1113 The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
One of the great ironies, or perhaps paradoxes, of the Catholic faith is that while there are technically only seven sacraments, in reality the entire life of the Church is sacramental. On the one hand, the sacramental work of God is defined by seven specific acts. On the other hand, the whole Church itself – herself! – is one massive, living sacrament of God’s redemptive love. As the Catechism says,
774 … The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a “sacrament.”
775 “The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament—a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men’s communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. …
776 As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. “She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men.” The Church “is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,” because God desires “that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.”
This all sounds great, but some people are dissatisfied with the Roman Catholic view. Some people, especially Eastern Orthodox and Protestants, criticize the Roman Catholic tendency to number the mysteries of God as if they were body parts. Why does the Church of Rome feel compelled, let alone justified, to number and index the seven sacraments so precisely? Critics claim the very nature of sacramental grace defies such limiting, scientific precision. As if God’s ways could be numbered and listed like a recipe!
Believe it or not, I basically agree with this criticism. God’s ways are bigger than ours, and his mercies are beyond counting. Nevertheless, I am a Catholic and agree with the Church that there are only seven sacraments properly so called. How do I reconcile these competing ideas about the sacraments? How do I, as a Catholic, reconcile the idea that God’s sacramental grace is bigger than any human list and yet that there are seven sacraments per se?
I reconcile the ideas by thinking of the seven sacraments as the seven fingers of God. The typical hand has exactly five, very well defined fingers. This quantifiable anatomical fact does not, of course, nullify the mystery of the whole human body, much less demystify the whole human experience those five fingers navigate! So it is with the seven sacraments: they are the distinct, well defined “anatomical” facts of the hand of God in the Church. How do they destroy the mystery of grace when in fact they apply and reveal it?
I think the criticism against Roman Catholic sacramentology as too rationalistic, or even too mechanistic, is based on a perception, a misperception, that sacramental priorities are out of order in Catholicism. Non-Catholics are often inclined to think that because the Church has a number on what exactly are the sacraments, it can (and does) just as easily naively disqualify any number of things as not “really” sacramental. Critics may have the impression the Church is sacramental because the Church has defined the seven sacraments, as if the whole body hung above earth by the sheer good fortune of clutching heaven with seven magic fingers. But the opposite is true.
The sacraments are sacramental because the entire Church, as Christ’s Body, is sacramental. The whole body emerges from heaven on earth precisely means of those seven “magic” fingers. One day, when the sky is rolled up and the veil is rent, the fingers will be seen for what they are: not as seven ornate pieces of jewelry on an otherwise graceless collection of believers, but rather as the natural outgrowths of a Body bursting with life and studded with the jewelry of grace! There’s no denying God’s sacramental grace – his very life in the Church! – is amazing beyond quantifying. But at the same time, God has chosen to focus his love and life into seven concrete channels, called Sacraments. Far from nullifying grace, the sacraments, even with all their precise numerals, manifest grace.
I think this image of the concrete fingers of spiritual grace is very appropriate since it fits the larger biblical pattern of the Incarnation. On the one hand, we all know God is infinitely greater than the bounds of man. But at the same time, we believe God focused his very self into the singular man, Jesus of Nazareth. The sacraments are the singular channels of grace Christ uses to extend this supreme focus of grace – the Incarnation – into the whole world. The sacraments are the rituals the Church performs in the Spirit to enjoy the grace God gives in Christ. Conversely, the sacraments are the acts God performs in the Spirit to ensure the worth of the rituals of the Church in Christ.