Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Something Happens...

In my last post in this series, I contrasted a typical evangelical view, of communion as a memorial only, with a sacramental understanding of it as a spiritual feast--food and drink for our souls. With a sacramental worldview, you believe that something happens when a sacrament is performed or received.

You believe that something happens when you anoint someone with oil for healing--that it is a special avenue for God's grace. When you have been anointed with oil for ministry, whether it is for reading the Scriptures or serving communion or becoming a priest, you believe that you have been set apart for a purpose; you understand that it is Christ Himself who ministers through you.

You believe that something happens in baptism, and you want that for your newborn. While baptism alone doesn't save, you believe that it sanctifies, or sets apart; it plants a seed of faith that, with proper care and watering, will grow into a flourishing tree of faith which the child, when he is older, can choose to publicly confirm in the sacrament of confirmation, a sort of parallel to "believer's baptism." (I know that baptism and confirmation are not always thoughtfully practiced in many liturgical churches, but when they are, it is a wonderful way to bring up children as fully-included members, from birth, of the household of faith.)

Confession, too, is another sacrament in which something happens, as Lauren Winner describes in Girl Meets God:

I say confession because the church teaches that we should, and I say it because, when I don't, I feel over full--not in a good, cup-overflowing way, but in a sticky, sweaty, eaten-too-much way.

Confession makes sense to me because it is incarnational. In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit uses stuff to sanctify us. In the Eucharist He uses bread and wine, and in confirmation He uses oil and in baptism He uses water. In confession, the stuff He uses is another person. In that way, confession teaches us about the Incarnation all over again. ...

Here, in confession, God is connecting us to Himself not through bread or oil or water or wine, but through another broken body, one who absolves you, and then says, "Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner."

Let me highlight this sentence: "In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit uses stuff to sanctify us." Sacramentalists tend to have a high view of matter. Liturgical services are filled with material symbols--candles, robes, special linens for the altar, incense--and experiences, such as standing, kneeling, crossing oneself, prostrating oneself. In a sacramental worldview, something happens when the light signifying God's presence is lit. Something happens when you get on your knees before God.

Something happens when you use holy water for cleansing. When I first encountered this practice, I thought it smacked of superstition--and indeed in some cultures where Catholicism has blended with paganism, ones does find an extreme of superstitious materialism. But properly understood, the use of material substances in worship is God-designed and expands to include our very own bodies. As C.S. Lewis, that great Anglican theologian, has explained:

And let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being 'in Christ' or of Christ being 'in them', this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts -- that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.

And perhaps that explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution -- a biological or super biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.

Something happens...

You don't check your reason at the door when you enter a liturgical service--but we do worship a God whose higher ways we cannot begin to understand. Our faith is more than a rational affirmation of belief. God chose to send his Son to earth in a material body, and He continues to minister his presence not just through right understanding of his word, but through the material things which He created.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

Kerry said...

I've enjoyed this series, but this particular post spoke to me. I sometimes struggle with things like anointing with oil and holy water. I've used them and trusted in their efficacy, but at times struggled with explaining their use vs. just praying for these things.

I'm looking forward to the next installment!