In our series so far, we have seen how the Sacraments give shape to our Christian lives, both as individuals and as the Church, the Body of Christ, by bestowing upon us God’s grace, which enables us to live that life.
Is it only in the Sacraments, though, that we ritually express that Christian life? If that were the case, where, for example, would the religious life fit in? There are many other sacred signs and actions which witness in various aspects of our lives and of our environment to a Christian dimension, from grace before meals to solemn religious vows, and all these the Church calls ‘sacramentals’.
What is it that distinguishes these sacramentals from Sacraments, though? Most significantly, from a theological point of view, Sacraments confer the grace they signify in a way sacramentals do not. The celebration of the Sacraments, instituted by Christ, is itself the means by which God bestows his gift of grace upon those who receive them; the celebration of the sacramentals, instituted by the Church, is a sign not of God’s gift directly, but of the Church’s prayer for it.
Another obvious difference is that sacramentals are conferred on things and places as well as people: though the Sacraments make use of material signs, the bread and wine do not receive the Eucharistic Sacrament in the way that, say, a bell receives a blessing.
What is the purpose of sacramentals, then, if not to be effective signs of God’s grace like the Sacraments? I suppose we could say the sacramentals ‘flesh out’ the symbolic expression of our Christian lives, built on the framework of the Sacraments. They dispose us to receive the sacraments and help us to co-operate with the grace we have received, by reminding us that our life is a sacrifice of praise: thus, we bless our meals by saying grace, and we may ask a priest to bless our house or our car. We sign ourselves with the sign of the Cross as a reminder of Christ’s death, and with holy water as a reminder of our Baptism. We bless the vestments and vessels we use in church, dedicating them to God as a sign of the reverence we have the worship in which we use them. In some cases these sacramentals are conferred on people, and give them a particular role in the life of the Church, from abbots and abbesses to readers and catechists.
In all of these cases, though, the sacramentals serve as means offered to us by the Church to draw us closer to God in different ways, and thus to live more fully and more closely the life begun in Baptism.