Sacraments in a New Story Michael Morwood
It is a great pity that the notion of “sacrament” became a source of argument and division among Christians. A pity because the notion, rightly understood, is one of Christianity’s treasures.
The “New Story” about ourselves and our place in the universe and our relationship with the Mystery we call “God” has much to offer to a healthy restoration to the concept, understanding and practice of sacraments. Surprisingly, and in a way that delights, this New Story appreciation of sacraments resonates with early Christian understanding of sacraments.
“Sacrament” in its original understanding was linked with a “solemn oath”. The “sacramentum” was the oath of allegiance the Roman soldier made to his commander or Emperor after his training. It symbolized, at the end of a training period, an inner disposition: I am ready. I am prepared. I know what I am about. You can count on me.
Not surprisingly, the early Christians adopted the language of “sacramentum” for baptism. The parallel is obvious. What needs to be noted here is the inner disposition aspect. The sacrament, the ritual, the public ceremony, expressed a person’s willingness to stand up and be counted. It was not a matter of bringing a strength or quality that the person did not possess prior to the ceremony.
The early Christian understanding of sacrament was that of a ritual giving expression to God’s “saving presence” with people. People lived “in” God; God lived “in” them. The sacraments gave expression to this “more than”, unseen, dimension of life. In doing so, the sacraments were rituals that affirmed the presence of the sacred with people. Together with the affirmation, they challenged people to give witness to what they had professed.
The sacraments gave meaning and direction to life since they ritualized: we are bearers of the sacred; we are to give expression to that sacred presence in all we do and say.
This was a wonderful vision of life.
There were many sacramental forms in early Christianity, all seeking to give expression to belief in God-is-with-us. Two were most prominent: Baptism which was the solemn oath, and Eucharist which ritualized willingness to being the “body of Christ” in the world.
Unfortunately, sacramental understanding was turned on its head with the development of the Fall/redemption theology, original sin, dualism, and the Church making the unfortunate mistake of understanding itself to be the doorway for access to an elsewhere God. With this development came the understanding of the laity being distant from God, steeped in sinfulness. This brought into common practice dependence on clerical middle management with special powers to access God’s presence. Sacraments became something people received – in rituals that no longer used the language of the people. The sacraments became mysterious. In the Middle Ages emphasis was placed on using the exact words and proper gestures or the sacrament would not work. “Magic” is the word that comes to mind. The theological focus was on who can perform the actions, what the right gestures and matter are, and how the action “works”. The “effects” of the sacraments were of paramount importance, and Christians ever since have generally understood the sacraments as rituals that bring something to them, whether that be God’s presence, God’s favour or God’s forgiveness.
It is fascinating to read Karen Armstrong’s History of God and see how differently the Pharisees developed their “sacramental” thought and practice just when Christianity sank itself into the mire of original sin and distance from an external God.
“The Pharisees were passionately spiritual Jews. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests. God could be present in the humblest home as well as in the Temple. .. They cultivated a sense of God’s presence in the smallest details of daily life… Yahweh had always being a transcendent deity, who directed human beings from above and without. The Rabbis made him intimately present within mankind and the smallest details of life.” (pp 72,73)
Their practice of rituals and cleansings in these centuries was not for the purpose of bringing the sacred to them, but to honour that presence with them.
It is not hard to imagine that Jesus would have been far more at home with the Pharisees and the people of his own religion than with the direction the Christian religion took in the third, fourth and fifth centuries.
Since the Reformation Christians have argued about the number of sacraments while being locked into a sacramental mind-set that ultimately makes the argument immaterial. The number is not the issue. The issue is the proper sacramental understanding all Christians need to regain if sacramental practice is to be meaningful in the twenty-first century.
The New Story about the universe and the mystery we call “God” is a story of universal presence – a Presence beyond our imagining and beyond the words of any dogmatic statements. God is not to be conceived as the ancients conceived gods – as a super being, a deity shaped according to our human notions of person, a localized being looking down on us, a being whose favour and presence are with some people and not others, a being who controls, legislates and intervenes when he wants to. Whatever “God” is, those notions ought no longer to apply. Instead, we look to language and notions that respect a universal presence that sustains, energises and holds in existence everything that exists.
In doing this we are respecting what most of us learned at an early age: that “God is everywhere”.
It is time for Christians to give less time insisting on and arguing about just what God is like. (How can you be a Christian if you do not believe God is Three Persons in One? This is fundamental to being a Christian, we are told again and again) It is time for Christians to pay more attention to the wonder of being human – an extraordinary life form that gives whatever God is a way of coming to visible expression!
It is in this attentiveness that we discover connectedness, which in turn grounds all healthy spirituality.
Thomas Berry wrote that we are now at a time in human development and knowledge when we can “… establish a deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of the universe” through observation of the way the universe functions:
“Empirical inquiry into the universe reveals that from its beginning in the galactic system to its earthly expression in human consciousness the universe carries within itself a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material dimension. Otherwise human consciousness emerges out of nowhere.”
(The Dream of the Earth P 131)
Who or what are we? That is the question!
We are the universe coming to conscious awareness and reflection. That is the New Story science tells us today.
Our religious language expresses the same Story: we are a life-form that gives the Reality holding everything in existence and connectedness a way of coming to particular expression. To use traditional religious language: we give God a way of coming to expression. That is what we say about Jesus. It is a great shame the Christian religion came to ignore the great story Jesus told people about the “kingdom” of God in their midst in favour of a story about separation and distance from God. And just as shameful - that the Christian religion destroyed the Story Jesus told by making him uniquely an embodiment of God in our midst. His message was that we all embody God’s presence when we love one another. Jesus wanted people to open their eyes, ears and hearts to the reality in which their lives were grounded – God’s presence. He was not concerned about bringing that presence to them. He wanted people to become aware of what was already there.
Recovering a wholesome understanding and practice of sacraments requires this mind-set of Jesus. The sacraments do not bring something. They express our belief in a Presence among us. They express and celebrate the wonderful truth of who we are. They challenge us to give witness to the belief that we are bearers of the sacred.
Both Protestants and Catholics have much to unlearn about sacraments. On both sides, there is the need to let go of clerical power and elitism, along with any thought that the ordained minister is somehow empowered to bring the sacred Presence to people.
Protestant groups still wanting to argue that there are only two sacraments, baptism and eucharist, will hopefully realize one day that their sacramental theology impoverishes the church community. Take marriage, for example. It is time to move away completely from the long-time burning question of whether Jesus instituted this as a sacrament. That is not the issue. The issue is a couple publicly professing their belief in a “more than” dimension in their love for one another. The couple want to profess that living in love they know they are “living in God and God is living in them”. They undertake to give witness to that understanding. That is healthy sacramental thinking and practice. What a pity to say, no, no, this is not a sacrament; there are only two sacraments. What we need are more, not fewer sacraments. We need more rituals, words and gestures that affirm the wonder of who we are and the good news of God-with-us in the journey through life and at significant passages throughout life.
Catholics suffer from centuries of sacramental dependence. The richness of sacramental life is denied them because clericalism has deeply implanted the belief that “only Father” can do it. Catholics learning a New Story about the universe and how they are related with the Mystery they call “God” are also learning they can construct rituals which are every bit as sacramental - possibly even more so in being faithful to what sacraments should do - as the Church’s official sacramental rituals.
What might such sacramental rituals look like? My book Praying a New Story offers some examples. This web site also has articles on planning baptismal and marriage ceremonies.