we receive one Baptism, one Confirmation, one Spouse (until death), one call to the ordained life, and one final anointing before death.
Sacraments Maintain our Supernatural Life
In life there are also daily mundane rituals such as waking up at a certain time, dressing, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, going to work, coming home, bathing and sleeping. These are routine cycles that we do unthinkingly. Without them, life would come to a grinding halt. The cycles of life that we take for granted are necessary to keep the thing going. In the sacraments we have two cyclical sacraments that keep us healthy, whole and strong. These cyclical and necessary rituals for life are the Eucharist and Reconciliation. Just as the body can go three days without water, and three weeks without food, the soul is in need of food and drink at least once a week. Just as germs and disease can invade and spread in an unclean wounded body so our souls need healing and cleansing regularly.
Without the upkeep of these sacraments we would be a type of zombie, apparently alive, functioning but up close clearly dead desperate to consume a living life-giving body. Just as we have biological Life: Life that is natural and depends on the material world (food and water, medicine, clothing shelter etc.) to be sustained. Catholics also have Divine Life: Life that is supernatural and perfects our nature through grace. It begins in Baptism and is sustained by grace. God shares his quality of life with us which is eternal and illuminative. You must be alive in grace (Baptized) to receieve the sacraments. The only sacraments that you may receieve if you do have have sanctifying grace are Baptism and Reconciliation. This is why these two sacraments are called, 'sacraments of the dead'. If you receive sacraments while not alive in grace there will be no spiritual effect. It will not be efficacious, it will be a dud and it may be considered a sin.
When Sacraments Go BOOM!
For a sacrament to have any power in your life there needs to be two principles in play. The first one has to do with validity, the other with the status of recipient.
In Latin it is called, EX OPERE OPERATO. This means in English, ‘from the work having worked’. This principle holds that there must be the correct minister with appropriate intention, the correct form (necessary words) and the correct matter (action or material element). These all come together according to the rubrics laid out by the Church for each sacrament.
The other principle has to do with the spiritual openness of the recipient of the sacrament. In Latin this is called, EX OPERE OPERANTIS. It means the spiritual disposition of the recipient must not be blocked. So to get the full effect or the full power of a sacrament both of these must be in play.
What Makes a Sacrament Valid?
For a sacrament to be valid, there must be a convergence of minister, matter and form in one time and one place with the intention of the minister to be aligned to God’s will and the church.
The minister is the human representative and mediator acting in the person of Christ. It is through the minister that Christ acts in the sacrament. This is why we can say …’In Baptism it is Christ who baptizes… In Reconciliation it is Christ who absolves our sins… In the Eucharist it is Christ who offers His body and blood to the Father and then to us in Holy Communion. In Confirmation it is Christ who asks the Father to pour out the Holy Spirit and confirm the Christian as his own. In Anointing of the Sick it is Christ who heals the sick. In Holy Matrimony it is Christ who, through the bride and groom, loves and gives himself to his spouse unconditionally as he blesses a newly wedded couple. In Holy Orders it is Christ who confers the power of the priesthood, diaconate and episcopate.
In most sacraments it is the ordained bishop, priest or deacon who act as minister. A deacon may be the minister of baptism. Only a bishop may be the minister of Holy Orders and Confirmation. A priest may be the minister of all other sacraments. In Matrimony it is, by virtue of Baptism, the bride and groom. A minister must intend to do what the church does in the sacraments. But, because of the principle, ex opere operato, the minister may not be in a state of grace or may have some scandal happening in his life and the sacrament would still be valid. For example, if you were baptized by a priest who was found to be scandalous, it does not mean your baptism is invalid.
Form and Matter
Every sacrament has form and matter. Form is the necessary words spoken by the minister. Matter is the necessary material thing such as oil or water or it is the ritual action such as laying on of hands or anointing or it is the words of the recipient such as the confession of sins in Reconciliation. Usually the form and matter happen concurrently such as the pouring of holy water three times and the words, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ in Baptism. Though there are many other words and other signs and symbols these are the identifiable words and actions that are essential to the validity of the sacrament. For example you may not have a white garment or a lighted candle in baptism but that would have no bearing on the validity.
What Makes a Sacrament Efficacious?
Spiritual effect and proper disposition are related. The spiritual effect is the unseen supernatural change that the sacrament brings about. This unseen change is the result of both the validity and the efficaciousness of the sacrament. Efficacious means ‘powerful’ or impactful. It is the action of the Holy Spirit to effect change through the infusion of grace in the recipient.
Though the actual spiritual effect is unseen its secondary effects are detectable. For example, the recipient of a good confession may be acting in a very joyful and less inhibited way after the sacrament lightens the load and frees the person of the burden of sin. Though the Eucharist still appears to be bread and wine after the unseen change, the recipient may be moved to tears in the reception at communion or they may feel intimately united to Christ and those around them. These emotional feelings are not required and do not affect either validity or efficaciousness.
This spiritual effect and in some cases the validity of the sacrament depends on proper disposition. Proper disposition is defined generally as the preparation, freedom, knowledge, intent and faith of the person receiving the sacrament. Without this proper disposition, the sacrament may be valid but it will have no spiritual effect and it might even be sinful to receive.
This is why, in the case of marriage, the annulment of marriage is another way of saying the sacrament did not take. It was not valid and no change happened because the recipient, who is also the minister in Holy Matrimony, was not properly disposed. It doesn’t undo a valid sacrament, instead it declares it invalid from the beginning and the person is still free to enter Holy Matrimony.