SWEAR TO GOD: The Promise and Powers of the Sacraments
by Scott Hahn
(Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004, 232pp, $34.95. Available from AD Books)
"The sacraments ... marked the moments in history - world history, salvation history, and personal history - when God was making a new start with His people."
Swear To God, the latest from renowned American convert Scott Hahn, will not fail to disappoint with the author's refreshingly orthodox approach to the Catholic faith and Scripture scholarship.
The book focuses on the concept of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church instituted by Jesus Christ: Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction. Hahn likens each of the sacraments to an agreement or a covenant, similar to those between God and His chosen people in Biblical times, between God and the members of His Church.
Hahn commences with his conversion journey as a Presbyterian minister and theologian teaching at some of the most prestigious American Protestant theological colleges, when he had a "providential encounter with a fellow student" which taught him "to read the Scriptures in a new way, a sacramental way".
Being a member of a Calvinist- inspired Christian denomination that only recognised two of the seven sacraments, which are core components of the Catholic Church, Hahn admits he initially did not view the sacraments as an integral part of salvation. After discussion with his wife, Kimberly, he investigated further, only to find he was being absorbed in a consuming appreciation and eventual love for the sacraments.
As his search led him to the writings of St Paul and the Fathers of the early Church, Hahn found he was increasingly drawn to all seven sacraments, today found only in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Hahn believes many Catholics today have forgotten, or in many cases have simply never been taught, the awesome power of the sacraments as "actions with ultimate conse- quences ... matters of life and death, Heaven or Hell". He seeks to remedy this situation by showing the amazing privilege that God has given to Christians worldwide through the sacraments since the beginning of history.
He defines the idea of a sacrament as an agreement with God, which akin to any other agreement has direct consequences. He then demonstrates the continuity of covenants [sacraments] throughout Biblical times, starting from God's covenant with Noah "when He set a rainbow in the sky as a 'sign of the covenant'" (Gen 9:12) through to the covenant God made with Moses and Moses' subsequent sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial animals on the people - "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you" (Ex 24:8).
The author shows the continuity of the covenant from the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper with Jesus telling His disciples "unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (Jn 6:53) right through to the Church today, where the Real Presence in the Eucharist at Mass is the primary spiritual sustenance.
Hahn offers an overall insight into each sacrament in the early chapters, then develops them individually and examines their various aspects more fully in later chapters.
Regarding the sacrament of marriage, Hahn recalls his early married years when he and his wife ceased using contraception and allowed their love for each other to be demonstrated in the selfless act of accepting children whenever God saw fit to bestow them.
Hahn believes not merely rejection of abortion but of contraception is a crucial element of the sacrament of matrimony and one which many Christians, and Catholics, ignore to the detriment of this most inspiring sacrament. For it is only through full and active participation in the sacraments that their true meaning and sacredness as a direct communication with God can come to fruition.
He writes, "in baptism, in the Mass, at our marriage, and in every sacrament we celebrate, we invoke the name of the Lord, and we bind ourselves by covenant oath. We swear not by our name, but by God's [name] ... we pledge ourselves to obey the Word of God, as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. We have bound ourselves to a covenant, and every covenant implies a law."
Swear To God is a dynamic book which fully achieves its purpose of showing Catholics and other Christians the unique and rich tradition of the seven sacraments. It engages the reader with amusing and, at times, sad anecdotes and memories all infused with a fervour for God and the Catholic Church realised over the course of time and a remarkable conversion journey.
Anyone seeking answers about the sacraments, or who, as Hahn himself formerly was, is simply "bored" with the sacraments, will find this book hard to resist.
Jacinta Cummins is a journalist working with the National Civic Council.