The Coherence of Christian Theology VII

[Note: It’s been over a month since my last entry in this series. The entire series can be found here. Once complete, I will format the entire series into a single html document and will post the URL for those interested.]

The Incarnation and the Sacraments

When one turns to the Sacraments, or the Mysteries, one has not ceased to have to do with the Church. There are two extremes one may fall prey to here, both of them a separation of the Sacraments from the Church, and both of them denials of the fullness of the Incarnation.

On the one hand one may consider the Sacraments apart from the Church in that they are efficacious on their own merits and the faith of the individual. But Sacraments administered apart from the Church are little more than magical mummery, and something the Reformers rightly reacted against. Parents who, themselves little more than nominal Christians, never darken the doorway of their local parish, but insist on having their children baptized are one example, but not the only one. Christians who make confession and attend worship only once or twice a year are another example. My intent here is not to judge the misunderstandings of otherwise genuinely sincere religious persons, nor to determine their eternal destiny, but to highlight that the Sacraments are the life of the Church in concretum, most especially the Eucharist, on which more in a moment.

On the other hand, one may separate the Sacrament from the Church by the nullification of their reality and efficacy. This is typical of the Protestant response. But this is a response little short of the denial of the Incarnation altogether. Protestants, of course, do not intend to deny the Incarnation. But in asserting that God saves us apart from human cooperation and actions, apart from material things, is to implicitly deny the need for God to save us in the human cooperation and actions of Jesus, and the material things he blessed by his life and work: the cross, bread, wine, children, men, women. If we deny these material elements of the present life of the Church—bread, wine, oil, wood, water—then we must also deny the material elements of the historically located salvation God has accomplished for us. If the one cannot save us now, neither can the other.

But the fact of the matter is that just as those material elements were necessary for the outworking of the grace of God in the time, place, life and ministry of our Lord Jesus, then those same material elements are necessary—yes, necessary—for the outworking of the grace of God in the time, place and ministry of our Lord Jesus today, which means in the Church, who is his Body. When I say necessary, I do not intend to mean that God is not able to save whom he will. This is the age-old and unfathomable mystery of how God will judge those who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. We know only that whatever God will do will be according to his love for all mankind and his great mercy. Rather, by necessary I mean that which God has clearly revealed as necessary for us to do and to believe. Thus, repentance, faith and immersion are necessary elements for the initiation into the grace of God’s life. Consumption of the sanctified Gifts of bread and wine are necessary elements for the nourishing of body and soul and for the continuation in that grace into which we have been initiated.

The Sacraments mark and delimit all the major creases in the fabric of human life: birth (baptism and chrismation), growth and maturation (confession and Eucharist), sickness (unction, or the anointing with holy oil), marriage, and worship and prayer (priesthood). Certainly one may do all these things apart from the ministrations of the Church, but in so doing one does not actively participate in the life of the Church. These Sacraments are fundamentally and always about life: its beginnings, its continuation, its healing from disorder, its union of husband and wife who together by God’s grace create human life, and with God the source and author of all life.

The Sacraments are given us not as individuals but as members of Christ’s Body. The Sacraments, indeed, are given in Christ, in his Body. There are no Sacraments apart from Christ’s Body, because there is no life apart from Christ. And if we desire life, we can only find it in Christ, which means we can only certainly find it in his Body, the Church. This life is not some attenuated spiritual realm separate from the material realm—the Incarnation itself reveals to us that life, the life only Christ can give, is a fullness of body and soul. Our salvation is as material as it is spiritual. If we make of our salvation anything less than a salvation of both body and soul, we make a lie of the cornerstone of the Christian Gospel: the Incarnation of God in and as the God-man, Christ Jesus. And because our salvation is both material and spiritual, we must participate in the life of the Church, which means the life given us in the Sacraments.

This is eminently and primarily exemplified in the Eucharist. The Church received from Christ himself the truth that what we now call the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, is the mysterious reality of the joining of material reality, the bread and wine, with the divine reality, Christ’s real presence. This is accomplished in the prayers of the Church (in the person and ministry of the praying priest) for the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and wine and to make these things what they really are in the Lord’s Supper, the Body and Blood of the Lord. Just as Jesus did not cease to be God in being human, nor cease being human in being God, so the Holy Gifts, sanctified by the Holy Spirit in the prayers of the Church, do not cease being at once bread and wine and Christ’s Body and Blood. And in this joining of the human and earthly with the divine and heavenly is accomplished our participation in grace. The Incarnation gives us this truth, and all our life in the Church celebrate it and make it real for us each day.

Indeed, not only does the Holy Eucharist testify to us of the Incarnation, but it gives us, too, the promise of the Resurrection. Just as bread and wine—which in themselves are subject to decay and corruption, and in themselves give no life—when they are made Christ’s Body and Blood are raised from death and corruption and made participants of Christ’s life, ministering his actual presence to us (and so they are handled with the utmost of reverence and humility by only those specially set apart for this ministry), so too when we partake of that life by consuming them, begin ourselves to participate in the Resurrection from the dead accomplished in Christ.

This participation, in holistic concert with what we know, believe and experience in the Incarnation, not only saves us spiritually but saves us bodily. So we have received from the Church the histories of those handful of saints who were known to have been sustained by consumption of the Holy Eucharist alone, desert dwellers who fasted continuously, eating only the Holy Gifts and only on the occasions in which such Gifts were made available to them.

This participation of the Resurrection is true, however, not only of the Eucharist, though preeminently so, but is true of all the Sacraments. In baptism and chrismation we are raised to newness of life and given a promise of the final Resurrection to come. In confession we are raised from the corruption of our deeds which foster death in us. In the marriage blessing of the Church our human relations, which can only ultimately bring separation and dissolution, we are raised from schism to union, and from death and mortality, new life is given. In holy unction, the disease which is a present foretaste of final death, disorder is put to rout and we are made whole and raised from our beds of corruption. And in ordination to the priesthood all the vocations of men are raised from their infection of selfishness and lust and greed, all the disordered priesthoods of the father in the home, the pagan celebrant before his idols, and that of the fool who worships none but himself, are raised from decay and brought into the only worship and prayer that can give life: the celebration and honoring of the Holy Trinity.

But not only is the Incarnation the centerpiece bringing into coherence our understandings and dogmas of the Trinity, theosis and salvation, the Resurrection, the Church and the Sacraments, it also beautifully explicates the person and place of our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God.

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