For some, it is easy to dismiss the sacraments as empty rituals, meaningless signs. Indeed Ratzinger comments on this growing trend in his book Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence:
The man of today is certainly interested in the question of God, and he is even concerned about the problem of Christ; but the sacraments are something altogether too religious for him, all too bound up with a past stage of faith for him to see any practical reason even to begin discussing (154).
Perhaps this is why catechists quickly to correct a child who says “the Eucharist is just a symbol Jesus.” As Catholics, we believe that Jesus is really, not symbolically, present in the Eucharist–Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. However, while upholding this truth, we must also acknowledge that language is inherently symbolic.
Humans communicate through a variety of symbols, they are part of our every day language. Words evoke particular connotations and images. Roses convey romance and love; red can symbolize anger and passion; doves are often representative of peace; and when one speaks of the heart it is typically not in the clinical terms of a cardiologist, rather to convey what one is feeling. Language, and consequently symbols, orient ourselves and place us in a proper context.
Thus sacraments not only communicate grace, but draw the Church to Christ and to each other. They are a means of humans connecting with God not through concrete acts of faith that are also symbolic. Furthermore, sacraments reveal to us not only our relationship with God, but what it means to be human.
The Eucharist, which often falls prey to the scrutiny Ratzinger describes, is an example of a sacrament that connect us to God but help us to understand our existence more fully. Throughout history, meals have been a place of gathering and fellowship. On the one hand, they meet a very basic need: they provide food, nourishment, without which, we would die. On the other hand, they are also a place of sharing and thanksgiving of gifts–both for the food we have received and the people we are surrounded by.
At the Eucharistic feast the gifts we receive are twofold: the gifts from God’s creation, wheat and fruit of the vine, which we use to make the bread and wine; and the gift of salvation, which we receive because of the sacrifice of the Son–without which we would die. We have received so great a gift that our return gift will never be sufficient; and so, thanksgiving for what we have received becomes part of the celebration of the Eucharist.
Through the Eucharist, we become what we receive. As Christ offers himself as a sacrifice, we too offer a sacrifice. Our sacrifice does not take the form of a sheep or a lamb, as it once did in ancient times. Rather, our sacrifice is our very beings. We surrender everything–our desires, our triumphs, our shortcomings, our sufferings, our plans–and we lay them at the foot of the cross, uniting our will with God’s will.
Sacraments then are not just ideas, rather, they are an action that must performed. They allow us to encounter the Word made flesh, to encounter love. The sacramental structure invites Christians into the world in an ethical was so that they can give of themselves in love. As we receive the sacraments and are conformed to Christ, we begin to further understand our own existence.