Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Who instituted the sacraments?
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Oct. 25, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
An old and traditional definition of sacraments is that they are “signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” This served as an adequate definition for centuries, but today, for various reasons, the definition as it stands needs careful explanation and nuance. The verb institute, for example, requires careful understanding, so that we do not necessarily have to interpret that word to mean that Jesus actually taught his followers about the seven sacraments, or that he instructed them to follow certain prescribed rituals.
Joseph Martos, an expert in the origin and meaning of the sacraments, explains how historical developments in recent decades have given us a new perspective in understanding what it means to say that Jesus instituted these sacred rituals. Martos writes, “Catechisms used to say that the sacraments were instituted by Christ, and Catholic theologians still acknowledge a sense in which this is true. Historically speaking, however, we have to say there is no direct evidence that Jesus of Nazareth left his companions with a well-defined and complete set of sacramental rituals such as those that later developed in the church.
“On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the earliest followers of Jesus performed sacramental rituals which they believed were ‘from the Lord’ or otherwise approved by God. They shared a special meal and prayed together, they baptized new believers and imposed hands on them, they anointed the sick and appointed leaders of the community. How did these sacramental practices originate? In many cases, we simply do not know. The records that we have, even the earliest, come from a time when practices were already established and regarded as part of the community’s religious inheritance.”
In what sense, then, can we say Jesus instituted the sacraments? We might look at marriage as a way to help answer the question. Certainly marriage was around long before the time of Jesus, so it would simply be wrong to believe that Jesus instituted marriage. However, because of the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, marriage between two baptized followers of Jesus becomes a sign, an external expression, of the enduring and loving relationship Jesus has with his church. In other words, the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus gave new meaning to marriage – what we call sacramental meaning – and so in this very real sense, we can say that Jesus instituted the sacrament of marriage.
Father Karl Rahner, certainly one of the most respected theologians of the 20th Century, explained Christ’s institution of the sacraments by comparing it to Christ’s institution of the Church. The Church itself, as the teachings of Vatican II explain, has a sacramental nature, and in this sense we can say that the Church itself is a sacrament, since it bodies forth the saving presence of the risen Christ. Father Rahner links the institution of the sacraments with the founding of the Church. The Church in its very essence is sacramental – bodying forth the presence of the risen Christ, and the seven sacraments are a principal way that the Church manifests the saving activity of Christ. Like the Church itself, the sacraments have their origin in Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and in his call to discipleship, and so Jesus can be said to have willed the sacraments to the same degree and extent as he willed the Church.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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