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Sacramentals: Magic or Divine Symbols

Signs and symbols are important aspects of our faith. They are means of communication not only on the human front but also in divine communication.

Why does God use signs?
Because through them men can understand and commune with him. Since God is pure Spirit, he needs to communicate with man in a mode that is intelligible to man, that is, through signs and symbols. Just as we use signs in communication, God also uses signs in order to communicate grace to us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no.1667) states that sacramentals “are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments”. They bear the semblance of the sacraments because they are also modelled after the nature of Christ who instituted the sacraments. Since Christ is both human and divine, the sacraments become an opportunity or a place of encounter between man (human) and God (divine).
Sacramentals also have this character: a human sign or symbol that becomes a means by which God communicates a particular grace of which naturally the sign or symbol reveals. What does that mean? So, let’s use water as an example: Water by its very nature indicates life because as the scientists tell us, water contains Oxygen and Oxygen is an element needed for life. Water therefore by nature is linked to life. From the perspective of scripture, we notice how God uses water to bring life (Cf. Ezekiel 47: 7-9, Rev. 22:2-5). Hence water becomes a means by which God communicates the grace of life and healing. This is the reason why water is blessed and used by the faithful; reminding them of the divine life they received at baptism. The same can be said of salt which has both the natural element of healing (naturally, when someone gets a burn, we apply salt to his wound) and the biblical meaning of healing (cf. 2 Kings 2: 20-21). Nature reveals God and aspects of God’s grace (cf. Wisdom 13:5, Rom: 20¬).
This is why we use sacramentals: not because they contain in themselves some powers, but because through them God can communicate grace. This is important because we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the sacramentals are some kind of juju amulets that contain some powers to protect us. The difference between an amulet and a sacramental is the fact that while in the former people attribute power to it and think that without it they are powerless, the latter, sacramentals, point to the grace of God of which the sign or symbol represents or communicates. An example in scripture helps us appreciate what sacramentals are not. In Numbers 21:9, God asked Moses to erect a bronze serpent to be a sign of the healing power of God who alone can save. Obviously after that episode the Israelites began to attribute some power to the bronze serpent. King Hezekiah, realizing that this had led to Idolatry, destroyed it in 2 Kings 18:4. Even though they are signs that communicates God’s grace, the Christian must know that even without them, grace can still be communicated. To think that a sticker on your car or the rosary in your car is what saved you from an accident is superstitious and not what sacramentals are about. The rosary in your car must remind you of God’s love and must remind you of your obligation to pray to the one who is able to save. Because they are associated God, they are considered sacred signs. When you use sacramentals understand them, respect them for what they are: sacred signs but do not extend them beyond that. In God alone we trust and depend and all signs must remain just that; signs.

  • AuthorRev. Fr. Emmanuel Salifu
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