SWEAR TO GOD: THE PROMISE AND POWER OF THE SACRAMENTS

by Scott Hahn

Doubleday, 2004

232 pages, $19.95

Available in bookstores

As a former evangelical Protestant, I can readily identify with Scott Hahn's admission that, prior to becoming Catholic, he had little use for sacraments and ritual.

“I can remember a time in my own life when I thought that sacraments were holdovers from an age that believed in magic,” the noted author and professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, writes in Swear to God: The Promise and Power of the Sacraments, his latest Doubleday offering. “I saw rituals as mechanical procedures people used to manipulate God.”

The problem with that perspective, Hahn explains, is that everyone relies on ritual, even if they aren't aware of it. “I came, however, to recognize,” he continues, “that those who try to do away with the Church's sacraments inevitably end up replacing them with rituals of their own making.”

Swear to God is specifically concerned with explaining the covenantal nature and meaning of t h e seven sacraments. The essence of this accessible and often enlightening excursion into sacramental theology is captured in a quote from St. Augustine, referenced by Hahn: “There can be no religious society, whether the religion be true or false, without some sacrament or visible symbol to serve as a bond of union. The importance of the sacraments cannot be overstated, and only scoffers will treat them lightly.”

The phrase “bond of union” is at the heart of the book, which takes up a theme readers familiar with Hahn's other books and tapes will immediately recognize: the centrality of covenant in Scripture and salvation history. Drawing from a mixture of Scripture, well-selected quotes from Church Fathers and the Catechism, historical references and personal anecdotes, Hahn reveals the covenantal, familial and juridical dimensions of the sacraments.

For those not familiar with the concept of covenant, Hahn provides ample explanation in both the main text and in the endnotes. (Although written for a popular audience, it's got more than 30 pages of detailed citations and references).

Many popular books about the sacraments provide a systematic explanation of each one. Hahn's interest, however, is in the reality of sacrament as a sacred oath and the key role it plays in God's plan of salvation, the work of Christ and the mission of the Church.

“Christianity is the only religion in all the world and in all of history in which God swears an oath on the part of mankind,” Hahn writes.

“Christ himself is the one, true dependable sacrament. His life thus becomes the source of all of our sacraments.” This vital truth is unpacked and connected to the need for

Catholics to more deeply comprehend and experience the incarnational dimension of the sacramental life.

The fourth Eucharistic prayer of the Mass states, “Again and again you offered a covenant to man.” The New Covenant is signified and ratified through the sacraments, which are life-giving and spirit-transforming gifts of the Incarnate Son. “Thus,” Hahn explains, “the salvation we know in Jesus Christ is nothing at all if it is not covenantal.” Swear to God explains this truth with clarity and passion, just one of the many valuable and inspiring points readers will find in this excellent book.

Carl E. Olson writes from Eugene, Oregon.