SPIRITUALITY: Divine Presents—The Sacramental Mysteries, Introduction by Gregory Collins

A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life

Divine Presents—The Sacramental Mysteries, Introduction by Gregory Collins

From Meeting Christ in His Mysteries

In this sacramental dispensation of Christ’s mystery, the Holy Spirit acts in the same way as at other times in the economy of salvation: he prepares the church to encounter her Lord; he recalls and makes Christ manifest to the faith of the assembly.  By his transforming power he makes the mystery of Christ present here and now.  Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present.  The paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated.  It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present. (Odo Casel)

According to the clear testimony of scripture and the unanimous witness of the early church, Christ through incarnation and redemption established a number of ritual acts either during his time with the apostles before and after Easter, or through his body the church under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  The two principal ones, baptism and the Eucharist, are explicity attested to in the New Testament, but the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches hold that there are at least five others – laying on of hands with oil to “complete” baptism and confer the Holy Spirit (“chrismation” in the East, “confirmation in the West); confession of sins with absolution; anointing of the sick with oil; marriage and ordination to the church’s ministry.  Tradition in the East calls these actions mysteries and in the West, sacraments, but increasingly both sides use each other’s terminology.  Protestants and most Anglicans generally acknowledge only baptism and the Eucharist as full and complete sacraments of the gospel but some at least are often willing to call the other five “sacramental ministrations.”

Yet these mysteries are only manifestations of one great mystery-sacrament: Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God incarnate and glorified.  What he accomplished in his death, resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit remains forever the primordial sacramental mystery, the foundational saving event and the overflowing source of grace for his people.  Rooted and grounded in Christ, his body, the church – the assembled Christian community – celebrates the sacramental mysteries bequeathed to her by him, the two principal ones being the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.  In and through these two ritual actions the one mystery of Christ is manifested through the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can share in it.  Christ the incarnate and crucified God, exalted into glory and seated at the right hand of the Father, continues to act in the world today, effectively mediating the divine presence as he did during his Earthly ministry: only his mode of working is different.

In addition, the holy scriptures, the inspired written record of those who witnessed the saving actions of Christ, were viewed in the early church as a kind of great sacrament through which Christ spoke.  Indeed it is a basic principle of the renewed liturgy in every church today that there can be no effective celebration of any of the sacramental mysteries without the reading and preaching of the word of God as well: no celebration without proclamation.

The mystery – the saving life, death and resurrection of the incarnate Word – is given to us by the Spirit, therefore, principally in the great sacraments of scripture, baptism, and the Eucharist.  But the mystery also gives rise to a profusion of lesser mysteries or “sacraments” which, in turn, mediate his one single mystery.  Radiating out from Christ’s sacramental act, they form a vast field of spiritual energy which comes to us through secondary mediations called sacramentals in the Roman Catholic Church and lesser mysteries in the eastern traditions.  This rich sacramental economy is a sign of God’s gracious self-accommodation to our created condition for we are not simply spiritual beings.  We are creatures of flesh and blood who need a flesh and blood God.

There is an obvious analogy between the sacramental rites the church carries out in worship and the one great mystery of the death and resurrection of the incarnate Word.  Just as the incarnation mediates God through flesh and blood, through the sheer facticity and historicity of the incarnate Christ, so in Christian worship, visible, tangible elements such as water, oil, bread, and wine, along with human activities such as ritual actions are taken up by God and used to communicate his gracious presence.  Through these physical media, endowed with new energies (and in the case of the Eucharist with new being), contemporary believers experience again the coming of Christ.  Present in Heaven, he becomes manifest again among us so that we can participate in the gift of his salvation.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ renders present his original redeeming act in all its power for us, today, here and now.  The concrete actions through which Christ redeemed us (supremely his death on the cross) are of course, being past events, entirely unrepeatable.  Yet through the church’s worship their saving presence and power is manifested and made vibrantly alive through the action of the living Lord Jesus who descends in the Holy Spirit from his place in glory at the right hand of the Father in response to the praise and petitions of his people.

Even though as historical happenings the events themselves belong to the past, the fire at their heart, the redeeming love (agape) which brought Christ the incarnate God to his birth, epiphany, ministry, and transfiguration, and culminated in his passion, death, and resurrection, is actualized, realized, and made operative for us through the worship we celebrate in the power of the Spirit.

The Letter to the Hebrews teaches that Christ has become the true high priest by being exalted to God’s right hand in Heaven and that his perfect self-offering, made once and for all in time is the final act by means of which God has purified the world from sin.  It is the end of all other sacrifices, (Hebrews 9:11-28; 10:1-14).  Christ, priest and victim, the Lamb sacrificed in love standing before the face of the Father, is himself the living center of the liturgy of Heaven, the very embodiment of praise and glorification, (Revelation 5:1; 7:9-17; 8:1-5).  He is the perfect worshiper, offering adoration to his Father in our name in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The same Holy Spirit, given to him in perfect abundance in his resurrection, descends on the church through this Heavenly liturgy, being sent by him when Christians celebrate their worship and implore his / her coming, (Acts 10:44-48).

Christ, the high priest of Heaven, is the real celebrant who presides invisibly in every Earthly service for, as a text in the Byzantine liturgy says, he is both the one who offers and is offered.  His presence is invisible yet real: acting through the symbolic mediation of the church and her ministers in the sacramental liturgical rites, he unites us as members of his body with the perfect worship he offers to the Father.  In the various traditions of the early church (reflecting the Jewish mystical tradition of ascent to God’s throne) the liturgy was understood as an act of ascension, a going up in the Spirit to the ascended Lord in Heaven: “Let us lift up our hearts!  We lift them to the Lord,” as one sings (in various different ways) in all the classical liturgies of the church.

In Reformed Protestantism as well, under the influence of John Calvin, special emphasis is laid on the fact that in worship the ascended Christ lifts up the assembly of his people to the throne of glory.  He offers the members of his Earthly body to the Father in the liturgy of Heaven where, accompanied by saints and angels, he celebrates God’s glory in unending song.  But it is all the work of grace.  We do not ascend by our own power: rather we are carried up on high by Christ who first descends to us so that he may lift us God-ward on the wings of the Holy Spirit.

Yet God does not wish us to be merely passive before him.  The divine gifts offered to us have to be consciously received by us.  We certainly cannot just reach out and grasp at God’s presence for we are not capable of that.  Yet through the grace granted us in worship God empowers us to respond to his summons, enabling us to take hold of him as he reaches down to become present to us.  Assembled for our liturgical celebrations, we make ourselves present to God who makes himself present to us.  In the words of the third Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Mass, the aim of the liturgy is that we become ourselves an everlasting gift to the giver of all good things.

How can we actually do that?  How can we, receiving the breath of life, the Earth, and, above all, the gifts of Christ and the Holy Spirit, become ourselves a gift to God in return?

Traditional sacramental churches have always recognized the vital importance of liturgical prayer in accomplishing this.  In his loving kindness, God’s gift of himself in Christ to the apostles and disciples does not pertain only to past times.  He has also made provision for that self-gift to go on being given throughout the ages to come until the end, so that all human beings and eventually the whole world might come to share his divine life.  Hence the one saving mystery is manifested through the centuries in the mysteries of the church, in her sacramental worship in the Holy Spirit.

It is given to us today through the mediating forms of Christian worship which extend the original redeeming act of the incarnate Word into ever-widening circles of grace and divine presence.  How can that be understood?  It is helpful, as we have seen, to distinguish between primary and secondary mediations.  By primary acts of mediation I mean the three principal “sacramental mysteries” given us by God to enable us to receive this gift of new life: the mysteries of holy scripture, baptism, and the Eucharist; by “second mediations,” those actions through which Christ extends his grace-giving presence into the world.  We shall therefore consider first the three primary mediations before looking at some lesser ones.  Since there are many lesser acts of sacramental mediation, I shall focus consideration on three only: the celebration of Christ’s mysteries in the church’s year, the mystery of the icon, and the mystery of personal prayer.

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