Symbol or Sign? A Mystogogical Pedagogy of the Sacraments

Teaching about the sacraments

What is a sacrament? The definition drawn from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which most children are asked to memorize, is “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which we receive the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.”

In a classroom, whether in a Catholic school or CCD, the temptation can be to only teach students about the sacraments. There is nothing wrong with this. This is what teachers and catechists are asked to do. Everyone needs to understand the meaning of the sacraments. However, unlike other subjects, religion—especially the sacraments—cannot be understood only cognitively. The deep meaning of the sacraments can only be understood by experience.

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Clarifying Vocabulary

When introducing any sacraments, some key terminology has to be clarified. Make sure students can differentiate between sign and symbol and understand the meaning of mystery.

Unfortunately, we are trained to understand sacrament as signs rather than symbols. Why? Most students learn in their literature classes that a symbol is something that represents something else. There is a one to one meaning. For example, one might say that Piggy’s glasses in the book Lord of the Flies represent knowledge, order, innovation, or discovery. There is a deeper meaning that the glasses symbolize.

In theology, however, symbol is something even deeper than this. The Greek word symbaleo means to “throw together” (sym = together, baleo = to throw). In the sacraments a visible reality is thrown together with an invisible reality. This is different from a symbol in a story in that both the visible and the invisible are real and maintain their realities. The bread and wine continue to be bread and wine visibly, though they become Christ body and blood as the Eucharist.

Sacraments are Mysteries

Another challenge that we must help our students overcome, is the temptation to understand the sacraments purely objectively as though theology were a science. This would reduce sacraments to merely signs. A sign is something that represents something else. For example, a STOP sign represents a law that states cars must stop at a certain place. There is no other meaning for a STOP sign.

Sacraments, on the other hand, are efficacious signs; they are symbols with many deeper meanings that cannot be fully understood or explained. This is where the mystery of the sacrament is crucial to sacramental theology. It is no wonder that originally the sacraments were called mysteries (sacrament is a newer world probably taken from the Roman military). When we talk about mystery in the Church we do not mean:

1) Mystery should not be understood as something difficult or impossible to understand. (Think the nuns who would respond to the students’ questions about the Trinity: It’s a mystery!)

2) Mystery should not be understood as something we can somehow solve as if we were Sherlock Holmes.

A mystery should be understood as a reality that is hidden from view that can be known through experience, but only partially understood. The sacraments are mysteries, they have a mysteriousness that transforms us.

Those who were disappointed with the last season of LOST will complain about the disappointment in the explanations for the many “mysteries” of the show. Others will complain about how certain “mysteries” were never fully explained. The genius of LOST was in the producers’ ability to attract viewers with mysteriousness—with deep meaning that brought about more questions than answers. As the seasons rolled on, fans delved deeply into the mysteries of the show and grew attached to the characters they came to know and love.

The sacraments have a mysteriousness that we must not rob from our students. There will never be a final season of Mass (even heaven could be a disappointment if all mystery was defined). To use another pop culture reference from the movie Shrek, the sacraments, like ogres and onions, have layers. The sacraments have many meanings that are understood more deeply and differently over time and with new experiences. As we come to know Christ more deeply, we come to see the Eucharist in different ways.

The Mystogical Pedagogy of the Sacraments

To take up a mystogogical pedagogy of the sacraments means we must walk with children as they experience the sacraments for themselves. The sacraments cannot be understood purely objectively, like a science, no matter how well we can explain the Church’s teachings about them. There are many meanings that come to be known over time and through experience. The RCIA program does this very well. We must instruct and lay the framework for the experience of the sacraments ahead of time, then we must help our students integrate their experience into the experience of the sacraments and integrate the experience of the sacraments into their experiences of everyday life.

Tips for teaching about the sacraments:

• Use discussion questions like the ones I suggested here to help young people encounter the Christ in the sacraments.

• Define the words sacrament, sign, symbol, and mystery but comparing the Church’s understanding of these words with what they already know (e.g. Piggy’s glasses, STOP, LOST, Shrek).

• Define symbol and mystery negatively: symbols are not… Mysteries are not…

• Accept some subjective understandings in discussion about the sacraments, but insist upon certain objective truths that a part of the sacraments. Sacrament should not be purely subjective any more than they should be purely objective.

• Go to mass with your students.

• Go to reconciliation with your students.

• Share your subjective experiences with your students.

(Inspired in part by Fr. Michael Driscoll’s article “Symbol, Mystery, and Catechesis: Toward a Mystagogical Approach,” Liturgical Ministry 7 (Spring, 1998), 67-75.)

Note on the picture: Some former students of mine made this shirt for me as an end-of-the-year gift. Apparently my insistence on a clear understanding of sacraments as symbols (or efficacious signs) made a lasting impact. Or maybe they just wanted to make a cool shirt.


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About Jared Dees

Jared Dees is the creator of The Religion Teacher. He is the Content Marketing Manager at Ave Maria Press and the author of 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator, To Heal, Proclaim, and Teach, and Praying the Angelus.


  1. Marc Cardaronella says:

    One way I like to take the objectiveness out of teaching the sacraments is to emphasize the aspect of union. Every sacrament is essentially an encounter with Christ himself. The definition from the Catechism cited above says that in the sacraments we receive the life of God. That's easy to just blow past and objectify but think about it. We receive the very life of God through the sacramental encounter! And that life is not separate from God, it is a union with him. In every sacrament, God, in a sense, extends himself to us and unites himself to us!

    The CCC has that great picture of a fresco depicting Jesus with the woman with a hemorrhage in the beginning of the section on the sacraments. It says that just as she was healed by power that went forth from Christ's earthly body, so we are healed of the effects of sin by power that goes forth from Christ's Mystical Body, the Church, through the sacraments.

    This is a fantastic image to personalize the sacraments and give a sense of what is really happening. It is so easy to theologize and objectify the sacraments and grace. Sometimes we need to step back and understand that Christ is working still…the Church is an extension of the Incarnation and continues the work he did during his earthly life.

  2. Thanks Marc, you are absolutely right. We encounter a Person in the sacraments not merely a thing or an idea and certainly not just a feeling. Great image!

  3. I tell my kids that if our vision were not dimmed by sin per St. Paul, that we’d be able to see sacraments work. E.g., any saint, any one of the cloud of witnesses at a baptism can perceive the water washing away sin.

  4. Cindy says:

    Thank You…great stewardship of your time and experience!
    Two small quibbles…it is a tough one for middle schoolers but I think they can get that there is a last episode of the Mass. This is an “until he comes again” remembrance/sacrifice/meal. The question of BIG hope…eschatological hope…is often missing in our catechetical picture. And, it is what will hold together the long-haul of Christian Discipleship. Especially in a time of information overload and graphic visuals of the suffering around the world it is real hope that grounds all our living. Quibble 2 is just a pet peeve…we should graduate from the old nun stereotype. So much great work has been done by these oft caricatured disciples.
    Pax e Bonum