I didn’t grow up with the Sacraments. Yes, I was baptized and received Communion (as often as it was offered, which was about once a month. The focal point of a Protestant worship service is not the Eucharist.) but I don’t recall them ever being called Sacraments. They were symbols. I was also married in the church. But, again, not sure it was ever called a Sacrament. A covenant, yes. But, not a Sacrament.
I grew up with the following theology: What Jesus did was enough. If you have to add anything to that, you’re saying that what Jesus did was not enough. You cannot add the requirement of church attendance, baptism, confession, anything, otherwise you invalidate the provision of Christ.
This is problematic. For (at least) two reasons:
1) Jesus, Himself, is the One who provided the Sacraments, in order that we may fully participate in the life of grace. To say we don’t need the Sacraments is to dismiss what the Lord provided for us–the very life and friendship with Him! To believe that the Sacraments are essential for salvation and growing in our faith is not to say “What Jesus did was not enough” but rather, “Jesus is so good to have provided everything I need for life and godliness.”
2) The beauty of coming into the Kingdom is that we get to participate in God’s salvific work. We get to participate in redemption. I don’t mean we get to or have to earn our salvation. No one can do that. But, God invites participation! We do this by way of the Sacraments. “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.“ I Peter 1:4
When we partake of and participate in the Sacraments, we are becoming active participants with God’s divine will, participating in the divine nature.
When we go to Confession, we are not earning Jesus’ forgiveness, we are appropriating it, accepting it, opening ourselves up to the very nature of God, which is mercy.
When we receive the Eucharist, we are being an actual–not symbolic and not figurative–temple of God. Jesus, the Hope of Glory, abiding in us!
When we are baptized we are being marked as children of the Light, forever His! Buried with Him, raised with Him.
Becoming Catholic has caused such a shift in the way I see the role of the Church in my personal faith. The Sacraments do not bind us with man-made rules, they set us free to fully and completely experience the grace of God and the life of the Spirit!
Without the Sacraments, Christianity is reduced to a bunch of symbols. But, I don’t want a symbolic salvation. I want an actual one. It’s hard to believe that the early Christians would literally die for something that was merely figurative. (And history records them dying for the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.) No, I cannot believe that the Sacraments are just symbols. They are tangible and beautiful and an open invitation to participating in the life of Jesus, who had an actual body and an actual death and an actual resurrection.
I guess I can sum it up no better than Flannery, “I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” (Flannery O’Connor, from a 1955 letter to “A”)