Words have meanings. Actions have consequences. Ignorance of either does not automatically get you off the hook when you do something wrong. It is important to understand that what you say and do affects where you will spend all of eternity once you pass from this world into the next.
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” – Matthew 5, 33-37
Literalist interpret this passage to mean that they should not swear an oath under any circumstance, not to a country, not for military or public service, and not even in a court of law when they are called to testify. Catholic understanding is a bit different. Jesus did not come into this world to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. It is necessary to swear an oath to be able to enter into a covenant with God. In his sermon on the mount Jesus is telling people that words have meanings and actions have consequences and if they do not take that seriously they are better off not swearing oaths at all for they will lead to their eternal damnation.
As Catholics we swear oaths to God all of the time and most of us never realize we have done it. Then, we leave the Church and live lives contrary to the oaths we just took. At best, we perjure ourselves by living contrary to our oaths. At worst, we renege on our oaths and forfeit that which was pledged as collateral on the oath, kind of like defaulting on a mortgage. Instead of putting your house up as collateral you are putting up the eternal resting place for your soul. This is why Jesus advises us not to swear an oath at all. It is far easier not to swear an oath than to live up to one. So when exactly do we swear oaths as Catholics?
In ancient Rome a Roman soldier would take a sacramentum to Caesar. They would pledge their life in service to him. If they do so with honor they would be rewarded a farm upon their retirement. If they failed they would not only lose the farm but they would lose their life as well. The early Church borrowed from this concept when they instituted our sacraments (English translation of the Latin word sacramentum). The Catholic Church (Roman and Orthodox) has seven official Sacraments – Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Holy Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Healing. Most mainstream Protestant Christians recognize three of these – Baptism, Confirmation, and Marriage.
Each of these Sacraments are an oath to the death and we are pledging our very lives when we freely enter into them. They are not simply a rite of passage or a ticket we need punched. They are the very fabric that defines our relationship with God. Most never get past the superficial action or understand the true meaning and significance of these sacraments. In short – they are not taken with the seriousness they deserve and therefore we try to redefine their meaning to suit our ever changing culture and desires.
The seven Catholic Sacraments fall into three categories – Sacraments of Initiation, Sacraments of Service, and Sacraments of Healing. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist are the Sacraments of Initiation. They bring a person into the Body of Christ and joins them to His holy family. Marriage and Holy Orders are the Sacraments of Service for when one enters into these sacraments they are pledging their life in service to another. Reconciliation and Healing are the Sacraments of Healing and their purpose is to restore the relationship between us and God when we fall out of relationship with Him through sin.
Over the next several blog posts we will examine each of these sacraments to better understand how it is considered an “oath to the death” and what is expected of us when we freely enter into it. Stay tuned.
Next up – Baptism. On deck – Confirmation.