Spirit-Filled Sacraments (Essay)


In the Catechism of the Catholic Church sacraments are said to be “the sacraments of the new law [which] were … all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord.”[1]  Kenan Osborne emphasizes that the sacraments are of divine origin through the institution of Christ.[2] The focus of sacramental theology has historically been overwhelmingly Christocentric.  Thus, the Holy Spirit’s role in sacramentality has been minimized.  Sebastian Madathummuriyil in his book Sacrament as Gift: A Pneumatological and Phenomenological Approach laments that there has been a, “Pneumatological shortfall that permeates Catholic theology of the sacraments since the scholastic period.”[3]

Yet it is not just in the subject area of sacraments that the person of the Holy Spirit has been shortchanged.  Thomas Oden in his systematic theology says more globally that, “The work of the Spirit has been less studied and consensually defined than the work of the Son.  The modern tendency is to depersonalize the Spirit, to treat God the Spirit as reducible to an idea of spirituality or an attribute of God, rather than God’s own personal meeting with persons living in history.”[4]  What needs to be recaptured is the person and the activity of the Holy Spirit which has always empowered the Church and the sacraments.  Therefore, Madathummuriyil points out, “[N]either the personhood, nor the mission of the Spirit can be considered as secondary, compared to Christ.”[5]

In the Nicene Creed the Holy Spirit is defined as “the Lord and Giver of Life.”[6] This central and co-equal place given to the person of the Holy Spirit within the Trinitarian understanding of God behooves us to bring into balance the Pneumatological in all areas of Christian theology.  We need to further understand the “role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian scheme of salvation” but not as “an independent reality.” [7]  Using Madathummuriyil’s book as our primary guide, as well as other sources and the Scriptures, this essay will guide us in an exploration and repositioning of the central activity of the Holy Spirit in the sacramental work of God.  Of course, by emphasizing the person and the work of the Spirit in this essay we do not want to infer any diminishing of the other members of the God-head, but simply re-balance the Oneness of God in Trinity.

Spirit-Filled Sacraments

Before we can begin a study of the Holy Spirit’s work in the traditionally understood seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, we must first frame the notion of sacraments in a wider sense to understand the Spirit’s personhood and work.  It is only in the ecclesiological sense that we might understand the sacraments as seven outward ritualistic signs, but the manifest (sacramental) work of the Triune God has been in effect in the world since the creation of the cosmos.  Therefore, we should understand that the Holy Spirit has been enlivening all manner of visible signs of God’s invisible grace throughout history.  Madathummuriyil says, “The whole universe can be seen as God’s sacrament in a broad sense.”[8]

Protestant theologian Marcus Borg defines a sacrament widely as “a mediator of the Spirit.  A sacrament is anything finite and visible, through which the Spirit becomes present to us.  Now, in the broad sense nature can be a sacrament, music can be a sacrament.  Virtually everything in human history has, for somebody, been a means whereby the Spirit has been mediated to them.  The purpose of religion is to mediate the sacred.” [9]

Madathummuriyil reiterates this when he says, “Retrieving the cosmic role of the Spirit would help us to understand sacramental presence in a broader perspective, which would eventually lead us to overcome the tendency of truncating sacramentality from creation and the eschaton.”[10]


The personal work of the Holy Spirit is seen in the opening chapter of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2).[11]   The Psalmist spoke often about the Spirit’s role in creation, which may have inspired St. Paul to write sacramentally about creation, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen….” (Rom. 1:20a).

Madathummuriyil argues, citing Martien E. Brinkman, that “there is a necessary relation between the sacraments and the doctrine of creation.”[12]  As Creation is the beginning of the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s role and involvement in the manifest action of God, Madathummuriyil says, “While agreeing with the position of those who situate the theology of creation at the beginning of sacramental thinking, our approach to sacramental theology is predisposed to bring to light the activity of the Holy Spirit as the core of every sacramental presence and experience.”[13]  Thus, because the Spirit is empowering all life sacramentally, all life can become a sacrament of God.

Jesus the Christ

In as much as Jesus is the ikon of the Father (Col. 1:15), He becomes the manifest physical sacrament of God.   Jesus then is the ultimate sacrament.  Osborne explains, “Contemporary Catholic theologians assert more than the mere statement that Jesus in his humanity is a sacrament.  They also maintain that Jesus, in his humanity, is the primordial or fundamental sacrament.”[14]

So, how does Jesus become the primordial sacrament?  Luke the Doctor, and the synoptic Gospels as well, tell the story of the Holy Spirit’s involvement and empowerment in the birth, life, death, resurrection from the dead, and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth. Madathummuriyil says, “It is the coming and action of the Spirit that unites the fruit of Mary’s womb to the unity of the Son of God.”[15]  Furthermore, the Spirit was present operating in His childhood (Luke 2:40, 52), at His baptism (Luke 3:22), throughout His ministry (Luke 4:18), and, of course, empowering His resurrection and exaltation (Rom. 1:4; Acts 2:33).

Separating the mission of Christ and the Spirit would be a serious error when it is clear that Jesus operated in His humanity and in His divinity connected deeply to the Spirit.  Madathummuriyil proposes that we should have a Pneumatologically-conditioned Christology, as well as a Christologically-conditioned Pneumatology.  “[A] Pneumatologically-conditioned Christology goes back to identify the role of Spirit in the life of Christ, beginning at conception through to the resurrection.”[16]


Similarly, we should begin to articulate a Pneumatologically-conditioned Ecclesiology, for it is the Holy Spirit that empowers the Church, by bringing it to life and imbuing its members with gifts and fruit for service.  The visible Church then is the basic sacrament.[17]   Osborne asks and answers the question “For whom is the Church a sacrament?  The answer again is: For everyone.  When the Church in all its various components reflects Jesus, it does so not only for Christians, but also for all men and women.  No longer is Jesus physically present on earth, as he was during his lifetime.”[18]

The Spirit is the mediator between Christ and His Church, and as Madathummuriyil says, “[T]he Pneumatological theology that we have proposed underscores the activity of the Spirit at the origin and ongoing life of the Church.”[19]  It was at Pentecost that the Spirit came with power to enable and indwell the believers in a new and dramatic fashion (Acts 2:1-4).    The Spirit then is a co-creative force in the Church as well as the empowering actor that indwells the whole Body of Christ.  So we understand the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the whole Church, for as St. Paul has said, “[W]e were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).


On the other hand, we also know that the Spirit empowers each of the individual members of the Body of Christ.  St. Paul exhorts the Church in Corinth to remember that their “[B]odies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Just as Jesus is the ikon of God, humans who put their faith in Christ and are baptized, begin to be “transformed into his image [ikon] with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).  This reality of the Spirit’s work in us is to re-create a humanity of sacramental persons manifesting the light of God to the whole world.   Madathummuriyil states, “The presence of the Spirit in the life-breath of every human being as imago Dei and in the whole of creation is the basis for sacramentality.” [20]

The Holy Spirit in the Seven Sacraments

Finally, we will briefly explore the Holy Spirit’s activity in the seven ritual sacraments of the Catholic Church.   Understanding the Holy Spirit role in each of the sacraments will build the faith of the believers.  Joseph Martos explains that, “A charismatic theology of the sacraments emphasizes what other theologies tend to neglect, namely the power of the Holy Spirit which can be known experientially and which can transform the human spirit through an attitude of deep conversion and openness to receiving God’s gifts.”[21]


It is in the Christ directed sacrament of baptism where the Holy Spirit works new life into the believer.  Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19a).  This Triune emphasis again helps us to see the equality of the Godhead in the economy of salvation.  But it was Jesus who said that believers would need to “be born of water and the Spirit” to enter into the Kingdom of God (John 3:5).  And St. Paul focuses his attention on the life-giving work of the Spirit in baptism when he said, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).

Martos in explaining St. Augustine’s view of baptism says, “Everyone received something when they were baptized.  And what they received was not just the Holy Spirit but also the seal of the Spirit, a spiritual configuration to Christ.”[22]  Some of the Church Fathers saw the Spirit’s action just as John the Baptist recognized the work of Christ who would offer the baptism of fire (see Luke 3:16 and John 1:29 ).  Martos recalls the “furnace of baptism, [where we are] purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit, and recast in the image of Christ.”[23]


The Sacrament of Confirmation is clearly one in which the Holy Spirit has not been neglected.  For it is in this sacrament that the Holy Spirit is given as a seal upon the believer.  There were some in the early Church who had begun their Christian lives with only the baptism of John, and thus did not have the infilling power of the Spirit in their lives.  In Samaria some had been baptized into Christ, but had not received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, so St.’s Peter and John came and “placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17).  Additionally, we read in Acts as Paul was traveling in Ephesus he came upon some believers and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:2, 6).  Cleary, it is the unique work of the Holy Spirit that is effected upon the believer in the Sacrament of Confirmation subsequent to the work of salvation by Christ.


Though much could be said about the epiclesis prayer in the Liturgy which a sacramentally ordained priest uses to call down the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements, but much more should be said of the Spirit’s work in the Communion emblems themselves.

Mar Awa Royel quoting St. Ephrem says, “In your Bread there is hidden the Spirit who is not consumed, in your Wine there dwells the Fire that is not drunk: the Spirit is in your Bread, the Fire in your Wine—a manifest wonder, that our lips have received…”[24]  So, it is not simply in the epiclesis that the Holy Spirit is called down, but the Eucharistic elements are imbued with power by the Holy Spirit.

It is also the Holy Spirit that prepares the believer to receive the precious Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ: “The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will.”[25]


It was when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles that the apostolic tradition of absolution of sin became the Sacrament of Repentance or Reconciliation in the Church: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’” (John 20:21-23).

And it is the activity of the Holy Spirit which leads the believer to confession.  Royel evincing Scripture says, “[T]he Spirit either directly brings us to repentance (convicting our hearts and conscience because of sin), or it prepares our heart to be brought to conversion through some other means.”[26]  Royel further invokes the Spirits work in repentance when he says, “the priest administers absolution …, as a mediator and as an instrument of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, it is Christ himself who forgives the repentant sinner.”[27]

Anointing with Oil

In the giving of gifts to the Church, St. Paul acknowledges that this is a Trinitarian affair, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Cor. 12:4-6).  But it is the Holy Spirit that he acknowledges as the agent and power of mortal healing:  “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. … to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, …” (1 Cor. 12:7,9b).

St. James includes the Spirit indirectly when he instructs the presbyters of the Church about the Sacrament of Anointing with Oil:   “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up” (James 5:14-15).  Royel acknowledges that the oil used in the anointing of the sick is same symbol of the Holy Spirit who anointed Jesus the Christ at the beginning of His ministry.  “In the New Testament, Jesus the Lord is the ‘Anointed One’ of God the Father, and his humanity was ‘anointed’ by the Father with the oil of the Spirit.”[28]


Christian marriage has long been held up as a picture of the love between Christ and the Church, but also as an example of the mystery of the Trinitarian life of God.  How can Three be One and One be Three?  The same question is often asked of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, where a man and woman become one with the bond of Christ holding them together.  Jesus quoting Scripture said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mat. 19:5-6).  And this mystical unity is accomplished only by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of unity (see Eph. 4:3, Rom. 15:5-6).

As is often quoted in marriage ceremonies, the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks of a spiritually powerful rope which can bind two people together: “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl 4:12b).  The third strand can be known as Christ, or more allegorically as the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  Peter C. Sanders says, “The bond, the covenant, is the Holy Spirit himself, who establishes communion.”[29]

The Apostle Paul also intimates that the Spirit is actively involved in the life of husbands and wives sacramentally when he writes, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansingher by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27).

Holy Orders

In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, especially that of the Priesthood, the effectual work of the Spirit to ontologically change the man into a sacramental agent of Christ is clearly shown in the Scriptures.  The Apostle Paul in speaking to his protégé Timothy, says “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:6-7).

In the Church of the East during the ordination liturgy an allusion to the Holy Spirit’s work in Mary in conceiving Christ is compared to the Spirit’s work in the consecration of the priest, “… Look even now upon this your servant, and elect him with a holy election by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit; give him the word of truth with confidence, and elect him to the priesthood, O Lord God of Hosts, that he may place his hands upon the sick and that they might receive healing, and may he serve your holy altar with a pure heart and conscience….”[30]

This action of laying on of hands and imposing the Holy Spirit upon men to be ordained is no mere tradition, but was conceived by the Holy Spirit, who, in one of the few times in Scripture, actually speaks the sacrament into existence: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).


It must be strikingly obvious now that the Holy Spirit, as a personal communicator and revealer of God, is and always has been intrinsically involved in the sacramental work of God throughout history.  Thus, as Madathummuriyil says, “God’s self-communication takes place within a relational structure of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The history of salvation is the history of the Self-communication of the triune God.”[31]  Sanders reminds us that the Spirit is essential to the work of the sacraments when he says, “There is no relationship with Christ, who is the way to the Father, except in and through the Holy Spirit.  Integral to that relationship and normative for it is the life of the sacraments.”[32]

It is my hope that as further research is done in many other areas of Christian theology that the person and the work of the Holy Spirit be reintegrated into the whole of the Triune person and mission of the One True God.

© Paul Dordal, 2013

[1] CCC, #1114, 289
[2] Kenan B. Osborne, Sacramental Theology: A General Introduction. (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1988), 106.
[3] Sebastian Madathummuriyil, Sacrament as Gift: A Pneumatological and Phenomenological Approach. (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters Publishing, 2012), 70.
[4] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit. Systematic Theology: Volume Three. (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1998), 3.
[5] Madathummuriyil, Sacrament as Gift, 121.
[6] Nicene Creed, English Language Liturgical Consultation, http://www.englishtexts.org/survey.html#thenicenecreed
[7] Madathummuriyil, 104.
[8] Madathummuriyil, 95.
[9] Marcus Borg. Religious Pluralism:  Seeing Religions Again (Lecture), 2002, University of California, San Diego; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHIv-c-Rpzw, 18:56 (YouTube video).
[10] Madathummuriyil, 101
[11] New International Version, Biblica, 2011
[12] Madathummuriyil, 101
[13] Madathummuriyil, 102
[14] Osborne, Sacramental Theology, 75
[15] Madathummuriyil, 116
[16] Madathummuriyil, 115
[17] Osborne, 90
[18] Ibid, 89
[19] Madathummuriyil, 142
[20] Madathummuriyil, 102
[21] Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred. A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. (Ligiouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 2001), 120.
[22] Ibid, 157
[23] Ibid, 155
[24] Bishop Mar Awa Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Sacraments of the Assyrian Church of the East. (Modesto, CA: Edessa Publications), 267.
[25] CCC #1098, 285
[26] Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, 293.
[27] Ibid, 299
[28] Royel, 352
[29] Peter C. Sanders, “Pneumatology in the Sacramental Theologies of Geoffrey Wainwright, Jean Corbon, and Edward Kilmartin” in Worship, Vol.68, No. 4,  July, 1994, 343.
[30] Royel, Mysteries of the Kingdom, 103.
[31] Madathummuriyil, Sacrament as Gift, 107.
[32] Sanders, Pneumatology in the Sacramental Theologies, 343.

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