A common pastoral problem today is that many people have reduced the liturgy and the sacraments to ceremonies. To be sure, they have ceremonial aspects, but they are not mere ceremonies. Sacraments change reality; they affect us and effect a change in us that is necessary, real, and glorious. Too often the effects of the sacraments are forgotten in favor of the externals. The sacraments most affected by this mentality are Baptism, Holy Matrimony, and the Mass itself.
As an illustration, consider a man who is about to be ordained a priest. He receives a letter from the bishop calling him to this order; it indicates the date of the ordination Mass approximately two months in the future. What if the man said to himself, “It’s just a ceremony,” and began presenting himself as a priest, even going so far as to hear confessions and celebrate Mass in local parishes? This of course would be an egregious violation and sacrilege because he is not in fact an ordained priest. Something far more than a ceremony takes place on the day of his ordination. A sacrament takes place that actually changes him and configures him to Christ. He is changed such that he is now able to act in the person of Christ and confect the sacraments.
It is similar with Holy Matrimony. In it, God effects a miraculous change in the bride and groom: the two become one. Genesis says that in marriage a man clings to his wife and the two of them become one. Jesus says, “They are no longer two, but one. And what God has joined together, let no one divide.” Thus, a new reality comes to be for both of them. This is also what makes their sexual union true and holy. Prior to the wedding they were two, not one, and thus sexual intercourse would be a sinful lie. After the wedding, the two are one and their sexual union is an expression of the truth, a holy sign of what they really are. The wedding is no mere ceremony, it is a sacrament that changes the couple.
The Sacrament of Baptism was once thought so essential and urgent that mothers seldom attended the baptism of their children. Within a day or two after birth the godparents (often accompanied by the father) whisked the child off to church for the baptism while the mother was still recovering.
This is because something essential and necessary is provided by baptism: the child, fraught with Original Sin, needs the healing power of Jesus to wash away that sin and make him a child of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and transfer him from kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of Light. While this urgency was primarily driven by high levels of infant mortality, there was still the sense that the Sacrament of Baptism did something so essential that it could not be delayed, even by the absence of the mother, who was usually welcomed back after her convalescence, forty days later, through a liturgical rite known as the “Churching of Women.”
Today baptisms are too often delayed until a large cast of characters can be assembled. It seems that everyone just has to be there! I have seen families delay baptisms for years because certain extended family members “can’t make it.” Everyone seems to matter more than the child. How can the family gathering go well if Aunt Ethel can’t be there? The party seems more the point than the baptism.
Holy Baptism is a sacrament not a ceremony or an excuse for a party, a family gathering, or photographs. St. Paul says that prior to baptism we are dead in our sins (see Ephesians 2:1). That seems pretty serious! St. Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). That seems pretty glorious! Something essential is needed and it happens in Holy Baptism. The party, the pictures, and the other ceremonials are secondary. Baptism is a glorious sacrament that should be celebrated without delay. Canon law states that parents should provide for Holy Baptism within the first weeks after birth. St. Cyprian expressed surprise when someone wrote to him wondering if baptism should be delayed to the 8th day after birth since it replaces circumcision. He said,
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man(Epistle 58.2, to Fidus).
Too many people today don’t just wait eight days, they wait eight months. I often ask them why. They usually respond by saying that so-and-so can’t make it until June. “Then send pictures,” I counter. They look at me, dejected. This kind of attitude attempts to reduce Holy Baptism to a ceremony and a social event.
Allow these few examples to illustrate that the sacraments are not merely ceremonies. They are not merely opportunities for a party, family gathering, or group photograph; they are transformative encounters with Christ. When we receive a sacrament, something happens to us; we are changed. Permit this small reminder of the reality of the Sacraments. Some might say that the point made here is obvious, but in my experience, it is unfortunately not so obvious to many people.