Sacraments and Sacramental: Channels of God’s Love
by Bo Sanchez
My friend Josie (not her real name) once joined a long line of people venerating the statue of St. Michael the Archangel in one of the churches south of Manila. You know, that image of St. Michael crushing the devil at his feet.
As Josie prepared for her turn, she saw the old lady in front of her touch the statue of St. Michael with her handkerchief. Then to her surprise, the lady touched the devil, too!
Huh, why did she venerate the devil, too? When it was her turn, Josie hastily touched the statue with her hanky and ran after the old lady to find out.
“Lola, when you touched St. Michael, you touched the devil, too. Why?”
“You know, hija, in times like this, it pays to be sure!” Funny but it’s true. Many people look at sacramentals as lucky charms or amulets. Many do not understand the purpose of sacred signs — the sacraments and the sacramentals.
For example, your parish announces that it will conduct a number of seminars — on how to receive healing, how to receive miracles, how to receive financial blessings and how to receive the seven Sacraments. If you were asked to attend just one seminar, which would you choose?
Now, be honest. Would you be interested in attending the last one? Many would find it boring. They’d reason, why bother when they have received most of the sacraments?
But here’s the truth: The greatest healings, the greatest miracles and the greatest blessings come to us through the Seven Sacraments.
The most solemn, majestic and beautiful gifts that Jesus Christ gave to the world are His sacraments. He endowed them with unprecedented and unparalleled power — power to change lives, save souls and share God’s very life. The sacraments are the ordinary means by which God directs the course of each human life and all of world history.
— Scott Hahn, Swear to God
A few years ago, my brother-in-law passed away. Hours before he died, his family called a priest. The priest listened to my brother-in-law’s confession, absolved him of his sins and then administered to him the sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist. Then he died. That’s how he was ushered into the Kingdom of God. To this day, for us, his family, there is peace, joy and hope in the knowledge that my brother-in-law received the most important blessings from God towards the end of his life.
Sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to give us grace. At pivot points in our lives, there is a sacrament available to us.
Let us understand sacraments in a deeper way.
Creation Is a Natural Sacrament
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork… There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.
— Psalm 19:1-4
When I go abroad for preaching engagements, I get to see more of the beauty and wonders of God’s creation. Some places I’ve been to are so clean and the weather so cool, it’s almost like paradise.
But I don’t have to go far to see such wonders.
One time, after coming from a trip abroad, I had to lead a retreat in Calamba, Laguna, south of Manila. The retreat house had a deck providing a breathtaking view of the majestic Mt. Makiling overlooking Laguna de Bay.
I stood at that deck gazing at the beauty of the creation before me. And I exclaimed to myself, “This is paradise — the Philippines!”
In that moment of absolute gratefulness, I allowed God to embrace me — and He did, in the air that I breathed, in the sky above me, in the chirping of the birds and in the rustle of the leaves.
Jesus, too, prayed in the midst of creation. He prayed on top of mountains or on the shoreline. St. Francis prayed in caves, in forests and on top of hills. That’s why he sang, “Brother Sun and Sister Moon, I seldom see you, seldom hear your tune.”
The person beside you may look ordinary, but you know what? That person is the house of God — a big sign that God loves you! Why? Because the human being is the masterpiece of God’s creation. And in all of creation, God has only one thing to tell you: “I love you, my child. Look at the beauty of the world around you. That’s the place I have prepared for you to live in. And look at the people around you — I created them all for you.”
But sometimes we do not see and appreciate the beauty around us because they’re too near and familiar.
God speaks to men through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read these traces of its Creator. Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both His greatness and His nearness.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1147
The Bible Used Many Signs
In the Bible, we encounter many signs of God’s presence: the staff of Moses, the burning bush, the mantle of Elijah, the remains of Elisha and a lot more. Jesus used them to be channels of His grace.
We Operate by Outward Signs
God uses signs to channel His grace for us because we are embodied creatures living in a physical universe. A sign is something used to represent something else.
For example, the word microphone is a sign. It is not the microphone itself but it represents the thing called microphone.
Flags are signs that represent countries, that’s why it’s an insult to a country when you burn its colors.
Our names are also important signs because they are used to connect to us. When you say my name, Bo, it’s an important sign. Why? Because in French, it means handsome. It’s true!
In the 10 Commandments, it says, “You shall not use God’s name in vain.” God’s name is sacred. But we often say His name carelessly.
I remember a story about a kindergarten class. The teacher asked her pupils, “Where is God?”
A little girl quickly said, “Teacher, God is in heaven.”
“Great!” said the teacher.
A boy at the back raised his hands. “Teacher, God is in my heart,” he said.
“Wow, that’s beautiful!” exclaimed the teacher.
A third pupil answered, “Teacher, the Lord is in our bathroom.”
“Why is He in your bathroom?” the teacher wondered.
“Because every morning, my sister always beats my Dad to the bathroom, and as he knocks on the bathroom door, my father shouts, ‘Oh God, you’re still there!’”
Sacramentals — Signs of the Sacred
Sacraments are sacred signs instituted by Christ. Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of their lives.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1667
Jesus is the Sacrament of all sacraments.
The Seven Sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony and Holy Orders. These are the means by which God’s power flow to us.
Sacramentals, on the other hand, are the materials we use, the activities we do or events we hold to deepen our faith and to bring us closer to God. We have a lot of sacramentals — hundreds, in fact! These are the religious statues, the rosary, holy water, scapular, relics of the saints, prayer books and many more, including novena prayers, prayer meetings (like The Feast every Sunday at the Valle Verde Club in Pasig City), the sign of the cross and all things and activities that God uses to share and reveal Himself to us.
I am Charismatic in the sense that I am modern but, you know, I can be very traditional. People are surprised when they see me touching statues. If you go to my house, you will find the San Damiano Cross on every door. When I enter my house, I touch or kiss that cross. You will also find me kissing the Bible and praying the Holy Rosary. When I clutch the rosary, it’s like I am holding hands with my mother and with Mama Mary. People would ask me, “Bo, why do you still do that?”
Because we are a people of signs. We live in a world of signs and it’s normal that God communicates to us through signs.
Our fundamentalist brothers and sisters say that we are not to venerate statues, pictures of Jesus, Mama Mary and the saints. Some go to the extent of destroying religious statues and images. They even quote Exodus 20:4-5, “You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or worship them.”
My rebuttal would be from Scripture also. Exodus 20:4-5 is not against Catholic statues and images. In Exodus 25, you read about God instructing Moses to make an arc of the covenant and two cherubims of beaten gold for the two ends of the mercy seat.
Yes, God favors images to express His message to His people. There are other passages in the Holy Bible where God gives instructions to build images, such as in Numbers 21:8 and in 1 Kings 2:6-26.
But what does Exodus 20:4 really say to us? I always remind people that when we read the Bible, we have to consider the context in which the passage was written.
You see, in Exodus 20, the people made images of their gods, such as Molek, one of the cruelest idols.
Molek was a huge statue made of pure black thick iron, with outstretched arms and a protruding belly carved like a furnace. People put wood in the furnace and set it on fire during their worship time. As the fire raged, they threw babies in the outstretched arms of Molek as their offering to their god. The babies, most of them not more than six months old, fall into the furnace and are burned to death.
So, in effect, the idols mentioned in Exodus 20:4 are gods like Molek.
Now the images we venerate are those of Jesus or of the saints like Mama Mary — images of holiness, not cruelty, and definitely not the idols mentioned in Exodus 20.
I am not saying that Catholic practices are not exempt from abuse. Sometimes we see people using the rosary as an amulet or a lucky charm.
But generally, we use signs and symbols to represent something or someone we value. Like most houses have framed photos of family members hanging on the walls.
Suppose I go to your house. I see a photo on the wall and ask you, “Who’s that?”
You say, “That’s my mother. She died a couple of months ago.”
I could see sorrow etched on your face but I continue, “May I take it out of the frame?”
You reply, “Oh, OK, but be careful!”
I take out the photo, tear it and spit on it.
“Why are you doing that?” you shriek.
“That’s just paper!” I insist.
You cry, “No, it’s not just paper — it’s my mother!”
You get the drift? When you throw away a statue, you don’t just throw a piece of wood or plaster. The statue represents something valuable.
It’s important that we understand why God uses signs in this world.
And it’s important that we use them well — because they’re sacred.
(For comments and reactions, email me at bosanchez@kerygmafamily. com)
Bo’s Action Steps:
1.Look at all the signs and symbols around you. Why do you think God gave them to you? Thank God for each.
2.What sacred signs and symbols do you regularly use to bring you closer to God?
*This article was taken from Kerygma magazine April 2009 issue. If you want to subscribe to K magazine click here or call us at 725-9999.
Photo from pixabay.com