Reflection: Sacramentals Are Not Sacraments
by Father Don Thomas
The distinction between sacramentals and the seven sacraments is both interesting and very important for both Catholics who hear about them all their lives and for non-Catholics who frequently question what they are all about. This reflection is intended to deal primarily with sacramentals, but for the sake of clarity, let me state that Jesus Christ instituted the seven sacraments so that we may share in the grace or the life of God. By name they are: Baptism, Confession or Reconciliation as it is called today, Communion, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Matrimony and the Sacrament of the Sick, known for many years as Extreme Unction. Two of the sacraments are called Sacraments of Dead (Baptism and Reconciliation), while the other five are called Sacraments of the Living. But now for sacramentals.
Because sacramentals are man-made and are not means of providing us with sanctifying grace as do the seven sacraments, let us say that the sacramentals of the church help us in many ways to dispose our souls for the reception of grace through the sacraments Christ gave us. At this point, let me name some sacramentals so that non-Catholic and Catholics will understand what we are talking about. Most Catholics already realize that we are talking about things like candles, holy water, the rosary, the bible, blessed ashes, the blessing of throats, blessed palms, medals, holy cards, crosses and crucifixes, stations of the cross, scapulars, statues, blessed oil, and others.
From sports, I would like to draw an analogy that might help us understand the nature and significance of sacramentals. The vast majority of people, even if they are not athletes themselves, understand clearly the wisdom and purpose of "warming up" before the start of the football, baseball, and basketball games all over the world. This is true of all sports, as it is a way of sharpening one's skills, a way of avoiding cramps, pulled muscles, hamstring problems, sore arms and shoulders and so forth.
Many sport fans love to go to games about an hour early, just to watch players warm up because it gives the athletes a chance to get loose, show off their skills while fooling around while warming up, and it helps to prepare or dispose these athletes mentally and physically for the important game itself. I know I enjoyed going early for the interesting warm-ups over the years. Even today I appreciate the importance of the pre-game warm-ups. Factors like inclement weather and other factors that deter athletes from warming up are frequently and rightfully pointed out as causes or reasons for bad play, injuries or inferior performances.
Relating all this to the game of our spiritual lives, we realize that it is our faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, that will bring about our salvation. Good works in themselves will save no one, but when good works are an expression of our faith, we have the happy combination that will enable us to do God's Will and work out our salvation. The use of sacramentals fits right into that aspect and appreciation of our faith. Below we will proceed to demonstrate the relationship between the sacraments and sacramentals, and how the sacramentals enable and assist us in disposing our souls for the more important "game" of sharing in the grace or life of God through the sacraments like Baptism, Communion, and the other sacraments.
An important detail to point out, lest it escape us, is the fact that non-Catholics as well as Catholics can be involved with sacramentals, while such is not the case with some of the sacraments. By way of example and clarification, non-Catholic are able to have their throats blessed, receive the blessed ashes on Ash Wednesday, receive blessed palms on Palm Sunday, and so on. On the other hand, non-Catholic are not expected to or allowed to receive Communion, Confirmation, the Sacrament of the Sick, and other sacraments, simply because they do not believe the same way about the seven sacraments.
By way of illustration, let me demonstrate the beauty and richness of several sacramentals, hoping that it might encourage readers to do further research about numerous other sacramentals such as some of those I mentioned above. Let me now deal with several sacramentals and show how interesting and effective they are in promoting the exercise of our faith, thus giving us a greater appreciation for what are more important in our spiritual lives—the seven sacraments.
Example 1—Holy Water
We use water in religion because water is a symbol of both life and purification. Yes, life. Out in a desert, for example, you never find beautiful green grass, flowers, plants, and other life because there is little or no water at all in the desert. On the other hand, where you have a lot of rain and lots of water everywhere, you find all kinds of life—plants, flowers, grass, fish swimming in the bayou, and other biological life.
The water used at our baptisms is a sign or symbol of the life of God that we share in as Catholics and non-Catholics. The life of God is called grace. In the Protestant and Catholic bibles it states very clearly that through baptism we are buried with Christ in a death to sin so that we may rise to a new kind of life. Water is truly a symbol of life. Water is also a symbol of purification or cleansing. When we get dirty, we wash ourselves with water; we use water to clean our dirty clothes; and in baptism, our soul is cleansed or purified from the stain of original sin in which we are all conceived. It is not a personal sin, but rather one we inherit, much in the way a baby may inherit sickle cell or cystic fibrosis. It is not the baby's fault, but lf it is there, let us do something about it. If God reveals that we are conceived in sin, let us do something about it and that is why He expects us to be baptized with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Example 2 —Blessed Candles
Blessed Candles are another sacramental. As the American flag is a symbol or reminder of our country, from the bible we learn that because Jesus called himself the Light of the world, a candle for us is a symbol of Christ. Just as a flashlight comes in handy when we find ourselves in the dark, as we go through the darkness of this world seeking eternal life, Christ, the Light of the world is our guide. He called Himself the way, the truth and the life, and if we follow Him, we will not get lost.
Example 3—The White Cloth
Our third example of a sacramental:is the white cloth placed on the body of the baby or adult who gets baptized; and also the large cloth, called a pall, that is placed on a casket on the occasion of a church funeral. One day Jesus pointed out that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet to which everyone is invited. However, Jesus said that everyone must be dressed properly. He was not talking about clothes, bur rather about the soul being adorned with the grace of God, which is gained for the first time in baptism. It can be lost any number of times in our lives through serious sin, but always regained through sorrow for sin or reconciliation. When death comes, the soul must be adorned with the grace of God in order to enter the kingdom. The cloth is simply a sacramental that reminds us of the grace of God.
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