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Ramiro Pellitero Iglesias, Professor of Theology, University of Navarra, Spain School

Faith and sacraments: a dialogue of salvation

Mon, 09 Mar 2020 15:48:00 +0000 Posted in Church and new evangelization

The intimate connection between Faith and sacraments - they require each other - is the topic of the document of the International Theological Commission graduate "The reciprocity between faith and sacraments in the sacramental Economics ", published in March 2020.

To illustrate this necessary involvement between faith and the sacraments, the document explains, in the second chapter, the character of "dialogue" that the sacraments and, more generally, the Christian life have. Dialogue between God and people and vice versa, which leads to a dialogue of friendship and fraternity with others.

Jesus Christ, "Word of God" made flesh

1. To this end, he begins by presenting the figure of Jesus Christ in the framework of faith in the Triune God. In Christ there is an excellent and unique relationship between an external and visible reality (his humanity) and a profound and invisible reality (his divinity). Everything in the Christian life depends on Christ. And for this reason everything, and concretely the sacraments, participates in this double dimension, visible and invisible, external and interior, signifying and signified, which is given to us in Christ.

Christ is the eternal Word (the eternal Word, Son of the Father) of God who, through the work of the Holy Spirit, became Word made flesh for us and for our salvation. Thus it is understood that, also by the action of the Holy Spirit, some human words - accompanied by certain gestures and other elements - can be, in the sacraments, at the same time"words of God". That is to say, words that communicate truths and contents that come from God and that, at the same time, effectively produce his presence as efficacious signs of his action.

The core topic of this dialogue that God establishes with us-first in his Son made visible flesh for us and now through the sacraments that prolong and bring us closer to his saving action-is the action of the Holy Spirit. This is how the document explains it: "If the Holy Spirit is true God, then he can open us to God and introduce us to the divine life by means of the sacramental signs" (n. 18).

Since the creation of the world - in which his "Word" and his "Spirit" intervene - God has been revealing himself to us, so that all beings are certain signs or reflections of God. We men and women in particular have been made in the "image and likeness" of God. We are "signs" of a deeper reality which is the being and beauty of God, who is, in his intimate life, a communion (Trinity) of persons. And this is manifested both in our language and in our activity. Both are directed to the communication of truth and good among people.

At the apex of this divine pedagogy or Economics of dialogue and "significance" (Economics sacramental) is Christ. According to the Western Christian tradition, a sacrament is a "sign and instrument" of salvation. Well, this is so because the sacraments come from Christ - they are instituted by Him - and unite us to Him. Christ is, according to Christian Tradition, the "original or primordial sacrament" of God the Father. That is to say, Christ is a sacrament not in the sense of the seven sacraments, but in a much more original and radical sense, in that he is, par excellence, the Sign and Instrument of the love of God the Father for our salvation.

"In Jesus Christ, as the summit of history and the fullness of salvific time (cf. Gal 4:4), there is the closest possible unity between a creaturely symbol, his humanity, and what is symbolized, the saving presence of God in his Son in the midst of history. The humanity of Christ, as humanity inseparable from the divine person of the Son of God, is the "real symbol" of the divine person. In this supreme case, the created communicates in Degree supreme the presence of God" (n. 30).

Thus we see how the whole revelation of God, which has been made complete in Jesus Christ, has this double characteristic: it is both"sacramental " (made up of signs, meaningful gestures and words) and"dialogical" (because God addresses us personally with a dialogue of love, offering us salvation in the sharing of his divine life). For this reason faith expresses itself and grows in the sacraments and vice versa, without faith the sacraments remain empty of meaning.

"Jesus Christ concentrates the foundation and the source of all sacramentality, which then unfolds in the different sacramental signs that generate the Church" (n. 31).

Christ institutes the sacraments so that the salvation He brings us may be adapted to our way of being human. The sacraments have visible elements and Materials (as we have and are body). And they signify invisible and immaterial realities (as we also have and are spirit). Just as each person is an "incarnate spirit", the Christian life, which is divine life in us, is expressed and perfected, through the sacraments, in the family of God which is the Church.

The Church and the dialogue of salvation

2. The Second Vatican Council has called the Church a "universal (general or fundamental) sacrament of salvation" always in dependence on Christ. The term sacrament is also used here in a broader and more fundamental sense than to designate the seven sacraments, but always in dependence on Christ. Precisely because of Christ's will in union with Him, the Church is the sphere, the mother and the home, the body where the sacraments of Christian life and other realities (such as the reading of the Sacred Scripture, or the so-called "sacramentals" -signs, such as holy water, that dispose to the sacraments or sanctify the circumstances of life-) are celebrated and lived. Thus the very life of Christians becomes a "sacrament" (sign and instrument, living icon, efficacious expression) of salvation for many others.

Everything in Christianity has this characteristic or dimension of"sacramentality" that manifests itself in different ways and intensities, beginning with Christ and the Church, and very concretely, although not exclusively, in the concrete or particular sacraments.

The risen Christ lives and acts in the Church through the Holy Spirit. Certainly the grace of God - the saving action of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - is not limited to the sacraments, and even acts outside the visible Church, but not outside the Mystery of the Church.

For this reason, the document affirms: "The Church affirms that the grace that justifies and gives salvation and, therefore, true faith is given also outside the visible Church, but not independently of Jesus (primordial sacrament) and the Church (fundamental sacrament)" (n. 37).

Consequently, the sacraments lose their meaning without faith. And faith opens the door to sacramental life. For this reason, the transmission of the faith requires the transmission, at the same time, of doctrinal content of an intellectual nature together with sacramental life (cf. n. 41), in order to bear fruit in the ordinary life of Christians.

Therefore, the sacraments are "sacraments of faith" and faith has a "sacramental structure" (it is also a sign and instrument of salvation) and therefore "the awakening of faith involves the awakening of a new sacramental sense of human life and Christian existence, in which the visible and material is open to the mystery of the eternal" (Ibid.).

Without faith, the sacraments could be understood in a "mechanical" or "magical" sense, that is, as an automatism completely foreign to their dialogical character within the sacramentality of the divine "Economics". Moreover, it must be borne in mind that "the same faith is not required for all the sacraments or in the same circumstances of life" (n. 45).

Thus, all pedagogy or divine Economics is sacramental because it is "incarnational" (cf. Ibid.): it is there to bring the fruits of the incarnation of the Son of God to people and to the world. "The loss of the sacraments," said J. Ratzinger, "is equivalent to the loss of the incarnation and vice versa.

This has consequences in terms of concern for the material and spiritual needs of all. We should add that, in the image of Christ and in union with him, salvation seeks to become "flesh" in us and through us, with our free cooperation. This, as Pope Francis likes to say, is concretized in closeness, in love and mercy towards the human creature, especially towards the most fragile and vulnerable. "Sacramentality always involves a missionary character, of service for the good of others" (n. 33).

This is equivalent to saying: "No one receives the sacraments exclusively for himself or herself, but also to represent and strengthen the Church, which, as the means and instrument of Christ (cf. Lumen gentium, 1), must be a credible witness and an effective sign of hope against all hope, testifying to the world the salvation of Christ, the sacrament of God par excellence. Thus, through the celebration of the sacraments and the proper living of them, the Body of Christ is strengthened" (n. 79).

Intimate connection between faith and sacraments

3. Consequently: "In the Christian conception it is not possible to think of a faith without sacramental expression (as opposed to subjectivist privatization), nor of a sacramental internship in the absence of ecclesial faith (against ritualism)" (n. 51). Faith staff constitutes the response in this dialogue that God establishes with mankind throughout the history of salvation. By its very constitution, faith is nourished, strengthened and manifested by the sacraments, which, in turn, require faith.

The Triune God has entered into dialogue with mankind through signs. Among these signs, the sacraments occupy a very prominent place, for "they are those signs to which God has linked the transmission of his grace in a certain way and goal". "In fact, the sacraments of the New Law are efficacious signs which transmit grace"(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1084).

The last part of this chapter offers concrete elements on the relationship between faith and sacraments:

a) some summary points:

1) The sacraments have a pedagogical purpose because they teach us how Jesus works;
2) The sacraments presuppose faith as access to the sacraments (so that they do not remain an empty rite or be interpreted as something "magical") and as a condition for them to personally produce the gifts that they objectively contain;
3) The sacraments manifest the faith of the subject (dimension staff) and of the Church (ecclesial dimension), as a lived and coherent faith, so that there can be no celebration of the sacraments outside the Church: she celebrates them, she "makes" them; and the sacraments "make" the Church, they build her up as the family of God and make it possible for us to live in her and through her;
4) The sacraments nourish the faith insofar as they communicate grace and effectively signify the mystery of salvation (cf. n. 57).

In this way, "through faith and the sacraments of faith - through the action of the Holy Spirit - we enter into dialogue, at contact vital with the Redeemer, who is seated at the right hand of the Father" (Ibid.).

b) Furthermore, the reciprocity between faith and sacraments is highlighted if we consider two other essential aspects (cf. n. 59):

1) the sacramental celebration relates to the history of salvation (for example, the water, together with the invocation of the Trinity, produces in baptism the effect of forgiveness of sins).
2) The terminology: "sacramentum" is the Latin translation of the Greek "mysterion". The "mysteries" celebrated in the Church (sacraments) are rooted in the "Mystery" of Christ (cf. Eph 3:9: the wisdom of God hidden for centuries and revealed in Christ, although this Mystery always surpasses us). Moreover, "sacramentum" originally means "sacred oath" and carries with it a commitment of fidelity and love.

Implications for the catechesis and Christian life

c) The reciprocity between faith and sacraments has consequences for the catechesis -the training in faith-, since the first centuries. Faith and sacraments require each other and their framework is the Christian life in the family of the Church.
This catechesis must have at its center the "paschal mystery" of the death and resurrection of the Lord, from which both faith and the sacraments of the Church derive. The catechesis should also be "mystagogical" (introductory to the mysteries), preparing for the confession of faith (explaining its contents), which originally takes the form of dialogue, and for fruitful participation in the sacraments. In a progressive way, faith, configured by the relationship staff and loving relationship with Christ, asks to be manifested in the love of God and neighbor (charity). In this way it can be a living faith and is thus the beginning of eternal life in the Christian and the foundation of our hope.

Without an adequate training , the sacraments cannot be lived and understood well. Because of their "dialogical" character, in them, through simple symbols (water, oil, light and fire, etc.), God offers us his words of love - ultimately his very Word made flesh: Christ - effective in giving us his saving grace; and he awaits our loving response with the coherence of our life: "Faith is the key that opens the entrance in that world which makes sacramental realities truly become signs that signify and effectively bring about divine grace" (n. 67).

d) Validity and fruit of the sacraments. When properly celebrated, the sacraments always produce what they signify(validity). For them to bear their full fruit, faith in the one who receives them is also necessary, together with the positive intention to receive what is signified therein. Thus, "every fruitful reception of a sacrament is a communicative act and therefore forms part of the dialogue between Christ and the individual believer" (n. 68). In this way the sacraments reflect the covenant that God has willed to establish with mankind in the history of salvation.

Through the sacraments, the Christian becomes a "living sacrament of Christ" with his own life and participates in the very priesthood of Christ ("common priesthood of the faithful").

This is how we understand a central affirmation in this document: that the person is called to lead creation, by means of a "cosmic priesthood," towards its true purpose: the manifestation of the glory of God (cf. n. 27). In other words: through persons, all creation can and must be a "book" (the book of nature) and a "way" (a way of friendship and love) so that God may be known and loved. At the same time, men and women, united in the divine life, can be happy in earthly life and beyond. The sacraments, in fact, allow us to live this "integral ecology" that our faith demands today.

This begins in the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist). In the face of the deficiencies, wounds and sins of the Christian life, the Church administers the sacraments of healing (Penance or confession of sins and the Anointing of the Sick).

Christian life, which is sacramental life, develops and grows in the context of the ecclesial community, which is served by the sacraments of Holy Orders and marriage. Thus the Church is family and Christian families can be "domestic churches" (small churches or house churches), where Christian life is learned for the good of the Church and the world.