Sacramental Moments… Sacramental Lives – An examination of the sacraments of communion and baptism and the Army’s historical response
By Major Deborah Flag –
What is Sacramental?
In the Roman Catholic Tradition
Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Ordination, Extreme Unction (Last Rites)
In the Protestant Tradition
Every Sunday all around the world, communities of Christians gather to “celebrate their lived experience and call to heart their common story.” Their lived experience is the raw hope of a life of faith in spite of mystery and suffering, and their common story is the story of God’s redemptive work in Christ, the wonderful news that God is for us.
For many Christians, the centerpiece of this celebration is the Lord’s Supper–communion, or the Eucharist. In this shared ritual meal, ordinary bread and wine (or grape juice) become symbols which point beyond themselves to another, deeper reality–body and blood, sacrifice and salvation. Depending on the tradition, the elements of bread and wine either actually become what they point to, the body and blood of Christ, or they serve as a reminder of Christ’s presence among us, jogging the memory as the contrast of grain and grape surprises the tongue.
For many Christian denominations, the conversion experience, entrance into the fellowship of faith and participation in the communal meal, is bound together in the mysteries of birth, death and resurrection, with water being the dominant symbol. Water, so elemental to our bodily existence takes center stage in the rite of baptism which constitutes a symbolic death to sin, rebirth into life in Christ, and resurrection into freedom. This ritual bathing is also given varying significance and performed in different ways depending upon the faith tradition.
The sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism have been called “the basic nucleus of the sacramental life of the church.” They were not, however, new inventions of the church. For the first followers of Jesus, water baptism was a ritual already at hand, well-known in the first-century world and a cornerstone of the religious life of the Jewish people. The communal meal, particularly a meal of bread and wine which looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, was also a common ritual among many Jewish groups in Jesus’ time. The early Christians appropriated these symbolic acts and through Christ and the Holy Spirit, gave them new meaning.
Those who find meaning and sustenance in these sacramental practices remind us of the power of symbol and ritual for our human experience. Tad Guzie, in his book The Book of Sacramental Basics observes that “we tell our stories not just in words and narratives, but even more basically in signs and actions, ‘charged’ actions like a warm embrace . . . or sharing a meal.” The theologian Karl Rahner reinforces the importance of symbol to our spiritual lives: “Some things are understood not by grasping, but by allowing oneself to be grasped.” It seems that in our increasingly scientific and technological age, we are coming to a new appreciation of the symbolic universe and many people feel that at the limits of words and doctrine the tangible symbols that we share “grasp” us and guide us to truth, and sacramental symbols remind us of who we are in Christ.
We Salvationists have our symbols. The Army flag,, the uniform and the crest, the holiness table and the “mercy seat,” all point beyond themselves to a reality anchored in God. Yet, we don’t practice the sacraments of the church in our communal worship. Why? Various answers have been given to this question from the controversy of women officers in the early days administering the sacraments to the divisiveness of method and meaning. There is, however, a theology undergirding our position on the sacraments, and it was Catherine Booth who set the theological tone in those early days. Catherine measured everything by the doctrine of sanctification–the Holy Spirit dynamic and active in the lives of holy people. Within this framework, she saw all of life as sacramental and didn’t see any particular need to set aside certain moments or activities as uniquely sacred. In fact, she feared that people would place sign and symbol above the living reality of God’s indwelling Spirit. She also admired the piety and sincerity of the Quakers, who did not practice the sacraments.
Informed by Catherine’s theology, the sacraments were dropped from Army worship in 1883. In January of that year, The War Cry ran General William Booth’s New Year’s address to his officers in which he confirmed the position that the sacraments are not necessary for salvation. While he did not “prohibit anyone from taking the sacraments,” he did state that they would no longer be endorsed as the official worship of the Army. In this letter, the General wavered a bit, saying that a definitive decision on the sacraments might best be left to a later day “when we have more enlightenment.” Uncharacteristic of William Booth, he left the door open for further discussion.*
Perhaps that “later day” has arrived. Whether or not we have more enlightenment, many Salvationists are beginning to revisit this issue, wondering if we as a body are ignoring a biblical mandate, wondering if we are missing out on the richness of worship, wondering if sacramental lives are refreshed, fed, and empowered by partaking in sacramental moments of ritual and symbol, moments that have been defining for the church universal throughout the past two millennia.
Warning and promise
It would take a book to deal with all of these “wonders,” but we can take a brief look at both the warnings and the promise of instituting worship that blends both Word and Sacrament, Message and Symbol.
First, the warnings: Catherine Booth’s concern that people would place symbol over and above a living relationship with God was well-founded. We human beings tend to take the easy way, investing power in that which we can see and touch rather than allowing God to invade our own unseen interiors with his unseen Spirit. We guard against this by the continual realization that any symbol we use in worship is only there to point us to something beyond itself–that which is seen helping us to grasp that which is unseen.
Another concern is that the practice of the sacraments easily turns into empty ritual, a “going through the motions” void of power and meaning. This, too, is a well-founded warning. Any symbol and any ritual can degenerate into empty show unless we take care to continually invest the symbols of our lives and worship with meaning, from our wedding rings, to our uniforms, to the bread, wine and water of sacrament. This is our ongoing task as people of God.
And now for the promise: We are physical creatures, people anchored in time and space and as such are creatures of symbol. Symbols work for some where logic or a sermon does not. They bring the awareness of the realities of loving and being alive, living and struggling and dying together. They help us pay attention! Symbol and ritual open our eyes, jog our memories and open the door for the Holy Spirit to take hold of us. They help shape us into people who are more open to receive the Word and then carry that Word out into the world. Symbols unite us to each other.
Robert Fulghum, in his book From Beginning to End, writes of a time in his church when the people were looking to update their traditions. One of the first innovations they tried was to conduct communion using tangerines instead of bread and wine–messy and funny, but interesting. Emboldened by this experiment, they then tried M&M’s, jelly beans and Gummi Bears. Each time, the “element” was given a symbolic meaning for their communal life (Gummi Bears?), and the people participated with good will and good humor. Fulghum shares that long after these “wiggy” proceedings were over, what they were left with was memory, community and shared purpose. They had shared communion after all. Kenneth Leech expresses this idea in a more traditional sense: “This is what happens among the disciples of Jesus. Week by week, day by day, the Christian community celebrates the mystery of his dying, breaking bread in his memory, and in that fragmentation, celebrates its own unity as one body in Christ.”
Celebrating our common life.Sharing our common story. Opening the door for the Holy Spirit. Remembering Christ’s presence among us. Whatever we can do in our worship to bring about these riches is worth considering. Our theology tells us that all of life is sacramental. Albert Orsborn said it so well: “My life must be Christ’s broken bread, my love his outpoured wine. . .” In the end, this is what we hope for, what we pray for. But, if the symbol and ritual of sacramental moments help us to live sacramental lives, then why not? It’s something for us to think about.
* I am indebted to Dr. Roger Green for these historic insights.