What is a sacrament? Different churches have different ways of talking about this. More liturgical churches have either two or seven sacraments. Almost every church agrees on the two sacraments of baptism and communion. In addition, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches (and some Anglican churches) also include confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders as sacraments.
Less liturgical churches, such as the Baptist, Alliance, and Pentecostal churches, refer to the sacraments as ordinances.
As I understand it, the difference between an ordinance and a sacrament is that an ordinance focuses on the faith of the adherent. Taking Baptism as an example—only those who can make a personal profession of their faith can be baptized. A sacramental understanding puts the emphasis not on a profession of the individual’s faith, but on the sacrament as a deep symbol of God’s grace. As a result, even day–old infants can be baptized, since the sacrament is primarily about God’s action in embracing all people.
This doesn’t mean that less liturgical churches don’t embrace God’s grace. They surely do, but they also emphasize human faith in an equal measure as we embrace God’s activity in our lives.
Personally, the sacramental tradition makes more sense to me. I have always understood that God’s grace is primary. Our response to grace is always secondary. St Augustine expressed it well in the 4th century: “a sacrament is the visible form of an invisible grace.” Anglican and Lutheran catechisms expanded this slightly to talk about an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
I particularly like what American Presbyterian minister and novelist Frederick Buechner says about it: “A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time you can see through to something deep inside time.”
This way of thinking about life is expansive. Buechner points to the spiritual reality of those moments when we catch a glimpse into the depths of life. In milestone moments in our lives, such as being baptized, or getting married, or dying, we are apt to “catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.”
Buechner continues with the insight that “Church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, at any place, and to anybody. Watching something get born. Making love. A walk on the beach. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out they are not a stranger. If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that all of life itself is sacramental.”
I have always loved this vision of a sacramental life. It encourages me when I feel down; it guides me to look everywhere for signs of grace and hope and joy; it immerses me in a life which reaches out to the other with the hope of a deep connection.
Our society has become particularly good at compartmentalizing our lives: work; family; friends; politics; hobbies. And somewhere in our busyness, we find a little bit of space and time where we can fit God in.
Thinking of life sacramentally is more wholistic. When Jesus said, “Give to God what belongs to God,” his point was that our whole lives belong to the God in whose image we are created.
This sacramental vision has helped me during this continuing pandemic. Even in times of upheaval and struggle, we can seek and find moments of grace and life. We can live out the gospel as we become more deeply the church. We learn to see. As Buechner hopes, “If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that all of life itself is sacramental.”