The first hurdle is the very word “sacrament,” which we tend to associate with seven rites of the Roman Catholic tradition. The word is an ancient one that predates Christianity. The Latin word sacramentum was “a pledge of money or property that was deposited in a temple by parties to a lawsuit or contract, and that was forfeited by the one who lost the suit or broke the contract.” (Martos, 3) Later the term was applied to soldiers making an oath of allegiance to their commanders and the gods of Rome. In either case the term Sacramentum involved a religious ceremony in a sacred place.
In the second century Christian writers began to use the term sacramentum to describe the process of baptismal initiation to their Roman countrymen, as a ritual through which people began a new life of service to God. Martos observes that as polytheism gradually disappeared and Christianity became the state religion, the term sacramentum or sacrament took on broader usage, such that in the fifth century St. Augustine would write that “people cannot be united in any religion, whether it be true or false, unless they are brought together through a common sharing of some visible signs or sacraments; and the powers of these sacraments is so effective that scorning them is considered sacrilegious.” (Martos, 4)
Augustine had lived on two continents and embraced Christianity as an adult, so his world view, even as a churchman, reflects a rich range of human experience and practice. It did not escape him that tribes, families, and even empires experienced a need and recognition of powers beyond themselves, and that they practiced rites which channeled this power into their collective and individual existence. For Augustine, whose thinking on sacraments would shape Christianity for nearly a millennium, the ability of humans to reach greater depths of reality through symbolic acts was universal, a feature of personhood.
Neither Augustine nor any other Church Father of my acquaintance ever expressed shame or denial of the fact that in many respects Christianity had borrowed from the broader pool of religious experience in identifying and defining its sacred moments. Jesus himself, in leaving behind a meal to be shared in his memory, drew from the sacred rite of the Jewish Passover. But perhaps more surprisingly, the Gospel of John (John 9:6-7) makes mention of another instance where Jesus employed an unspecified religious rite to effect a miraculous cure: he spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste, spreads it on the eyes of a blind man, and commands him to go to a pool to wash it off, and consequently a man born blind was able to see.
If anything, our Christian history at its best is a tradition of experience: an involvement of our bodies, our beings, in our own rites of saving connectedness with the God of Abraham and the God of Jesus. Later in his work Martos will discuss the medieval shift in thinking about sacraments, and how official language changed from experience and participation into reception, as in “receiving a sacrament” from a deacon, priest, or bishop, with the strong connotation of passivity. The medieval mind, in its quest for philosophical logic, actually put space between the disposition of the worshipper and the structural rite of a sacrament.
Vatican II attempted to recover the wisdom and experience of the early Church in its reform of sacramental rites, a process Martos will detail, but it has been an uneven process at best. I suspect that part of the problem is a contemporary lack of understanding of symbol and experience; or, put another way, we have a limited set of tools for communicating symbolically. If I am getting confusing here, you are getting a taste of my own confusion at Catholic University when, as preparation for theology, one of my first courses as an undergraduate philosopher was “Semiology” (today “Semiotics”), the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes, and meaningful communication. The textbook by Roland Barthes is still available, described by one Amazon present day reviewer as “a terse, dense book on dealing with symbols.”
I remember vaguely from 1970 that I delivered a paper in that course on the then current day identification of large gaudy Cadillacs with Negroes in various lines of criminal business activities. I collected one of my many “gentleman’s C’s” for that course, but looking back 46 years I have gradually come to understand that what I was trying to say was that symbols vary with the times and the culture. My Cadillac example was certainly time conditioned, but other symbols endure, and their value increases along a continuum until the symbol and the reality are one and the same.
This is best explained in everyday Christian life by speaking of symbols of God. A picture of the Sacred Heart may be symbolic of God—if you understand the pierced heart as depicting Christ’s sorrow for sin. In Augustine’s mind a picture or icon of this nature might be sacramental under the right circumstances in that it causes the mind and emotions of the beholder to grow closer to God—but no one would ever say that the picture (or symbol) is the same as God (the reality); that would be idolatry. It is more accurate to say that the only perfect symbol of God is the living Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus does say this; at the Last Supper he told Phillip that “he who sees me seems him who sent me.”
It has long been Catholic teaching that with the Second Coming and final judgment the need for sacraments will cease, since all of the saved will behold God face to face. In this the “middle age” between the first and second comings of Christ, our task at hand is to insure that the celebration of the signs known as sacraments bring us to the closest experience of the holy as possible in imitation of the saving works of Christ.