Sacrament. What a loaded word.
For much of my Christian life, it was a dirty word. It spoke of the domination of Christians by a legalistic hierarchy with a dubious history. It referred to going through the motions of empty ritual in an attempt to earn salvation. It represented everything that was wrong with the Church, and even when us good Evangelicals perform the same practices, we use a different word (ordinances). “Sacraments” was a dirty word.
Or so I thought. So I was often told, implicitly even more than explicitly. It doesn’t help that sometimes there’s some truth to that dismal view.
In the past few years I’ve become attracted to sacraments, and the more I learn about them, the more attracted to them I become. Not any particular sacraments: I still hold to the two “acceptable” ones, Baptism and Eucharist (Communion), and while I appreciate the other five Catholic sacraments (when I can remember what they all are), I don’t think they have the same weight as the main two in terms of the regular practice of the Church. My interest in sacraments is better worded as an interest in sacrament (no “s”), and this is something I should explain.
There is a very, very old notion that this visible world is not the only world that exists, but that there is also a spiritual world that is connected, or in some way corresponds, with our world. Traditionally, we refer to these worlds as Heaven (the spiritual reality) and Earth (the physical reality). Many religions have developed quite specific ideas about these two worlds and the ways in which they are interrelated: some see these two worlds as being somehow in conflict, with the physical world being evil while the spiritual world is good, and we are sparks of spiritual light trapped in physical bodies of darkness. This is called Gnosticism, and it got really popular right after the Church began. That’s not what I’m going to talk about. I want to talk about how the Christian Church sees this interrelationship.
Jewish concepts of the spiritual world and the physical world were much closer: God lived among Israel in a tent, and He marched out to war with them in the spring time, and the gods of other peoples and territories feared Him. This is getting a little bit closer to the Christian notion. The Jews saw spiritual forces in the concrete events of history, and there was nothing ethereal about the actions of these invisible, spiritual beings. Yet at the same time, God’s throne was in Heaven, even if His house was a tent in Israel’s camp.
Early Christians inherited a mixed bag of ideas about heaven and earth, from Jews and Hellenists (Greeks) and Persians and everyone else in the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. They certainly saw heaven and earth as two realms, distinct but highly interrelated. Jesus told Peter that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven; there is a strong notion that heaven and earth mirror each other imperfectly. Historically, people have seen earthly events as being a result of events in heaven, as though earthly history is a copy of what goes on in heaven (note that this is the opposite of what Jesus said: what Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven). The important point is that there is an interrelationship, and even more importantly, that Jesus spread ideas that went way beyond a mere correspondence between heaven and earth. Jesus, in the Jewish traditions of prophecy and apocalypse, talked about Heaven breaking into Earth, the two realms colliding and becoming one. He described this collision and the order that would come from it in a sort of contradiction in terms, a blending of heaven and earth: the Kingdom of Heaven.
To the Jews, the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven would mean that God would live among them again: Jesus certainly meant this when he used the term. The strange thing was that he used the term to refer to the things he was doing rather than with the appearance of God in a pillar of fire. He spoke of the Kingdom being present (already!), even in the midst of Roman Palestine, but there was no sign of a new state or world order – only a man healing the sick and feeding the poor, sometimes in miraculous ways, often in very ordinary ways. He spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven when he cast out demons and performed miracles, but he also spoke of it when he commented on how his disciples were arguing with one another over petty things. This Kingdom of Heaven was surely a mix of heavenly and earthly things!
The really tricky thing about this Kingdom is that sometimes it’s here, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes Jesus talked about it in the future tense, sometimes in the present. This has led theologians to talk about the “already/not-yet” of the gospel, sometimes called the “eschatological reserve” because it refers to the fullness of the Kingdom that will, according to Paul, come when Christ returns. Right now, he says, we only get a glimpse of it – like a down payment, or a pledge, of what’s to come. It’s an enticing idea, but it’s not entirely what I want to talk about either. Here’s the good part:
We get to participate in this pledge of a new Kingdom. Just like Jesus did, we get to do certain things that actually transform our entire reality, if only for a moment, into the Kingdom of Heaven.
There’s this great TV show called Fringe that’s all about “fringe science,” and a key plot point in the whole series is that there is more than one dimension. These two dimensions are mostly alike, but not entirely. A few fringe scientists discover how to open a portal between these two worlds, these realities, and the results shake up both worlds. But the image I want to impress on you is that, to cross between these two worlds, these scientists do something that causes these two similar but slightly different worlds to vibrate on the same frequency, so that for a few moments these two places become one and the same place. There is an overlap that occurs, and for a moment, one world appears in the other. Just a glimpse, but enough to allow elements of one world to pass into the other.
In this scene, a bridge appears in a place where the bridge has been destroyed. This is because, in the other dimension, the bridge is still there; it was never destroyed. In that moment and that particular place, the two worlds were becoming one (until Peter stopped it). What Jesus did, and what Jesus still does through the Church, is make much more than a bridge appear: he makes Heaven (which is very often used as a euphemism or symbol for God Himself) appear. And we get to participate in this action. One of the ways that we do this is through the sacraments.
Sacraments are in a very strong sense an acting-out of the Kingdom of God. We rehearse regularly for this future world, and in so doing we represent it here on earth in symbolic ways. In Baptism, we are symbolically identifying ourselves with Christ in his death and resurrection, dying to the old earthly life and rising again to new life in the new Kingdom. In the Eucharist we not only remember the concrete Christ of history, but we also identify with him by partaking of his body and blood, becoming one with him in flesh as we do in Spirit, simultaneously remembering his death and committing ourselves to follow him to that very death. We are, symbolically, making ourselves identical with Christ; we’re making a crossing-over point, and Jesus is walking across that bridge. In the sacraments, we act out the Kingdom of Heaven; in so doing, we make it appear in our world.
What a beautiful thing! We are not just singing about what Jesus did, we are participating in it! (albeit in a symbolic sense).
But as beautiful as sacraments are, they’re not enough. Jesus’ actions didn’t make the Kingdom of Heaven present in a symbolic way. He made it present in a very concrete way, through his ethical action. At this point I’ll turn it over to Jurgen Moltmann, who says it better than I can paraphrase in Following Jesus Christ in the World Today:
Christian messianic ethics celebrates and anticipates the presence of God in history. It wants to practice the unconditioned within the conditioned and the last things in the next to last. In the economic dimension, God is present in bread; in healing, as health. In the political dimension God is present as the dignity of the human being; in the cultural dimension, as solidarity. In the ecological area, God is present as peace with nature; in the personal area, in the certainty of the heart. Every form of his presence is veiled and sacramental; it is not yet a presence face-to-face. God’s presence encounters human persons in the concrete messianic form of his liberation from hunger, oppression, alienation, enmity and despair. These messianic forms of his presence point at the same time, however, beyond themselves to a greater presence, and finally to that present in which ‘God will be all in all.’
God’s real presence as bread, as freedom, as community, as peace and as certainty thus have the character of exploding the present. To act ethically in a Christian sense means to participate in God’s history in the midst of our own history, to participate in the comprehensive process of God’s liberation of the world, and to discover our own role in this, according to our own calling and abilities. A messianic ethic makes people into co-operators fo the kingdom of God. It assumes that the kingdom of God is already here in concrete, if hidden, form. Messianic ethics integrates suffering people into God’s history in this world; it is fulfilled by the hope of the completion of God’s history in the world by God himself.
Messianic ethics makes everyday life into a feast of God’s rule, just as Jesus did. The messianic feast becomes everyday life. As Athanasius once said, ‘the resurrected Christ makes life a feast, a feast without end.’ As we celebrate the presence of God’s kingdom by identifying with and serving the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the lonely, and the powerless, Christian ethics becomes a sacrament. Then in our normal daily life in the world, politics becomes worship (Rom. 12:1-2).