by Demi Prentiss
How do sacraments make sense in a 21st century context? What are Christians proclaiming when they list two – or seven – “means of grace”? What’s the point, enacting such ancient “outward and visible sign[s] of inward and spiritual grace”? Are we stuck with “It’s tradition” as the best explanation we have?
Still walking what has been, so far, a 70-year-long journey in faith, I understand baptism as the foundational sacrament of Christian life. When we are embraced by baptismal waters, when we are the subject of the words “You are my beloved,” we are assured that the Creator of the universe acknowledges us as lambs of God’s own flock. We are, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “marked as Christ’s own forever.” Those words are written on our hearts, even if our brains don’t always remember them.
Baptism is, above all, a sacrament of identity. Our identity rooted in God, acknowledged and affirmed in and through community. What we do in our lives is shaped by innumerable variables; who we are – and whose we are – is brought to life by the God who made us and loves us, everlastingly. Our identity is defined by the God whose name is love, and whose love is unconditional.
Identity, however, is not enough. After all, the God who loves us just exactly the way we are is never content to leave us unchanged. Setting out on a journey with God always involves growth, metanoia, transformation. Appropriately, the second major sacrament – communion, eucharist, the Lord’s Supper – is the sacrament of growth. Celebrations of communion involve confession, forgiveness, being inspired and encouraged, claiming our role in community, being fed, and being sent out into the world to carry God’s good news to others. Each of those elements call on us to grow, and to participate in our own development.
Each time we remember our baptism or celebrate eucharist, we are reminded that God is at work in both our identity and our growth. The church’s other sacraments give further evidence of God’s tender concern for us, shaping our identity and growth in aspects of a healthy spiritual life.
- Confirmation – a sacrament of identity and growth through participation in community
- Reconciliation – a sacrament of identity and growth in forgiveness
- Marriage – a sacrament of identity and growth through relationship
- Unction – a sacrament of identity and growth in and through healing
- Ordination – a sacrament of identity and growth through developing a community
And it all arises from our baptism, that affirmation of our identity, our belovedness, and our being called into lifelong relationship with the God who made us. That calling summons us to fullness of life.