Written by two respected theologians and experienced teachers, this book is intended to serve as an introductory undergraduate text for the study of sacraments. While mainly Roman Catholic in focus and in the examples used, the text also includes an ecumenical perspective to make it accessible to a wide range of students.
The introduction and first two chapters of the book define the nature and role of symbol and ritual and their indispensable role in human as well as in Christian life. Two points which I found particularly helpful here are a discussion of the relationship between rituals and power structures (p. 28) and an identification of five important elements or functions of ritual; it serves as a "hermeneutic of experience", an empowering encounter or experience of presence, an opportunity for growth in maturity, a call to service and a celebration of friendship. (pp. 52-3).
Chapter three reflects on the "foundational human sacrament" of human friendship and places the Christian sacrament of marriage in this context. The following chapters, four through eight, consider the other sacraments under the headings, rituals of Christian Initiation; Prayer, Worship and Eucharist; Reconciliation; Service and Ministry; and Healing, Suffering and Death. Each of these chapters follows the same format, presenting a brief history of the origins and development of the sacrament and its ritual embodiment and concludes with a reflection on how each sacrament embodies the five ritual elements listed above. These chapters also are attentive to differences among the churches, e.g. in baptismal practices, in the understanding of Christís presence in the Eucharist, and in community leadership.
A brief concluding chapter, entitled "Christian Life as Ritual," discusses a variety of "sacramentals" important in various Christian communities. The authors include here the Mexican ceremony of quince aŮos, the use of icons and images in the Eastern and Western churches, the bible, sacred places, and forms of private prayer. (One thing I found puzzling here was the authorsí inclusion of the "divine office" under the heading of private prayer. With Vatican IIís restoration of the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of the whole church, this communal celebration should be given more prominence as one of the Churchís important public celebrations of ritual prayer.)
One additional critique I would offer is that the authorsí emphasis on sacraments as a call to service needs to be complemented by a stronger emphasis on their call to works of justice on behalf of the Kingdom of God as well. If the sacraments are indeed "anticipatory signs of the Kingdom in our midst", then they challenge us also to embody that Kingdom more fully here on earth by cooperating fully with Godís grace to build a more just and peaceful world at the structural as well as the personal level.
Overall this book is comprehensive in scope and very readable for undergraduate. I recommend its use as a basic textbook for undergraduate courses in liturgy and sacraments (complemented by a study of the sacramental rites), as well as for introductory courses in contemporary Catholicism.