‘Masterworks of God’

Q. What is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the seven sacraments? Did Christ “invent” all of the sacraments, or were they made up by the Church over time — as one of my Protestant friends claims?

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:

We cannot say that Christ “invented” all seven sacraments in the sense that he specifically and in detail devised all the rites and words of the sacraments. But neither can we say that they were “made up” by the Church over time.

The sacraments have their foundation in the very life of Christ himself. They are a continuation of his saving actions and an elongation in time of what he did during his historic ministry.

During his public ministry, Jesus called disciples and gave them the anticipation of the Holy Spirit. This is the basis of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.

Jesus shared meals with his disciples on a regular basis. Preeminent among these was the Last Supper. After his resurrection, Jesus made himself known in the meal shared on the way to Emmaus and on other similar occasions. This is the basis of the Eucharist.

Among Jesus’ most distinguishing actions was his calling of sinners to repentance and conversion. This is continued in the Sacrament of Penance. Jesus regularly healed the sick and raised up those who were bowed down. In the sacramental anointing of the sick, Jesus continues this ministry.

Jesus’ “blessing” of the marriage feast at Cana by his very presence is the basis of the Church’s rite of marriage. In calling apostles and sending them forth to preach the Good News, he laid the foundation for the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats the origins of the sacraments in this way: “Jesus’ words and actions during his hidden life and public ministry were already salvific, for they anticipated the power of his paschal mystery. They announced and prepared what he was going to give the Church when all was accomplished. The mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments, through the ministers of his Church, for [quoting Leo the Great] ‘what was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries’” (No. 1115). 

There is what a modern theologian has called a “chain of symbolism” at work in the sacraments in that Christ is present in the Church and the Church is manifested in the sacraments; thus Christ is present in the sacraments. The Catechism puts it this way: “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (No. 1116).

The development of the Church over time was the means by which the actions of Christ developed fully into the sacraments as we know them. The Catechism states: “As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her ‘into all truth,’ has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God’s mysteries, has determined its ‘dispensation.’ Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord” (No. 1117).