"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On the Sacraments and 'For the Life of the World'

I've been reading through a book from my time at Regent again to try to get myself thinking a little more intentionally about the seven sacraments so I can do some more detailed revisions on my book.  Right now my book is structured by the sacraments, but my understanding/representation of them is a bit sloppy at times and I want to clean that up.  So I've been reading the best book I've come across on the sacraments so far (aside from the Book of Common Prayer, of course): For the Life of the World by an Eastern Orthodox priest named Alexander Schmemann. 

What I love about this book is that it is an attempt to explain in Western terms why the Eastern Orthodox church has maintained it's liturgical traditions, sacraments and ceremonies, largely unchanged for several millenia now.  Schmemann begins his argument with a quote from the secular philosopher Feuerbach who says "we are what we eat."  For Feuerbach this meant that we are nothing more than our physical bodies and what we put into them.  But Schmemann (whew, what a name!), who looks at the world through the worldview of the Eastern Orthodox sacraments, says that the message of Christian faith is essentially yes!  We are what we eat!  God created this world for us to eat of it and find life, not only in it but in him, because it is his good gift to us.  Schmemann sees the original purpose of human life as a great priesthood:  God has given us a good world and it is our role to care for it and offer it back to him in thanks. 

But instead we have become cut off from God.  Adam and Eve chose to eat of the one tree that was not good for food.   By eating they essentially said "we don't need you or your good creation, God, we can do this ourselves."  And humanity has been cut off from God and his good creation ever since, to the point where when he came down as Jesus Christ, we killed him.  However by his resurrection Jesus was still able to establish God's kingdom on earth: the church (from an Eastern Orthodox perspective God's kingdom and his church are one and the same).  By his ascension into heaven Jesus drew humanity up into God and began to restore the brokenness of our relationship.  And during his ministry he left us several signs and symbols of that new reality... namely, the sacraments.

When, as Christians regardless of our denominational divisions, we eat together in communion the body and blood of Christ, we are what we eat, we are Christ's body on earth, we are his church and his kingdom.  That's not some fancy magic, it's just the most basic way the world works.  What goes in is what gives us life and makes us who we are.  We call that meal the Eucharist, which is a fancy Greek word for saying the "Great Thanksgiving."  When we eat and drink together it is not just a solemn remembrance of Christ's sacrifice for us, transforming our murder of him into our great salvation.  Instead Eucharist is a time to receive God's gift of sustenance for our bodies and souls with great joy and thanksgiving for the gift of life with God that has been restored to us.  It might not be magic, but it is such a rich and sensory experience it is a holy mystery.

I've probably done some injustices to Schmemann's argument in this brisk summary, but it's been a wonderful exercise for me to revisit his thoughts.  I think that the story he tells is a true way of seeing the scripture and of crystallizing what is important about church liturgies and traditions (even if I'm not Eastern Orthodox myself, the Anglican liturgies have certain similiarities).  They are not just dead and dull words, they are full of good teachings about what is really important in this life, the most basic things.  Repeating them again and again reorients us toward Christ week after week.

Because every day as I go out into the world, as I spend time on the Internet, as I see advertisements and make purchases, as I interact with others, I feel challenged to lose this Christian perspective, to lose a sense of the goodness of the world and see things and even people as only physical, to be used and abused by me as I like without consequence.  I lose my ability to see the spiritual gift that underlies the whole world.  Church fixes that perspective:  I am with other Christians who have my values, I am reminded by the liturgy and teaching of God's ways,  I am reminded of the great hope that we look forward to of eternity with God.  To the world all of this looks like foolishness, but to me it is a great salvation.  I hope it's encouraging to you today too!

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