Sacramentalism is the belief that God works through created things to help, heal and sanctify us. Since we ourselves are creatures, it should not seem too surprising that God often comes to us through created means.
Scripture tells us that all creation manifests God's glory, goodness and power (Ps 19:1-7). By their very existence, all creatures glorify their Maker, and because they are essentially good, God can use them for supernatural purposes, as we see in the Scriptures.
Examples from the Old Testament
We find many instances in Scripture where God uses both created spirit and matter to manifest Divine Power. Angelic apparitions are examples of God speaking to us through created intermediaries, as are human prophets. God also uses water to cleanse the earth in the Flood, a burning bush to manifest His Presence to Moses, and Moses' rod to perform miracles.
When the Israelites were attacked by poisonous snakes, God commanded Moses to make a bronze statue of a serpent and put it on a pole on the hill. Everyone who looked at the bronze serpent after being bitten was healed - not by the serpent, but by God (Numbers 21:6-9). God actually used that serpent-statue as a channel of His healing power.
The Mosaic Covenant even had elements which roughly correspond to some of the Christian Sacraments. Catholic theologians call these "proto-sacraments".
One example is circumcision, by which males were inducted into the covenant. This, along with the mikvah (cleansing which restores ritual purity) corresponds to our Baptism, by which both males and females are cleansed of original sin and brought into the New Covenant.
The Passover meal (Seder) was the foreshadowing of the Eucharist. Jews consider the Seder more than a mere memorial of the Exodus; they say that all who partake in that meal actually go through the Exodus with their forebears! One could say the Seder "makes the Exodus present" to every generation. Even so, Holy Communion is not just a memorial, for the very Death and Resurrection of Christ actually become present once again on the altar at every Mass/Divine Liturgy.
The animal sacrifices prescribed by Torah not only foreshadow Jesus' death, but they have an element in them redolent of the Sacrament of Penance. Whenever an Israelite committed a sin, he or she had to bring a sacrifice to the priest and tell him what the sin was. The priest would proceed to kill the animal and sprinkle the blood on the person, thus covering the sin.
Since Christ is the one Sacrifice of the New Covenant, we need not bring an animal to the confessional! Yet we still tell the priest our sins, and he forgives us. Of course, he can only do that because Jesus died for our sins. When the priest gives us absolution, Christ the great High Priest and final Sacrifice cleanses us in His own Precious Blood.
The Mosaic Covenant also prescribes a consecration ceremony for the Levitical priests (Exodus 29), involving an investiture with garments of the office, the sacrifice of animals and the anointing of the new priests with the blood (vs 20). This roughly corresponds to our Holy Orders.
Notice that each of these "proto-sacraments" involves a material object and/or physical action. So even in the Mosaic Covenant, God worked through created means, thus preparing the way for the sacramentalism of the New Covenant.
We also see the "sacramental principle" at work in the ministry of the Prophets. God performs miracles through Elijah's robe (2 Kings 2:14); the salt which Elisha used to purify a poisoned spring (vvs 19-22) and Elisha's own bones, which raised a man from the dead (13:21). These foreshadow the Church's sacramentals, such as holy salt and relics of the saints (more on that below).
The greatest example of God's work through creatures is the Incarnation. Christianity professes that God actually united part of creation to Himself permanently. The Incarnation was not a divine afterthought; it was actually part of God's eternal plan. Without it the universe would be incomplete, fallen short of its glorious destiny in the Divine Mind.
Though it was a unique occurance, the Incarnation was not an unusual act, "out of character" for God. Rather, it was the culmination of the act of creation and of all Divine activity through creation recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.
For thirty-three years, God the Son lived on earth as Man, operating through a human soul and body. During His public ministry, He sometimes healed people directly, by a word, but He also used such material things as His spittle, mud (Jn 9:6-7), or His garments (Mt 9:21-22) as channels of His healing power. When He sent His Apostles out, they healed people by rubbing them with oil (Mk 6:13); a practice obviously taught them by Jesus, since they went out in His authority to do His work.
After His Ascension, the Apostles continued to heal using material things. Saint Peter's shadow healed many sick people it passed over in the street (Acts 5). Other people were healed by handkerchiefs which had been touched by the Apostle Paul (19:11-12). Of course, it was not so much the oil, shadow or hankerchiefs which performed the healing when used by the Apostles. Nor did this power come from the Apostles; it came from God, through the Apostles, and through the inanimate objects which they used.
The Seven Holy Mysteries/Sacraments
Jesus Christ instituted seven mysterious channels of grace, which His Apostles passed down to the Early Church. Eastern Christians call these the Seven Holy Mysteries; Western Christians call them the Seven Sacraments. (Sacrament comes from the Latin term "sacramentum", which means mystery - from the Greek word "mysterium". So Eastern and Western Christians are really calling them the same thing, just in different languages!)
Each of the Sacraments/Mysteries use created things as vehicles of grace. Baptism uses water, which God turns into a vehicle of salvation and rebirth in the Spirit. Confirmation uses oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, to seal the candidate. In the Eucharist, the priest transforms bread and wine into the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. In Confession, the priest represents Christ and speaks the words of absolution to the person, thus making Jesus' forgiveness present to the penitent.
Matrimony involves such physical objects as vows and wedding rings, which seal a man and woman to one another in a bond unbreakable by all but death. In conferring Holy Orders, bishops lay their hands on the candidate, thus conferring by touch the ability to represent Christ the Bridegroom to His earthly Bride. Finally, Anointing of the Sick uses oil, as a symbol of healing (Mark 6:13; James 5:14-15). God may confer Divine healing on the sick, or the Holy Spirit will infuse them with special graces to avoid sin during their last moments on earth.
Mother Church's use of material objects in devotion goes far beyond these Mysteries, however. She offers her children numerous Sacramentals-religious words, gestures and objects which draw us closer to God by reverent use.
We read the Scriptures and prayerbooks to draw us closer to our heavenly Father. We stand to honor God and kneel in reverence; we beat our breasts in repentance and sign ourselves as a profession of faith and recollection for prayer.
We light candles, burn incense, bless ourselves with holy water, pray before images of Christ and the saints, count our prayers on beads or knots. We wear medals and scapulars as signs of our faith, we receive blessings from priests for ourselves, our homes, cars, etc. These are all sacramentals, physical objects or gestures which recall the presence of God to our minds and raise our minds and hearts to Him.
As noted in Is the Body Evil?, Catholic reverence toward relics of the saints arises from a high regard for matter, and for the human body in particular. It also has a biblical basis: Elisha's bones, which contained such miraculous power that they brought a man back to life, are an example of first-class relics (bodies or body parts of saints). Jesus' garment is a second-class relic (something owned or used by a holy person), and the handkerchiefs touched by Saint Paul are either second-class relics (if he owned and used them) or something like third-class relics (articles touched to a holy person's body).
The Glorification of the Cosmos
The Redemption is a multifaceted mystery. Almost two millenia since the death and resurrection of Christ, the Church still ponders it, trying to discern the full implications of this pivotal event in human history.
For centuries now, the Eastern and Western aspects of Christianity have tended to emphasize different aspects of this mystery. Western Christians have tended to focus on the sufferings of Christ during His Passion, and how those sufferings reveal His love and redeem us from our sins.
Without denying that, however, Eastern Christians have focused upon the cosmic dimension of the Redemption. The human race is not the only aspect of creation affected by sin. As we saw in the article God and Creation, sin/evil is an existential tear in the fabric of creation. In some mysterious way, it has affected the entire material realm, which has been "subjected to futility", as Saint Paul says (Romans 8:20). All creation groans as it awaits the day when God will finally set it free from this state (vvs 21-22).
This, of course, is one of the effects of the Fall (Genesis 3:16-19). Jesus Christ came to undo all the effects of the Fall, including the burden of futility it cast upon the material creation. This is the cosmic aspect of the Redemption.
Eastern Christians have always rejoiced in the knowledge that, in the end, God will glorify creation in Christ. They also clearly perceived the role which the Church as a whole, and Christians in particular, must play in this glorification. As members of the Body of Christ, we can contribute to this process by consecrating space, time, matter and our actions to God.
Christians have been sanctifying space for centuries by erecting churches and shrines.
One occasionally hears the objection that we do not need church buildings, since we can worship God anywhere. Well, one could certainly pray or worship anywhere, but the church building is a special "sacred space", set aside for the Body of Christ to gather in and worship as a family. Its adornments should ideally elevate the mind and heart toward God, and Catholic churches are also places where we can meet with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, for He is truly present in the Tabernacle.
Shrines come in many types. There are some large shrines dedicated to certain apparations, in places where many believe that something of Heaven has broken through on earth. Some examples are Lourdes and Fatima. In some countries with a long history of Christianity, one will find wayside shrines; small shrines set up along a country path or on the streets of a village. These shrines give travelers a chance to worship and recall to their mind the fact that God is with them wherever they go.
Sometimes whole outdoor areas, such as gardens or retreat houses, can serve as "sanctified space". The lovely practice of planting "Mary Gardens" is an example of this (the Mary Gardens page gives examples of this beautiful practice).
The Christian home, which Pope John Paul II has called the "domestic church" can be sanctified as well, with prayer corners, holy art and blessings from the priest. These are all examples of ways in which Catholics throughout the centuries have sought to "sanctify space".
Christians have sanctified time through such practices as daily prayer (especially the Divine Office), observance of Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and devotions for each day of the week or month of the year. The Sacraments also effectively sanctify the entire life cycle, from infancy (Baptism) to death (Anointing of the Sick).
(For an in-depth discussion of this topic, check out the articles about Sanctifying Time on this web page.)
Sanctifying Matter: the Ikon
As we have seen, the Church sanctifies matter in many ways, including blessings and sacramentals.
One of the most interesting manifestations of the Christian belief in the redemption of matter is the Eastern art of ikon writing. The ikon is not an ordinary work of art; it is an encounter between time and eternity, a material picture which makes present a heavenly person: Christ, a saint or angel. So it goes beyond most Western religious art, for it does not merely represent a holy person, it makes that member of the Church Triumphant immediate to those in the Church Militant.
The very process of writing an ikon is a consecration. The artist traditionally fasts for many weeks, praying and meditating, in preparation for the sacred act. The paints are then prepared from many materials; gold, chalk, wood, water, egg whites, flower pigments, etc. Thus the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms all contribute to the formation of the ikon, signifying the participation of the whole material creation in this exalted work (1). If the ikon will depict a particular saint, the artist may even mix relics of that saint into the paint (2), which intensifies the ikon's association with that holy person.
Before the work is begun, the paints and tools are blessed. Then the ikon is written prayerfully, the artist carefully following the perscriptions of ancient iconographic tradition in how each person is portrayed. This places the ikon within the greater tradition of the Church, so it is not merely the work of the one who wrote it.
Thus the ikon is a prime example of the glorification of creation. Ordinary materials from a crossection of nature are combined by the skill and devotion of a prayerful Christian, and transformed into windows of the spiritual realm. Ikon-gazing is a wordless prayer, an encounter with citizens of Heaven in which all aspects of material creation participate. It is thus a precursor to the day when earth and heaven shall be as one, glorified in Christ, filled with the Spirit and reconciled to God the Father.
This is the glorious destiny of the material world. Created ex nihilo by God's life-giving Word, adorned and fashioned by the Spirit of the Lord, it is beautiful and good; worthy of its Creator and a revelation of His Glory. Though damaged by sin and subjected to futility, it waits with hope its redemption and glorification.
Honored by the Incarnation and mysteriously associated with the Body of Christ, the material world participates in our redemption by providing its water for our baptismal regeneration, its oil for our anointing, and its fruits to be transformed into the Eucharistic Christ.
We who are members of that material creation and of Mother Church continue to exalt creation by offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) and by sanctifying time, space and matter to the Lord. We wait with the rest of creation, sharing in its groaning, longing for the day when Christ will make all things new, permanently heal the tear of sin and offer up a renewed, glorious creation to God the Father, in which evil shall be no more and God shall be All in all (I Cornithians 15:28).
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