While all the Sacraments involve an encounter with Christ (the original Sacrament), the Seven Sacraments of the Church can be divided into three groups. We call Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation the Sacraments of Initiation; Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick are Sacraments of Healing; and Marriage and Holy Orders are Sacraments of Communion and Mission. In this post, we’re going to take a look at the first three: the Sacraments of Initiation.
“Baptism is the way out of the kingdom of death into life, the gateway to the Church, and the beginning of a lasting communion with God.“ -YouCat 194
“Being baptized means that my personal life story is submerged into the stream of God’s love.” -YouCat 200
In Baptism, we enter into a covenant with God, becoming united with Christ (and His death on the Cross), and freed from sin -both original sin, and any personal sin we might have committed before the moment of Baptism. As one of the main effects of Baptism is the cleansing of sin – we use water to celebrate the Sacrament in a similar manner to the way we would use water to shower or bathe. As the water is poured or the person immersed, the celebrant of the Sacrament declares: “I baptize you in the name of the Father of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We don’t do this simply as a sign or symbol of conversion – it is really the moment in which a new life in Christ begins. The ceremony of Baptism also includes other signs: anointing with oil (sign of strength), the white garment (being clothed in Christ – see Romans 13:12, 14), and the Baptismal Candle (the flame of faith).
(One neat item of trivia here: anyone can baptize in case of an emergency: so long as they use water, intend to Baptize, and repeat the trinitarian formula mentioned above.)
Baptism is offered to any person who has not yet been baptized – provided they are willing to enter the covenant with God, that is they have entered through “the door of faith.” In the case of an infant that is Baptized, the parents “confess the Faith” on behalf of their children- and promise to raise their children in the faith, giving them opportunities to ratify their parents decision later in life – and in the case of adults who come to faith, their Baptism represents the culmination of a journey we call the “Catechumenate.” The Catechumenate represents a process that usually lasts about a year, and includes a mixture of faith experiences, instruction, and a gradual and growing participation in the Liturgy of the Word. Catechumens are usually Baptized in a great celebration at the Easter Vigil each year. Whether it is an infant or adult who is Baptized, this Sacrament marks the beginning of their Christian journey- a fresh start in which they have been able to leave behind sin and will now seek to walk with Christ for the rest of their lives.
“In Confirmation the soul of a baptized Christian is imprinted with a permanent seal that can be received only once and marks this individual forever as a Christian. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the strength from above in which this individual puts the the grace of his baptism into practice through his life and acts as a ‘witness’ for Christ.” -YouCat 205
Receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation means being sent on a mission by the Church for Christ. We see examples of sending for mission throughout the scriptures. For example, Moses encountered God in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3), and in spite of his protestations, God tasked him with a mission to serve others. Also, the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint David as the future King of Israel (1 Samuel 13), and in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John went from place to place confirming new Christians by laying hands upon those who had only previously been Baptized (Acts 8). In a similar manner,the Bishop (or a priest delegated by the Bishop) who celebrates Confirmation comes to lay hands on new Christians, praying that they would receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints them with oil that they would be strengthened for the mission God is calling each of us to.
Being confirmed is essentially a mutual ‘yes’ declared by God and by the one being confirmed. The one being confirmed asserts the faith of their Baptism, and asks for the gift of the Holy Spirit that he or she may never be separated from God. God, for his part, affirms His belief in each one of us, and gives us the gift of His very self, promising to stay with us and to help us do all that He has called us to. It takes the initial choice to follow Christ in Baptism a step further: recognizing that each Christian has a distinctive role to play in the Kingdom of God.
“I am created to do or to be something for which no one else has been created: I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has. Whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by name.” -Blessed John Henry Newman
“Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament in whcih Jesus gives His Body and Blood – Himself – for us, so that we too might give ourselves to him in love and be united with him in Holy Communion. …the Eucharist is the mysterious center of all these sacraments, because the historic sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is made present during the words of consecration in a hidden, unbloody manner.” -YouCat 208
When we speak of the celebration of the Eucharist (the Mass), we are speaking of what the Second Vatican Council recognizes as the “Source and Summit of the Christian Life” (Lumen Gentium 11). Think of it like your heart – it’s steady beating is what keeps you alive, and in the same way we have celebrated the Mass in reply to Jesus’ command “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19.) St. Paul writes about it (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), and St. Justin Marty explained it in detail in the year 155.
What we have today doesn’t look that differently: we, too, gather in the same place (in a Church on Sunday), we hear readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Gospels – hearing the story of our faith proclaimed and explained. We then celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist, where the priest or Bishop, standing in the place of Christ (in persona Christi), repeats Christ’s words from the last supper and then brings us the “Eucharisted” (consecrated) bread and wine – Christ’s body and blood. Finally, we are sent forth (the word ‘Mass’ literally means ‘Go!’) to live out what we have heard and received.
While the other sacraments of initiation can be received only once, we are invited to participate in the Mass regularly. Catholics are expected to be at Mass every Sunday, and to receive communion at least once a year. Although it is possible and important to build up a personal prayer life, being a part of the Sunday Eucharist plugs us into the body of Christ, reminding us that we do not do this walk alone (and our own faith builds up others.) To ensure that we have a proper hunger for Christ we also choose to fast (eat nothing and drink only water) an hour before communion. Many also make a point of attending Church in some of their finest clothes (their Sunday best) in recognition of the divine encounter offered to them each and every Sunday.
While we speak here of “obligations” of Catholics – attending Mass and fasting – remember that with the Eucharist, as with Baptism and Confirmation, are about the renewal of our ‘yes’ to Christ. We do so publically and in the heart of the body of Christ, knowing that He meets us there and offers us His very self. It’s no different than it is for a married couple who are devoted to one another: one need not speak of the obligation to love, serve, and be faithful to one another… it comes naturally. As we come to know and love Christ, our hunger for Him will recognize that the Eucharist is the place par excellence that we can meet Him over and over again, in the natural rhyhtm (heartbeat) of our Christian lives.
“Every Holy Communion unites me more deeply with Christ, makes me a living member of the body of Christ, renews the graces that I received in Baptism and Confirmation, and fortifies me in the battle against sin.” -YouCat 221
“Your life must be woven around the Eucharist. direct your eyes to Him, who is the Light; bring your hearts very close to His Divine Heart; ask Him for the grace to know Him, for the charity to love Him, for the courage to serve Him. -Blessed Teresa of Calcutta