What Are Sacraments?

eucharist-960x250Sacraments are mysteries. That’s actually what the original Greek word for sacrament means: “mystery.” Sometimes people try to explain sacraments by attempting to nail down what exactly is happening in them. Perhaps this is because we are uncomfortable in our late modern era with mystery and transcendence.

There’s much we don’t know and can’t comprehend about sacraments. What we do know is that a sacrament is a place where God has promised to be especially present via material means (water, bread, wine, oil, etc.). The Book of Common Prayer famously defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

Jesus and MaryAll sacraments connect back to Jesus in His incarnation, who is the ultimate sacrament—God taking on a material existence within His own creation. At one level this all sounds absurd. How could God be limited to materiality, to a single body, at a particular place and time? But this scandalous mystery is at the heart of our salvation. It’s the means of our communion with the Trinitarian God. Sacraments in the life of the Church are a continuation of this same scandalous grace.

Sacraments operate in several different ways:

They act as a sign—directing our attention to the presence and reality of God.
They are a symbol—embodying and summarizing the very power of the Kingdom to which they belong.
They are an instrument—a means of grace bringing about a transformation in those who receive them with faith.
They are a foretaste—the Communion we experience now is a foretaste of the eternal, unbroken Communion we will have with God and each other in the New Heavens and New Earth.

bread and fishSacraments are intended to awaken us to the true nature of creation as God designed it. All of creation has the potential to be sacramental, but there is an important difference between something that is sacramental and something that is a sacrament. A sacrament is a specific action ordained by Christ connected to a specific aspect of the life of the Church. To say something is sacramental is to recognize it as transparent to the presence of the Creator God. As we give thanks for God’s creation, it becomes transparent to the Creator who we worship and thus sacramental.

At Eucharist Church we speak of two “dominical” sacraments (dominical is Latin for the Lord). These two sacraments are those instituted specifically by Jesus: Baptism and Holy Communion (Eucharist). Beyond this, the historical Church also added five other sacramental actions which, though they do not come directly from commands of Jesus, were held in high esteem: Confession, Marriage, Confirmation, Ordination, and Healing (Anointing). At Eucharist Church we also recognize the sacramental value of these actions though we do not specify that these are on the same footing as the dominical sacraments, nor that sacramental actions are limited only to these seven.

About Baptism

BaptismBaptism is how we become members of God’s family, the church. This is how we join ourselves to Jesus and to everyone else who has ever joined themselves to Jesus. Baptism is the initiation of a person into the Body of Christ via water. It’s about taking on a new identity—that of Christ. The Bible has many pictures trying to give us a sense of baptism’s importance:

  • The washing away of sin and the forgiveness of sin
  • Death and resurrection
  • New birth

Baptism is traditionally done via immersion (dipping), but in some cases can be done via pouring water over the head of a person or even sprinkling them with water if water is in scarce supply or health conditions do not permit immersion. Baptism is always done while invoking the Trinity—”In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” It is typically said three times to accentuate the Trinitarian identity.

If you’d like more information about baptism for yourself or your child, please contact Fr. Ryan (ryan@eucharistSF.org). We offer times for baptism multiple times each year at the traditional times of Christian baptism (and additionally by special request). The most natural pathway toward baptism is to participate in our Catechumenate. Specifically, we have designed a learning module for those preparing for baptism or confirmation called, “To Be a Christian.”

About Holy Communion

Holy Communion, also known as the Eucharist, is the receiving of the elements of bread and wine which Christians accept by faith as the real presence of the crucified and resurrected Christ.

Holy-Communion mosaicThe Eucharist has been described as the source and summit of our life in Christ. It is the weekly (or more often, in some cases) renewal of our communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the members of the Body of Christ throughout the world and through time.

The Eucharist is like a diamond with many different facets. It is the re-enactment of the gospel—a reminder of the death, resurrection, and the Second Coming of Christ. It is renewal of our faith and our identity in Christ. It is the strengthening of our spiritual commitment to live under the Lordship of Christ. It is the re-membering of the Body of Christ, as young and old, people of different ethnicities and social classes, and men and women come together to receive from the One Loaf and the One Cup. It is the moment when we are renewed as the Body of Christ in order to be sent out to be what we have been made to the world around us—the hands and feet of Christ.

Who Should Receive Holy Communion?

We invite all baptized followers of Jesus who desire to live in obedience to Christ and His Word to participate in Communion. Though we typically rely on individuals to determine if they are in an appropriate posture to participate, on occasion the priest may ask a person not to participate in Communion until there has been a conversation, clarification, repentance, or whatever is necessary to maintain the meaning of Communion. If you have a question about whether you should be taking Communion, please feel free to ask Fr. Ryan.

If you are not yet baptized but desire to receive Communion, we encourage you talk to Fr. Ryan after worship about baptism and the process of preparation. A hunger for Communion is a good indicator of a growing desire for baptism. Baptism is the formal act of initiation into Christian faith that historically has always preceded receiving Communion. There is a sacramental and theological logic to this.

We are careful to honor God in how we handle Communion. St. Paul in I Corinthians 11 warns his readers about taking the Body and Blood of Christ casually or inappropriately. So we do our best to receive Communion simultaneously with sober-minded humility and deepest joy. None of us is worthy of this meal, which is precisely the point, and why we must receive it by grace in humility. In taking the very presence of Christ into ourselves we recognize we are intimately connected to God and to the entire Church around the world and through time.

How to Receive Holy Communion at Eucharist Church

Communion handWhen you come forward to receive the bread, the server will offer it to you. The appropriate response to the words of the server is to quietly say, “Amen.” Some people find this a fitting time to make the sign of the cross. Communion can be received either by intinction (dipping the piece of bread into the wine) or by eating the bread and then drinking directly from the chalice. We request those who are sick to receive Communion by intinction for community health reasons. If you prefer a non-alcoholic option, please ask the Communion server at the time you receive.

If you are not baptized or are not able to receive Communion for other reasons, you are still invited to come forward and receive a blessing. Cross both your arms over your chest to signify you’d like a blessing. If you’d rather remain in your seat, we invite you to use this time for prayer and reflection.

Eucharist Church is a congregation in San Francisco connecting ancient forms of worship and classic Christian faith to the lives of 21st-century people.