It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate the caricature of society that was presented in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Augustus Gloop is the first to go, loving chocolate so much that, rather than him drinking the chocolate, it “drinks” him as he falls into the river of chocolate. Then comes Violet Beauregarde, chewing any gum she can find and turning into a violet blueberry after eating one of Wonka’s new gums. Then Veruca Salt’s insatiable desire for the golden egg and other things lead her to end up where all the bad eggs go. Finally Mike Teevee ends up being what he loves the most, “on” TV.
In short, all of these characters were identified by what they loved (chocolate, gum, possessions, and television). These character traits, which were so fundamental to their identity, were also the things that were, ironically, their downfall. Luckily, it is not always the case that the things we love will have a detrimental effect on us, but this caricature points to an underlying truth of humanity: our identities are shaped by what we do, the things we love, and who we associate with; in turn, our identities shape our choices of activity, what we enjoy, and with whom we spend time.
As Christians living in the world, we too are shaped by all manner of societal and cultural influences and live our lives according to these factors. Additionally, our identities are shaped by the religious traditions we participate in. The prayer of the Church, its liturgies, sacramental celebrations, and blessings form us into Christian people who are fundamentally a sacramental people. Christians are inherently sacramental people because our entrance into the faith begins with the sacrament of baptism. In this sacrament, the Christian is brought into the Paschal Mystery—Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and made a member of the Body of Christ. This is our identity, claiming the name of Christ as our own.
So, what does it mean to be a sacramental person, to own your identity as a Christian? What are the things that shape a person so much so that they can be called a Christian? How do they in turn then use that identity to shape their daily lives?
To Be Called A Christian
To be called a Christian a person must participate in the sacramental life of the Church. As noted above, it is through the sacrament of Baptism that a person becomes a Christian. Baptism, like all other sacraments, is a ritual that witnesses to the unity of prayer and action in the proclamation of the faith of the Church. In the sacraments we participate in tangible realities that we can comprehend (e.g., water, oil, and bread and wine), yet they draw us into the incomprehensible mystery of God as well. In a homily by St. Augustine, he describes the Eucharistic mystery saying, “My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” All of the sacraments of the Church, not just baptism, have the capability to shape their participants’ lives. The sacraments communicate the grace of God and this grace is a guiding force in forming the Christian’s identity.
The sacraments have the power to shape identity because the grace they communicate forms us in the way of Christ. The sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist) form the new Christian’s identity by drawing us deeper into the Body of Christ. Christians are washed in the water of baptism and cleansed by the salvific effect of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. In confirmation we are sealed with chrism; marking themselves as Christ’s own in the power of the Spirit. The Eucharist nourishes the Christian life with the very Body and Blood of Christ. The sacraments of healing repair the Christian’s relationship with God and with the Christian community (reconciliation) and conform our sufferings with those of Christ so that we may endure and witness his love to others (anointing of the sick). The sacraments of vocation shape Christian identity by calling people to live out God’s plan for them within the Church and the world. In these sacraments Christians receive the grace to transform their lives to be Christ to others through the ordained ministry (as deacon, priest, or bishop), or through the sacrificial love of marriage and family. All of the sacraments allow us to be truly called Christians because they shape our identity by conforming us to Christ and transform our lives to be a witness of God’s grace working in the world.
To Live As A Sacramental Person
The sacraments are fundamental to shaping Christian identity. Yet our identity is formed by more than the things we are a part of, it is also dependent upon how we choose to live. Because of the gift of free will that God gives all human beings, Christians can choose how to respond to the grace that God offers in the sacraments. Though God will always offer this grace, we can choose to ignore it and divert the formation of our identity to other influences. On the other hand, we can choose to respond positively and embrace the sacramental life as part of our Christian identity.
When Christians live as sacramental people and allow God’s grace to work through our actions, we choose to embody our identity as members of the Body of Christ and participate in the life of the Church. We choose to let these sacred acts of prayer and praise affect our daily actions, even outside of the church building. The sacraments give us glimpses of the Kingdom of God that is not yet fully realized on earth, but is nevertheless present in the lives of the faithful. Those who choose to live as sacramental people work towards bringing about the Kingdom of God in the present age by being witnesses of Christ to others at their work, in their communities, and in their homes.
Our daily choices and interactions with the world reflect our participation in the Body of Christ through baptism, which was strengthened in the Holy Spirit and nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood. Sacramental people seek forgiveness from others and find solace in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. We listen for God’s call in our life and respond accordingly as we go about our daily lives in our work, communities, and family. We become a witness of the faith we believe in by embodying it. We come to be known as Christians by living as sacramental people whose lives reflect God’s grace working in the world.
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Editorial Statement: During the month of April, Church Life Journal will consider the nature of the liturgical imagination in art, music, sacramental prayer, and ritual action.
Featured Image: Unknown, Allegory of the Eucharist [detail], c. 1700; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.