Growing up as a child in a liberal but devout Roman Catholic household, I lived somewhat of a dichotomy. We sang our kumbayas with guitar strumming folk masses on Saturday afternoons (Vatican II being brand spankin’ new) and then switched gears when it came to time to discuss the “Holy Sacraments”. Not only did they sound solemn and serious, they were confoundedly shrouded in mystery. I knew they were very important as we usually had to complete a year of religious education devoted to a particular sacrament in order to receive it. But at the end of the day, I still couldn’t really figure out what was actually about to take place. No matter, there were the actual after benefits. A party with all your relatives bringing you gifts (and money) and a big sheet cake with cascading frosting roses.
It is hard as a child to understand something which is far from concrete. Indeed, it can be difficult as an adult. Yet each religion has their own version of sacraments whether they use the language or not. They are the means by which humans can discover the subtleties, the sublime joy of touching the sacred through symbols and ritual. Who knows? Maybe you may come up with some sacrament making of your own.
The word sacrament describes a rite or a set of physical symbols that either separately or together comprise a visible form of grace. Sacraments are transmitted through a series of material elements.
Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have seven sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation (these 3 comprise the sacraments of initiation), Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Most Mainline Protestant denominations confer only 2 of these as sacraments: Baptism and Communion. Some of the many symbols and rituals involved in these rites include water (the baby or person’s head being dunked in it), oil (for anointing the sick), candles (to represent union, light, sacred space), and chalice (for bread or wine).
While denominations differ as to their theological understandings of what the literal or symbolic meaning(s) are in any given sacrament, they would agree that these items become more than what they appear. They become tangible representation of the unseen, pointing to the very real presence of God. Everyday items like water, oil, or candles can be conduits for confering Grace.
This tendency to acknowledge and penetrate the holy using objects and ritual is an inherently human one. In Hinduism, they use the word samskara to describe the sixteen personal sacraments (there are also noncanonical samskaras) observed at every stage of life, from the moment of conception to the scattering of one’s funeral ashes. Each region and caste of India have their own specific ways of enacting them.
Buddhists also use the word samskara to define “the constructing activities that form, shape, or condition the moral and spiritual development of the individual” (Encyclopedia of Religion). Repetition of these activities is imperative to imprint a particular samskara on the psyche so that it will be carried over to the next life.
Jewish observances are the rituals that make up the spiritual life of the individual and community. Whether it be the ‘Brit Mahal‘ (the naming ceremony) or the “Bar or Bat Mitzvah” where the teen becomes an official “child of the commandments”, they are furthering their blessings as they acknowledge their covenant with God. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called the “Kiddushin”, which means holiness and their Chuppah (the bridal tent) represents the making of a home together, and it is open on all sides, just as Abraham and Sarah’s tent was, to welcome all in unconditional hospitality. The Kaddish, the special prayer for the dead, which means “the hallowing, the making holy.” We all mark the milestones that make up a life and we provide a powerful dimension when we invited the sacred.
As we look to the symbols and rituals that nurture our souls and make meaning for us (whatever they may be), it may be helpful to also to remember the words of the irascible Mark Twain : “We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.”
Book of the Day, Body of God by Sallie McFague, Quote from the Book of the Day: “The world in our model is the sacrament of God, the visible, physical, bodily presence of God. God is available to us throughout nature. It is available everywhere, it is unlimited-with one qualification: it is mediated through bodies. Our model is unlimited at one end and restrictive at the other: the entire cosmos is the habitat of God, but we know this only through the mediation of the physical world.”