What is a Sacrament?
St Augustine, in the 5th century described a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.’ It sounds a very simple answer, but, to understand the depth of what that means, we need to probe rather more deeply.
Historically, the word ‘sacrament’ developed from the Greek word ‘mysterion’ and the Latin word ‘sacramentum’. ‘Mysterion’ means ‘something hidden or secret’ – our word ‘mystery’. The language surrounding ‘sacraments’, did not develop in the Church for some time. We hear of a ritual of baptism in the Christian community of the Acts of the Apostles, and of the ‘breaking of bread’ – the Eucharist (Acts2:38, 41- 42). These celebrations were called by their name.
There was no generic term for these experiences. It was not until the third century that the word ‘mysterion’, a word that the pagans used to describe rites of initiation, began to be used to describe Christian rites.
In order to avoid any confusion with pagan thinking the theologian Tertullian began to use the Latin word, ‘sacramentum’ for ‘mysterion’ particularly in explaining baptism.
The sacramentum was a sacred oath of allegiance to the emperor taken by a Roman soldier. Tertullian suggested that just as the soldier’s oath was an sign of the beginning of a new life, so too was initiation into the Christian community through baptism and eucharist. ‘Sacramentum’ then became a general term for the rites of Christian initiation.
‘A Catechism of Christian Doctrine’ – often called ‘The Penny Catechism’ tells us ‘a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls.’ (249)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, ‘The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.’ (1131)
The Code of Canon Law states, ‘The sacraments of the New Testament were instituted by Christ the Lord and entrusted to the Church. As actions of Christ and the Church, they are signs and means which express and strengthen the faith, render worship to God, and effect the sanctification of humanity and thus contribute in the greatest way to establish, strengthen, and manifest ecclesiastical communion.’ (840)
Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) tells us, ‘The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to worship God. Because they are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it.’ (59)