Christian history is full of the use of symbols that express spiritual concepts. They find their way into our music, iconography, architecture, and even our lifestyle. Some of the highest expression of such symbology is found in the Sacraments and Sacramentals of the church. Most people may recognize the term Sacrament:
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” from the Catechism of the Catholic Church
What this means is that the symbol isn’t just a symbol, but in some hidden way fulfils its meaning becoming a true symbol. For instance, in the sacrament of Matrimony, we believe that the man and woman become one flesh. Now that doesn’t mean they are now melted into one person. Rather, in some unseen way, grace worked in the ceremony, and by their faith and vows, grace was able to unite the two people into a married couple. So much for marriage being just a piece of paper!
However there are many other symbols used by the church which are called Sacramentals:
“”Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals. These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.” from the Catechism of the Catholic Church
Now a way I look at sacramentals is this. They are like physical prayers. They tie the image or symbol to our actions and bring about change us by practice. In a way this prepares us for sacraments or just puts us into a contemplative mindset to meditate on our faith. An example of this would be the lighting of a votive candle at church. Its just a candle, but it is lit as a prayer. By lighting it I have demonstrated my concern or petition for some need or for the needs of a person that I’m praying for. The symbol of light reminds me of Christ and of our call to be a light to the world, the purity of the flame bring to mind the Holy Spirit, the smell brings to mind the prayers of the saints, like a fragrance, but again it’s not just about the action. It is also about our action. The lighting of the candle has to be tied to our faith. Anyone can light a candle but we need to light a candle and mean it.
There are seven sacraments that the church recognizes, but the number of Sacramentals is much greater. In either case they both tend to remind us of what they represent, bringing together the seen and unseen, the corporeal and spiritual, which is the essence of the christian faith.
The Sacraments of the Church are:
- Holy Orders
- Anointing of the Sick
Examples of a Sacramental are:
- The Sign of the Cross – remind us of the cross.
- Holy Water – reminds us of baptism.
- Candles – reminds of light, prayer, purity.
- Rosary beads or Chaplets – reminds us of the incarnation and Mary.
- Ashes on Ash Wednesday – fasting, suffering, penitence.
- Palms on Palm Sunday – Jesus as King
- Book of Hours – the diving office touches many aspects of our faith.
- Stations of the Cross – the Passion of Christ.
So this is really just an overview. As you can see I’ve touched on several sacramentals already and plan to spend time on more of them as well as sacraments.