The Sacraments From the Beginning of the Christian Church to the Present Day

 'When something exciting happens, it is the human thing to celebrate that happening.”

Celebration is a word that we use nowadays that is linked to the sacraments. When someone gets a new job, it is natural to celebrate the event and share the joy with others. The priest used to “say Mass”, but now we say they are “celebrating the Eucharist”. Instead of saying that a priest “marries a couple”, we now say that he “officiates the celebration of marriage”. We celebrate the welcoming of a new member into the Church, we celebrate the entry into the priesthood, and we celebrate a member’s reconciliation with God. There has been no change in the style of the delivery of the sacraments, however, there has been a substantial change in the way that the Church perceives its sacramental life and sacramental experience.

In early Christian times the word ‘sacrament’ was not used to name the performing of any religious action, “their practices remain shrouded in the mists of history and moreover, there was still no name to designate them or, even more important, theological conception under which to bring them”. This showed that early Christians were more concerned with living their lives, as Christ wanted them to rather than trying to name or number such actions.

The need for more precise vocabulary to name religious rites became more evident throughout the years, as the Christian Church expanded. The first word used for what we now call ‘sacraments’ was ‘mysteria’. By the third century, Tertullian, used the Latin word ‘sacramentum’ as he did not want the Christian mysteries to be confused with the pagan mysteries. However, Hayes and Gearon stated that “the word Sacramentum still had rather a broad meaning and it could be used to designate any number of sacred signs and symbols”.

Once scholars had decided to name religious actions, ‘sacraments’, they were still faced with the problem of which religious actions should be given the title. Therefore this meant first clarifying what exactly constituted a ‘sacrament’. Beguerie and Duchesneau highlighted that it was Peter Lombard in his sentences written in 1150, who decided that a sacrament should include; “sign, institution, and efficacy. Thus he examined all the sacred rites (from blessed water to the Eucharist); finally decreeing that only seven can be called sacraments”. Subsequently, Hayes and Gearon added that it became agreed that it was “fitting that there should be seven sacraments because seven is a number which symbolized wholeness”.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformers became concerned with the number of sacraments. The Protestant Reformers believed that the early church had used the bible in numbering the sacraments, however, they felt that “the Bible could no longer be used to validate all the sacramental practices of the day”. At this point, Protestant Reformers decided that only the rituals, which Christ had instructed to be observed in the bible, would be called sacraments. The 2 sacraments mentioned in the Bible and therefore the only ones in which the Reformers would call an official sacrament were Baptism and the Eucharist.

The number of sacraments has varied from five to twelve. It was not until the session of Trent in 1549 that the number seven became fixed as an article of faith. However, in 1562 the Twenty-first Council of Trent stated that “the Church has always had the power to decide or to modify what it judges best fitted to the spiritual utility of those who receive them and in respect of the sacraments themselves, depending on the variety of circumstances, times and places”; Thus highlighting the fact that reforms to the sacraments were inevitable and acceptable.

The seven sacraments have been apparent down through history. In 27AD both Baptism and Eucharist are referred to in the New Testament. In Acts 2:38, Baptism is highlighted, - “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”. The Eucharist is highlighted in Acts 2:46, - “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts”.

Later on, throughout history, other sacraments emerged. The sacrament of Reconciliation was mentioned in 150AD in a book written for Christians living in Rome. In 215AD, Hippolytus named the rites of Ordination and Anointing of the sick in his book, ‘Apostolic Tradition’. By 1000AD Confirmation had become a sacrament in its own right, however, it wasn’t until 1158AD that Marriage became regarded as a sacrament as it was listed as one of the seven by Peter Lombard in his ‘Book of Sentences’. Even though the seven sacraments had been named, the debate on the subject did not come to an end here, and many alterations have been made with regard to the administering of the sacraments since this time.

As stated previously, the sacraments through time have not remained static, many changes have taken place so to accommodate a world in which, “there is both permanence and change, stability and evolution”. This can be seen in the changes brought about in the sacrament of Baptism.

Early Baptism rites were performed at the Easter Vigil and adults-only received the sacrament. It then became more common for infants to be baptized and thus as a result of parents wanting their child to be baptized as soon as possible, the link with Easter baptisms was broken. Further changes have been made, as the receiving of First Holy Communion had to be removed from baptism so that the child would be old enough to understand that they were receiving the body and blood of Christ. Also, Beguerie and Duchesneau highlighted that in the fourteenth century “baptism by immersion was gradually abolished and replaced with baptism by infusion”.

In the early centuries, the sacrament of Reconciliation could only be undertaken once in a person’s lifetime, thus most Christians would have put it off until death. This system of reconciliation took place in public penitential service. Eventually, this public system gave way to the private form of penance, which still takes place today and which can be repeated as often as one wishes.

Through time the Eucharist has changed from its origins as a Jewish Passover meal to become as it is today “the source and the climax of the church”. Another major reform in the Church was the move from Latin to the languages of the modern world. This had a great impact on the Eucharist as these changes were brought about so as to make “both worship and ministry more accessible to non-clergy, thus reflecting deep ecclesiological shifts even yet not wholly assimilated”. This meant that ordinary people could participate more fully in the sacraments and therefore gain more from the experience.

The sacrament of Order or Ministry of Religion has also undergone significant changes. In the early Church, Ordination was regarded, as the process by which a man became a priest. This then enabled them to say mass, hear confessions, anoint the sick, etc. As time passed and the number of men joining the priesthood has fallen there has been an increase in the duties of lay ministers. Their role in the sacraments has increased, for example, it is now possible for a lay minister to anoint the sick.

As highlighted earlier the sacraments have been completely reformed since their introduction. Therefore, it is very likely that theologians will continue the debate to make changes to the sacraments. A debate, which is currently in the force, is whether or not priests should have to lead a celibate life. Those who agree with such a change say that it would encourage greater numbers of men to join the priesthood. While those who disagree would suggest that if a priest were married then he would not be able to carry out his duties to the best of his ability. Another ongoing debate is whether or not women should be allowed to enter the priesthood.

In conclusion, the sacraments from the beginning of the Christian church to the present day have grown and evolved so as to keep up with theological developments. It is therefore likely that changes to the sacraments will continue to take place as further and more in-depth studies are carried out on the subject.

07 July 2022
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