It is different from the period of Byzantium (let us call it ca. 4:50- 950 or so) where mysteries interpret all reality in terms of the Divine ground, but not much is changed. It is different from the period since the Renaissance – which ended in the 19th century – namely, a world which is directed by human reason, by man as the center of reality, and by his rational activities. It is different also from the: early Greek period in which the mind was looking for the eternal immovable. All these periods have their special problem. The problem of the Middle Ages – which you should keep in mind all the time – is the problem of the world (society & nature) in which the Divine is present in sacramental forms. Now this is the basis for this consideration, then we can say: What does sacramental mean? It means all kinds of things, in the history of the Church. It means the deeds of Christ, the sufferings of Christ (His stations of the Cross), it means the Gospels (which you can call sacraments), it means problematic symbols (in the Bible), it means the symbolic meaning of the church buildings, all the activities going on in the church, everything in which the Holy was present.
And this was the problem of the Middle Ages: to have the Holy present. The sacraments represent the objectivity of the grace of Christ as present in the objective power of the hierarchy. All graces – or, another way of translating “grace” substantial powers of the New Being – are present in and through the hierarchy. The sacraments are the continuation of the basic sacramental reality, namely the manifestation of God in Christ. In every sacrament is present a substance of a transcendental sacramental character. A thing – -i. e. , water, bread, wine, oil, a word, the laying on of hands – -all this becomes sacramental if a transcendent substance is poured into it. It is like a f luid which heals. One of the definitions is: “Against the wounds produced by original and actual sin, God has established the sacraments as remedies.” Here, with medical symbolism, you have very clearly what is meant: it is the healing power which is poured into the substances.
The question, often raised in Protestantism, is: How many sacraments.? Up tothe 12th century there were many sacramental activities. Which of them were most important was partly always clear, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and partly very much open to changes. Therefore it took more than a thousand years of Church history to discover that seven sacraments are the mcst important. After this was discovered, these seven often draw upon themselves the name “sacrament” in a special sense. This is very unfortunate for the understanding of what sacrament is.
We must always distinguish the universal concept of the sacrament: the presence of the holy. Therefore sacramentalia are going on in churches all the time, namely activities in which the presence of the Divine is experienced in a special way. The fact that there are seven, has traditional, practical, Church-political, psychological, and many other reasons (behind it). But there are seven in the Roman church. There were five for a long time. In the Protestant churches there are two. There are at least in some groups of the Anglican church, actually and even theoretically three. But that doesn’t matter. The problem is : “What does sacramental thinking mean?” not “How many sacraments?” And this is what Protestants must learn; they have forgotten it.