Pop quiz: What is a sacrament?
Some Catholics (I would have written “Many Catholics” were I composing this entry 25 years ago) will respond automatically that a sacrament is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”
Fewer Catholics—although not those who have suffered through my various presentations on the sacraments to parishes and conferences over the years—would reply that a sacrament is an “efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to his Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us by the work of the Holy Spirit.”Whichever definition you prefer, whether the former found in the Baltimore Catechism or the latter found in the more recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (as quiz answers, either is acceptable), there stands one concept, one word common to both: sign.
Even the liturgical celebration in its entirety, whether or not it enacts one of the seven sacraments, depends on the medium of signs. “A sacramental celebration is woven from signs and symbols” (CCC, 1145). It is logical that it be so, for the liturgy and the sacraments make present Christ, who is a sacramental sign of God: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and “whoever has seen [him] has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And the Church herself is similarly significant: Christ’s “Body, which is the Church, is like a sacrament (sign and instrument) in which the Holy Spirit dispenses the mystery of salvation” (CCC, 1111).
In short, all sacramental theology, all liturgical understanding, and all ritual celebration rests upon signs. If we get the signs wrong, we get the liturgy wrong. If we misunderstand sacramental symbols, we misunderstand the sacraments themselves.
The fact that Catholics put such stock in signs is not, however, an especially Catholic phenomenon. Catholics celebrate their liturgies with signs not simply, or primarily, because they are Catholic, but because they are first and foremost human. God, the author of human nature, knows this better than we do; hence he communicates with us through a peculiarly human (yet altogether divine) way. Dom Virgil Michel, OSB (1890-1938) expressed this “sacramental principle”—how men and women communicate among themselves, and how God and man communicate with each other—succinctly: “God has chosen to manifest himself to our minds through external, sensible things, and to act in human souls by means of material things.”
For example, to use a human instance before your eyes as they follow the text in this column, the only way you know the otherwise unknowable thoughts of my mind is through the words—signs—on the page or screen before you. Take away these written signs (or obscure them by poor writing!), and you cannot know my mind. The same is true of the communication that occurs between God and man: the only way that we humans can know God is through signs and symbols, such as his revealed word, the prophetic voice, miracles and workings of Providence in our life and in our world. Sacramental worship, then, represents a profoundly human kind of worship.
But there is a problem. (Isn’t there always?) The downfall may come from the fact that this glorious made-in-the-image-of-God nature is fallen. It may stem from our finitude. It may result from the nature of how the sign is used. Whatever the cause, if left unacknowledged and untreated, the liturgical and sacramental consequences—and our salvation—are jeopardized.
So, what is the problem—and its solution? To my mind, the Catholic novelist and semanticist Walker Percy speaks most clearly to this conundrum. (I wrote about Percy and his potential take on COVID conditions in my May 2020 editorial, “Mass During a Hurricane.” He’s been an interesting companion during these lockdown days.)
In his 1983 book, Lost in the Cosmos, Percy describes how “signs undergo an evolution, or rather a devolution” (104). And remember what’s at stake here: if the liturgy and sacraments are predicated upon signs, and our signs undergo a “devolution,” then our liturgy, too, disintegrates.
At first, he writes, a sign “serves as the discovery vehicle through which the signified is known.” The three-year-old asks his father, “What is that?” and the father replies, “That is a balloon.” Consequently, Percy notes, the child “will repeat it; his lips will move silently while he frowns and muses as he considers how this round inflated object can be fitted into this peculiar utterance, balloon.” Consider how the signs are uncovered (“dis-covered” was the word used by Percy) on the liturgical plane: What is that bread upon the altar? It is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. From where has this chant, Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus come? The heavenly host. What day is it? Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Here, the blessed bread, the Sanctus, and Sunday are each sacramental signs that reveal, manifest, and communicate Christ.
Second, Percy notes, the signs themselves become transformed by what they signify. The “signifier balloon becomes informed by the distention, the stretched-rubber, light, up-tending, squinch-sound-against-fingers signified.” In a kind of onomatopoetic way, the word balloon—the sign—begins to be changed into that which it signifies—the actual rubber balloon.
But then, third, devolution of the sign sets in: “there is a hardening and closure of the sign, so that in the end the signified becomes encased in a simulacrum like a mummy in a mummy case.” Percy offers an effective example: one bird watcher asks, “What is that?” and the second bird watcher simply and uninterestingly replies, “That is only a sparrow.” Don’t we as Catholics tend to allow a similar sort of devolution among liturgical and sacramental signs? What is that upon the altar? Oh, it’s merely a sign of faith. From where has that song come? It’s just some line of poetry from Isaiah (or is it Ezekiel?). What day is it? It’s only the first day of the calendar week, Sunday.
Is the Church determined to celebrate the sacramental liturgy—which is a “weaving together of signs and symbols,” as we heard the Catechism say—with fidelity, joy, and awe? Are we Catholics ready and willing to open our eyes and ears with hunger, docility, and intelligence to be transformed by sacred signs? Am I like the deer thirsting for running streams (water—another sign!) of grace set before me in the liturgy and sacraments?
If not, what can be done? Among the many possible answers (God is full of them!) is one we’re all coping with as I write these words: COVID-19.
The recovery, the resurrection of signs is possible. The sign “can be recovered from the ossified signifier, sparrow from sparrow…, under the conditions of catastrophe” (105). Percy gives a number of examples of how this happens, including the German soldier who “in All Quiet on the Western Front could see an ordinary butterfly as a creature of immense beauty and value in the trenches of the Somme.” For a more everyday example, consider how you look at your car once you’ve discovered that its transmission is blown. Everything that worked quietly and invisibly to make the car change gears is now front and center.
Can you relate to Percy’s observation that, during bouts of “average everydayness” (as Martin Heidegger would put it), butterflies and your car and breathing—or bread or music or Sunday—have become signs of, well, what exactly? Yet when, through catastrophe or similar upheavals, life’s signs (and their commensurate realities) come into focus and take on a new and powerful reality?
If what Percy says is true—judge for yourself—then our current COVID “catastrophe” has great potential for our liturgical celebration, participation, and understanding. The vicarious experience of livestreaming notwithstanding, the liturgy may offer those returning to Mass for the first time in months a new vista from which to view its signs and symbols—and by them, God himself. Suddenly, that “bread” upon the altar appears as something else: the locus of heaven and earth, for instance. The Sanctus is no long blah-blah-blah but the chorus of Angels, Archangels, Thrones, and Dominions. And Sunday may become again the first day of the new creation wrought by Christ—not just the first square to cross off in the coming week. For the liturgy and its sacraments are supernatural signs. We only need to be awake to the wonder and mystery of these signs. If we can resurrect them from their devolution, then they will once again communicate in a flash the brilliance of Christ and become as radiant an encounter as that which Peter, James, and John once enjoyed upon Mount Tabor.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.