Over the last two installments we began our look at the sacraments. In the first a definition of the word sacrament was offered and the seven sacraments were named within groups that indicate their effects. Then, in the second installment, a definition of liturgy as the worship was offered: that in the liturgy the saving works of Jesus Christ are made present. In this installment, we look at the relation of sacraments (as God’s gift of divine life to us and for us) and liturgy, and how sacraments are also worship that is offered unto God.
That Catholic worship is called “liturgy” emphasizes the truth of the works done on our behalf by Jesus Christ which accomplish our salvation. At the heart of liturgical worship is the one-time offering of Jesus – which He exclusively accomplishes for the sake of all generations that He may save them and set them free from sin and death. These saving works of Jesus are made present through “signs” that we can perceive and receive. These signs include such actions as washing with water and being anointed with oil, or such material things as bread and wine. In and through these perceivable and material things, God can (and does) will to give a right share in His divine life as He Himself sees fit.
How then is the participation in each of the sacraments also an act of worship? Consider first that to worship (referred to as “adoration” in paragraphs 2096-2097 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church) is to acknowledge and totally submit to God who is our all and without whom we cannot exist. In other words, if we think of “bowing down in worship,” it is literally meant to be just that: an act of humbly bowing before our Lord and God, submitting and surrendering ourselves to Him. In such humble submission we open ourselves to God, able to give Him right praise and to receive from God (through humble petitioning, for example) any and every grace that only He can give; in a word, we become “receptive” to God who then is able to fill us with His life, as he never forces Himself upon anyone in freely offering that which is His to give. Thus, in applying these characteristics to liturgy and sacraments, of first importance is the awareness that it is God’s gifts to us that we enter into and participate within at the liturgy and in receiving the sacraments – and that our place (and therefore, participation) is first in humbly bowing down in receptivity to Him.
Unfortunately, in present times this basic truth of our call to humble receptivity is not often understood nor upheld. As an example, too often liturgy and the sacraments become a matter of personal taste and preference – as though the liturgy is our doing something of our own power and initiative for God, defining it in our own minds as worshiping him simply because of our efforts to praise, to offer what we have within ourselves, and to acknowledge that God exists. Such actions tend toward our exalting our own efforts, accompanied by the presumption that God is pleased simply because we are saying/ singing/ gesturing/ etc. toward Him. On the flip side, in the true sacramental worship of the Church in her liturgy we are called to subdue ourselves, faithfully carrying out that which has been handed down to us in all its detail and symbolism, such that God Himself is the one who is able to act through the sacrament itself and the ministers, making His presence known to us in the particular sacrament. We then “participate,” (or live out our proper “part”) by first humbling ourselves and receiving what God does, giving ourselves to Him in return (as surrender and submission) – thus worshipping Him rightly, humbly bowing to Him.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1136-1209 connect sacraments and liturgy. In addition, paragraphs 2095-2100 speak to acts of religion which relate directly to worshipping God.