Episcopalians are sacramental people. That is, our spirituality is one that involves the regular and frequent use of the sacraments of the church as a central and necessary aspect of our lives as the people of God. Our word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum which itself is a translation of the Greek word musterion meaning “mystery, something hidden, not obvious to understanding.” The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Stated otherwise, sacraments are physical representations, signifiers, and the means by which God’s grace is given with certainty to God’s people. As musterion, “the what is happening and how does that work” of a sacrament may not be obvious or understood, but it is our faith that Christ gave us the sacraments as a pledge of his love for us. Even if we do not fully understand the sacrament, grace has been promised to us through reception of the sacrament. Their efficacy does not rest on our understanding or much else about us, but in the love, promise, and faithfulness of God.
Many people are familiar with the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both involve the use of physical things that signify the granting of God’s grace upon the recipient. The water of baptism signifies being united with Christ in his baptism, his burial and his resurrection. The sign of the cross with chrism oil on the forehead of the newly baptized signifies spiritual regeneration and new life in Christ as a member of God’s household. But more than simply signifying some change, sacraments bring about the change to which they point. Baptism is a healing sacrament in that our sins are forgiven, we are united with Christ, and our spirits are regenerated. Renewing our Baptismal vow is a way of reclaiming that blessing and recommitting our lives to that life in Christ. In the Lord’s Supper, bread and wine become for us in our prayer of Thanksgiving those things Jesus offered to his disciples on the night before he died for us. They are physical means by which we are assured that the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and strengthening are given to us. In the Rite I prayer, we give thanks for the “innumerable benefits” given through receiving the body of Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and “all other benefits of his passion.” Our faith and Eucharist prayer say that whatever it is that you need from your loving Father in heaven, you are given in the Eucharist: forgiveness of sin, strengthening of faith, the grace to work reconciliation with another person, the healing of your body or mind or spirit, or some other benefit from God who seeks to give all good things to his children.
A lesser known sacrament, but one especially related to healing the sick is that of unction. You can find the liturgy for unction in the Prayer Book under the heading Ministration to the Sick. That liturgy includes the confession of sins because sin can be an impediment to healing, and then the laying on of hands and the anointing of the sick person with holy oil. The words spoken by the person who anoints may be very few such as those stated in the Prayer Book, “I anoint you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It is our faith in God’s love, our faith in the effectiveness of confession, our faith in the sacraments, and God’s faithfulness, not the wordiness of our prayer, that matter.
We are sacramental people. Come in faith and receive the sacraments as means of healing. They are God’s gifts to the church for the regular and frequent use by God’s children.
Grace and peace,