SACRAMENTS: God’s Sacramental Starting Point by Ernest J. Fiedler & R. Benjamin Garrison

God's Sacramental Starting Point by Ernest J. Fiedler & R. Benjamin Garrison

From The Sacraments: An Experiment in Ecumenical Honesty

The mysterious prologue to John’s account of the life of Jesus from its outset directs attention to what might be called God’s sacramental starting point.  Commentators have long noted that John’s Gospel begins with an effort to hinge the whole account of Christ’s Earthly life and mission on its eternal pre-creation essence.  In his brief collection of words, John would have us consider, as far as we are able, Christ’s life in the essence he already and always shared with the Father and the Spirit:

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him
and that life was the light of men,
a light that shines in the dark,
a light that darkness could not overpower.

The Word was the true light
that enlightens all men;
and he was coming into the world.
He was in the world
that had its being through him,
and the world did not know him.
He came to his own domain
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to all who believe in the name of him
who was born not out of human stock
or urge of the flesh
or will of man
but of God himself.
The Word was made flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.

No one has ever seen God;
it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known. (John 1:1-5, 9-14, 18)

He speaks of the “Word” and then tells us that this word was spoken temporally.  To talk of “words” is already to deal with one of the means utilized in the making of sacraments.

It would be interesting at this point to digress and study John’s entire Gospel vis-à-vis sacraments.  But it would, in the time and space available to us, amount more to an unwarranted digression than a contribution.  However, a remark or two are hopefully acceptable.

One of the investigations of note on this point is the learned and highly esteemed study of the Fourth Gospel by C. H. Dodd (The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel) which emphasizes the sign and symbol stress of this Gospel.  In fact, Dodd goes so far as to call it, “The Book of Signs.”  I am inclined to suggest that we accept the fact of the strong sacramental underpinning of John’s insights and proceed from that perspective.  It is easy to nitpick the academics of such a subject to the point that it becomes a kind of game.  The agreement-disagreement factors here cross denominational lines quite ecumenically.  If you are interested in pursuing the matter a bit further, I would suggest Bruce Vawter’s contribution of a decade ago summarized in “The Johannine Sacramentary” and the commentaries of Raymond E. Brown in the ecumenically blessed effort of the Anchor Bible as primary sources.

Roughly summarizing the contents of these considerations and adding personal thoughts, I might say simply that man uses words and actions to communicate.  These he produces with his body.  As a matter of fact, the only means of communication that man possesses is his human body.  (Even “ESP” depends radically on the body.)  From this perspective the surpassing generosity of the incarnation can be seen from a slightly different point of view than is normally discussed in the journals of theology.  With the incarnation, God takes a human body.  He now communicates with man in the manner that is normal to man.  

How well he succeeded, how completely tangible he became with a human body, John expresses in another of his writings:

We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning: we have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes; yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it.  When this life became visible, we saw it; so we speak of it and tell you about the eternal life which was with the Father and was made known to us.

What we have seen and heard we tell to you also, so that you will join with us in the fellowship that we have with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We write this in order that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

In many ways it seems presumptuous to write further, unless one possessed the pioneering theological talents and insights of a modern prophet like Teilhard de Chardin.  But we must reject the temptation to stop and accept the presumptuous effort of continuing.

One amalgamation of the concepts of sacraments and communication is the following:

We shall see in John a strong emphasis on events in Christ’s life which foreshadow the sacramental life of the church.  John is dealing with a Christian audience which already depends on baptism for its life and the Eucharist for nourishment of the life.  The only information in the Synoptics on baptism is a verse commanding it, (Matthew 28:19), and on the Eucharist, the verses instituting it, (Matthew 14:22-24).  John takes these institutions for granted, not even mentioning them, but gives the rich background and meaning of baptism in references to the living water of rebirth in cc. 3, 4, 7, 13, and of the Eucharist in the discourse on the living bread in c. 6, and in references to the vine of the new dispensation in cc. 2, 15.  John shows the ultimate source of both sacraments in 19:34). (New Testament Reading Guide)

A lengthy history of God’s more indirect revelation and man’s painfully difficult efforts both to understand and communicate with him in return are recorded in the Old Testament.  The New Testament, then, seems to demonstrate that the exchange can now be carried on in a manner natural to man, that is, by means of the body.  As Schillebeeckx has said: “The human encounter with Jesus is therefore the sacrament of the encounter with God.” (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God)  This happens with every event and at each moment of Christ’s life, but especially does it assume importance in the great events of his redemptive death, resurrection, and ascension.  Even this, however, is not yet all.  Christ makes his presence among us permanently active and permanently tangible by establishing the church as his continuing bodily presence.  This he provides for man living in the ages after the catalyst of his physical body is gone from man’s direct physical encounter.  Within this context we find the basis for any sacrament.  Were this not so, the bodily communication factor of the incarnation would be lost to us.  The II Vatican Council said:

To accomplish so great a work Christ is always present in his church, especially in her liturgical celebrations.  By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes.  He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the church.  He is present, finally, when the church prays and sings, for he promised: “Where two of three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them.” (Italics mine.)

An illustration of the continuity of body presence through the sacraments can be seen in an interesting point made by Schillebeechx who wrote that not one of the twelve apostles who had such immediate contact with Christ, the “primordial sacrament,” was baptized.  But Paul, the “thirteenth apostle,” who had not physically contacted the Earthly Christ, was baptized. (Acts 9:18)  Sacramentality would thus be seen to bridge the gap between the glorified Christ and unglorified humanity.  It became operative as the entity we call “church” after the ascension of Christ’s physical, Earthly body.

The sacraments find their place in the larger context of church as the necessary formative element of effective symbols that man needs even in his basic human life.  Man has used and has always needed symbols in his process of communication.  Situations and occasions inevitably arise when words alone are unsuccessful or incomplete as the means of communication.  Even in very simple things, we frequently find that a box of candy, flowers, an embrace, a smile are more effective than words can be as a means of communication.  This problem of ineptness is in all language.  It is not only true between individuals but also for the communication of information and knowledge to an between members of a community.

Contemporary studies in linguistic analysis note that language seems inevitably and ultimately to lead to mystery, to depths whose expression cannot be accomplished with language alone.  As language begins to reach this point, it begins to use vehicles like metaphors and poetry.  But finally these too fail to express the greater depth of the human person.  The point is reached when man’s last device for communication is ritual.  It is also his most basic device.  Modern philosophy today may in fact be converging with theology on this point in an increasing awareness of the ultimate need for signs.  Essentially, radically, these are sacraments.

Theologically speaking, both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism since the Reformation have come to the same rationalistic stance in the matter of linguistic formulation, and, in effect, the problems of religion, God and man, have been considered as adequately worked out and stated adequately.  Theology produced exact formulas, expressing rigid doctrinal positions and implying that the truths were all safely capsulized.

Paradoxically the mechanics of the physical sciences grew more fluid than the mechanics of theology whose aim is to study mystery, utterly boundless mystery.  And science, in its points of contact with theology, encountered such rigid and static formulas that science decided, understandably, that it did not need religion or a god so neatly indexed and tabulated.  In such a situation the tragedy, if we may call it that, of a man like Sigmund Freud is a good example of the results.  Religious and doctrinal statements, being static and out of tune with the situation of contemporary man and his greater existential depth, could only be considered an illusion by a man dealing with the new concepts of psychology and the mysteries of human depth he was discovering.

But science itself then began to fall victim to the same hazard.  If language was insufficient, or various unknowns were encountered, science would simply develop a system of symbols and equations.  Science also ultimately has ended up with cold, stratified, and impersonal formulas when it speaks of man.  Man might be scientifically described in an equation.  But while “A+B=Man” might give a concrete statement, such a formula clearly could not begin to plumb the depths of man’s existential reality.

Now it seems that science and religion are converging again.  They come to the same dead end when they attempt to use restricted formulas to express the person as a loving, knowing being.  They come to the point where words and formulas are insufficient or useless, and both have ended up groping for something more.  In effect, the search has led back again to mystery and the inadequacy of language to express it satisfactorily.  It may sound quite facile, but it would seem that people always come to an end of words and to a need for sacraments.

If we have begun to learn a costly lesson, and to safeguard falling into the same mistakes again, these signs and symbols, these sacraments must be kept in a dynamic state.  They must communicate truly, but in a living way.  God may lead us, in Christ, to the use of basic symbols, but the church must assure the dynamism of their expression.  We are just beginning to emerge, hopefully from a long static stage in accepting this responsibility.  We have been so busy defending our doctrinal formulas that we allowed sacraments and worship to petrify.  Hopefully, however, God’s sacramental starting point is on the verge of being more actively accepted by man again.  If he succeeds, a rebirth of religious life in greater depth is eminent and inevitable.

A theological worry: Let us not judge that our sacramental action contributes anything to God as God.  We will merely get hung up in another maze that might take several more centuries to unscramble.  The danger of assuming, even unconsciously, that our actions in any way contribute anything to God is that we essentially tend to reverse the roles of God and man.  Even when most perfectly celebrated by man, God’s sacramental “starting point” is not enriched.  Saint Thomas Aquinas sounds quite “modern” at this point.  He says, for example:

In the payment of these bodily observances, we busy ourselves in paying attention to the things of God, not as though we were of service to him, as is the case when we are said to tend, or cultivate, other things by our attentions, but because such actions are of service to ourselves, enabling us to come nearer to God.  And because by inward acts we go straight to God, therefore it is by inward acts properly that we worship God: nevertheless outward acts also belong to the cult, or worship, of God, inasmuch as by such acts our mind is raised to God. 

There are exercised on man certain sanctifications through some sensible things, which man is washed, or anointed, or given to eat or drink, with the utterance of sensible words, not indeed as though profitable to him. 

We pay God honor and reverence, not for his sake (because he is of himself full of glory to which no creature can add anything), but for our own sake, because by the very fact that we revere and honor God, our mind is subject to him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subjected to its superior, for instance the body is perfected by being quickened by the soul, and the air by being enlightened by the sun.

God, therefore, is liberal to the highest degree, and he alone can properly be called liberal; for every other being, except him, by acting acquires some good which is the end intended.

(Summa Contra Gentles. Of God and His Creatures, by Joseph Rickaby, and Summa Theologica)

So we receive.  As we enact sacramental life in the church, we must receive constantly and even more consciously the sacramental starting and sustaining principle of the Father – and, of course, it is a living thing, a living presence, a Person.  He gives, we receive: we embody his life.  Hence the need to attend to the condition of our body – the church!  As we learn to receive properly, we will be “giving” everything we can.

What is the extent of this giving by God to us?  It is beyond any measuring available to us.  It seems that it consists of nothing less than God himself.  As Paul says with such undiluted, undiminishing, and absolute timeliness, “This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out his life into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us!”  His giving is as total as himself.  The only modification, restriction, or abstruction is our own hesitancy, refusal, or temerity.  He will not change.  The only real question is – will we?

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