Sacraments, Sacramentals and TraditionsIt is difficult for Protestants to understand why Catholics wear scapulars, pray novenas, do the Stations of the Cross, keep holy water around to anoint their children, pets, houses or cars. There are innumerable traditions we do that seem superstitious. And I have met Catholics that actually are superstitious. But sacraments are not meant as magic or are they forms of working your way to heaven. They are used to help us keep our eyes on the Lord and as means of receiving His unmerited grace.
There are seven sacraments (baptism, anointing,
confession, marriage, holy orders, Eucharist, last rites) but the Church has many sacramentals (holy water, scapulars, rosaries) and traditions such as liturgical prayers, Stations of the Cross and many, many more. All of these things are to bring heaven near, right now.
So I will throw out this analogy to see if it helps Protestants understand.
Imagine you are at the gates of a great kingdom. It is said that God lives within this kingdom. It is His. It's walls are so thick and so tall that it is virtually impenetrable. However, there is something that might confuse anyone coming up to the kingdom, because the massive gates are flung open widely allowing anyone to freely come in and come out. How is that safe, you wonder?
There are no restrictions about who can enter and become citizens. However, this kingdom is not a democracy. You must pledge an eternity of absolute submission, but the king is good and there is a promise of eternal joy for its citizens. If you enter, you are baptized, but other than that, there is no physical or theological or spiritual test. You don't have to have spoken in tongues, or said any magic words. No one is quizzing you on the date you decided to come in. The only thing you must agree to is that you will obey the King. That is the sign that you have faith that He is a good king.
Once inside you realize that all is well, even with the huge open gates. You know you are safe because it is His kingdom. Being baptized into the kingdom is more than being a citizen, you are indelibly marked as a child of the King. You have entered an immense family. At first that is rather uncomfortable. Because not everyone you see is who you expected in God's family.
The people who come into the kingdom are quite diverse. Some happened to stumble upon it and enter out of curiosity. Some have studied about the kingdom and make a choice out of conviction to enter. Some are brought in by parents. Some enter to marry someone who is already in the kingdom. Some come in because they had a miraculous
experience of God and yearn with all their hearts to be with their creator. Some enter to escape the horrific battle being waged in some places outside. But the kingdom is open for anyone. All are welcome. All are loved.
And the vast majority of those who enter are seriously wounded in some form.
Some of the people who enter end up leaving because they discover they really didn't want to obey the King. Therefore, they don't like the kingdom. But once inside, they cannot be deceived. They cannot be coerced to leave. They can only leave by their own willful and educated choice. The doors stay open so that anyone may leave when they like. And return if they change their minds. And most people at first congregate near the door for a quick exit--just in case. Their faith is weak, but it will become stronger and stronger as they remain in the Kingdom.
Some feel so wounded that they are afraid of journeying farther into the kingdom. That is okay too. For there are plenty of heavenly nurses and doctors at the gates to help the wounded.
So when you first enter, it seems like the kingdom is nothing but a huge mass of sick, dying, smelly, foul-mouthed rabble.
Then someone points out the beginning of a long road, a very long road that looks rather exhausting and even treacherous in spots. At the end of the road on a mountain stands the glorious golden palace of the King. You can hear the songs of praise echoing over the distance. The beauty calls you and you fill with an involuntary deep desire to go to your Father.
"This is the kingdom? Looks more like a den of thieves," some whisper.
"I don't know," others announce, "this is not what I expected. Why do the shepherds smell like the sheep? I thought the place would be cleaner? Where are all the saints?"
In order to visit Him, you will have to make the journey. While your journey to see the king is not mandatory for the citizen, your heart will wish to take the journey to see Him face to face.
And many of those standing at the entrance will not feel the great pull towards seeing their Father face to face until after they have given up their mortal flesh. They will procrastinate their journey, but that doesn't make them any less family members. They still carry with them the indelible mark of Christ. They are still within the kingdom. So they are safe. They are just as much children of the kingdom as those who begin the journey as they enter the gates at the kingdom of God. We are reminded never to look back and judge those too wounded to make the trip. They will make it. Pray for them.
Everyone in the kingdom will eventually get to see the King face to face. All places within the kingdom draw the family towards the Father. And out of love, He has set forth a road of
sanctification to make us perfect, absolutely perfect when we finally see Him face to face. That road of sanctification cannot be skipped whether in this mortal flesh (on earth) or when we let go of the flesh (sleeping in the afterlife).
What is interesting about the road to the palace is that it is lined with angels and saints. Every few steps there is a person there waiting to give you something to help you along the journey. At first it looks silly. The road is very long and flat and having someone there you can confess to, pray
with you, give you manna, hand you a blessed rosary, hand you prayer cards, sprinkle you with holy water, that all seems like overkill. But you start down the road and there they are--the holy saints who have been down the road themselves giving you graces to make the journey. These are not just moments of inspiration alone, these are gifts of real powerful energizing grace that keep you always remembering that God is doing the work within you. His strength is sufficient. It is not you, but He who has set the journey before you and wills each step with you.
As the family members make the journey towards the palace, you know that everyone is safe. There is no fear at all about making it to the destination, as a citizen of the Kingdom that is assured. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. There is plenty of help at each step, you are never alone. The saints and angels bring you greetings from the King and they tell you about Him along the way. But that doesn't mean it isn't hard.
The journey can be difficult. And many fall along the road and feel as if they want to give up. No one makes them continue. They are free to stop along the way for as long as they wish. They are safe. They are saved. They are loved and precious. However, if a person stops for too long, they often become dissatisfied and want to go back. That is when the angels and saints pray for them in a special way. Knowing that even if a person goes back and leaves the kingdom that their Shepherd will go in search of any of His own.
As long as you are in the kingdom, there is nothing to fear. Your soul is eternal, death will touch your physical body, but not your spirit. And all will lose their physical bodies somewhere along the route. But that, in some ways, means the road gets easier, for the temptation to tire is gone.
The sacramentals, the traditions, the sacraments are all given to us by our Creator to give us faith, hope and love. They are unmerited gifts of grace to make us strong during out journey to see Him. The greatest sacrament of all is the Eucharist
because it is Christ Himself present with us. The Eucharist is the bread from Heaven who abides in us changing us into Him, not just symbolically but actually. He in us, we in Him.
The sacraments, the sacramentals and the traditions of the Catholic Church are there in plenty to make the road easier in our sanctification so that we may spend forever in the Beatific Vision (Seeing God). They are not meant to drag us down. They are not to make the gospel less simple. They are for those already inside the Kingdom, given to sustain us. The Bible itself is a sacramental and no Protestant would ever consider that a barnacle on the hull of the lifeboat that needs to be scraped off. These are precious gifts of love from God, to be cherished with gratitude.