The intertwined: image of God and the sacraments


By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world


The richly colored, gold-leafed, ribbon-filled, leather-bound ritual books that we use for the sacraments can contribute to a certain impression of stability or constancy. The consistency of a given rite from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, is a good thing. Yet, if our understanding of the sacraments is limited to the horizon of personal experience we may, by pure accident, superimpose a contemporary vision of beliefs and practices upon the tradition. This, in the end, is to limit God.

What I’d like to point out is the bi-directional influence of our image of God and the sacraments; each informs the other. On the one hand, our participation in liturgies have a formative power. They are designed to shape us, to conform us to Christ. On the other hand, our image or understanding of God inevitably shapes our experience of the sacraments. Again, the influence is bi-directional.

An example of the practice of a sacrament that changed over time is that of receiving Communion. In the first century there was a practice of weekly communing. In the early centuries that followed, we have record of Christians keeping the Eucharist at home in the cupboard for daily communing throughout the week. As time rolled along, different practices emerged where people would attend Mass but regularly refrain from receiving Communion (imagine only a small percentage of Mass attendees going to Communion on any given week.). By the 13th century, participation in Communion became so rare that the Fourth Council of Lateran instructed Catholics to receive the sacrament at least once per year. Almost universal weekly participation in Communion, as often experienced today, emerged in the 20th century. A feeling of unworthiness before God drove the rare participation in Communion in the Middle Ages while a modern recognition of Eucharist as food for the journey of faith encourages regular participation. Here we see how one’s image of God and sacramental participation are intertwined.


A second example of the bi-directional influence of sacraments and image of God is the history of baptismal practices. While in the New Testament a family would come into the Church together, it wasn’t long before people delayed baptism until older adult life in the first centuries of the Church. They perceived baptism as a sort of one shot at forgiveness, so it was prudent to get through one’s youthful indiscretion before receiving the sacrament. Within this worldview, post-baptismal sin could jeopardize one’s salvation. If our imagination indicates that we can be forgiven only once by God we will approach baptism in a very different way. Today, we have the sacrament of reconciliation as a vehicle for the ongoing forgiveness of sins, along with the absolution offered during the Penitential Act at Mass. Once again, our image of God and sacramental practices shape one another.

How the sacraments have been celebrated change over time. However, the God they reveal is constant. The tradition evolves according to the needs of a given community and culture in light of the Gospel. The Church is alive. If we forget this, perhaps by pure accident, we may superimpose ourselves onto the tradition. This, in the end, is to limit God.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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