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By Mitch Finley
Do sacraments work?
Your question is an interesting and concise one. I would have appreciated some elaboration, but since none was included I will need to respond the best I can. When you ask if “sacraments work,” I presume you want to know if the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, Holy Orders) are real or mere “symbols.” One classic Catholic definition of a sacrament goes like this: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”
The first thing I must say is that the sacraments should not be looked at separate from the relationship between the risen Christ and the faith community, the church. Each of the sacraments is a particular way the community of faith, and the individual believers who make up that community, relate to the risen Christ. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality. Each sacrament is a tangible way of relating to Christ and to his people, the church. One may suggest that because we are not pure spirits, but embodied spirits, Christ gave us tangible ways—ways we can touch, taste, hear, and see—to relate to him in this life. And each one of these sacraments relates to a particularly significant event in life. Thus, Baptism unites natural birth with birth in Christ; Eucharist is meant to nourish an ongoing life of Christian faith; Matrimony unites husband and wife to each other in Christ, and so forth.
Here’s a little aside that I find interesting. Songwriter Steve Young wrote a song, “Seven Bridges Road,” that in a five-part harmony arrangement became a big hit for the Eagles. Young said: “I don’t know [exactly] what [the] song means. Consciously . . . I [just] wrote . . . a song about a girl and a road in south Alabama. But I think on another level the song has something kind of cosmic . . . that registers in the subconscious: the number seven has all of these religious and mystical connotations.”
Indeed, I like the idea of “Seven Bridges Road” as a metaphor for Catholicism and the Catholic Church. The church is the “Road,” and the sacraments are the “Seven Bridges.”
Anyway, all that aside, your question is, “Do sacraments work?” I can only say that for believers, yes, sacraments “work.” For more than 2,000 years sacraments have “worked.” Sacraments support and nourish intimacy with the risen Christ and with his people, the church, which is what they are supposed to do.
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