The second century of Christianity saw the first systematic thinking about what we today call sacraments; early Christians would most likely use the term “experience” in which they encountered the saving work of God through a baptismal washing of sin and partaking of the breaking of bread. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Christianity would take on the cast of a world religion—at least a Mediterranean one-- with Rome as its seat. While its roots would remain Jewish and biblical, the explanations of the Christian reality and experience, or early Christian systematic (organized) theology would take form in the predominant philosophical outlook of the time—Greek thought, and particularly that of Plato.
The introduction of Greek thinking into the Church would immediately help to address one problem right off the bat. Even as early as St. Paul Christians could not help but notice that the experiences of baptism and eucharist did not always “take.” Baptized individuals returned to sin; in fact, some celebrations of the holy meal—notably Corinth’s—were undertaken in conditions of segregation and drunkenness. This obvious state of affairs was evidence that there might be some difference between the actual rite and the experience of the rite. Baptism, of its nature, would always “remake” the convert. Whatever a Christian might do after his baptism, even quit the Christian assembly, the sin could not undo what God had wrought.
Thus, in thinking about baptism and eucharist, early Christian theologians had to find language to describe the “stand alone” nature of these events, as separate from the fashion that Christians might live them. In fact, they actually had to find a common word for these two major rites of Christian identity, and in this they were helped by Greek thought and pagan practice, where the idea of a “stand alone” mystery—a divine truth separate from and above human experience was common. Christians began to adopt the term “mystery” to its rites of initiation, conveying at least in this sense a common understanding with pagans that religious reality and human experience were not always synonymous. St. John Chrysostom, a later father of the Church, puts this well: “A mystery is present when we realize that something exists beyond the things we are looking at.” (Martos, p. 31)
It was the Christian philosopher/theologian Tertullian who around 210 A.D. first coined the Latin word sacramentum in a Christian sense. “Sacramentum” was his translation of the Greek mysterion for Latin readers. Tertullian borrowed the term from the Roman army, where a recruit made a solemn pledge to the gods, the emperors, and his commanding officers; in many instances a new Roman soldier might be branded. Thus, a Roman officer might betray his state duties during his lifetime, but the pledge and the mark remained. (In retrospect, Jewish circumcision carries something of the same sacramental thinking.) The reality of the pledge was untouched by the subsequent conduct of the soldier.
Christian writers who followed Tertullian used the term sacrament to describe the triad of Christian initiation events—the immersion in water (baptism), the laying on of hands (eventually Confirmation of the Spirit) and participation in the Eucharistic meal. It is interesting, though, that Church fathers of time kept two words in circulation: sacramentum for the rituals, and mysterium for those things hidden from full human understanding. One could partake of the sacramentum without grasping the full mysteries of the divine.
Tertullian and others thus started a line of sacramental thought and discussion that continues to this day. I am getting ahead of myself a bit, but this might help. If there are two dimensions to a sacrament—its objective reality, so to speak and the experience/participation of the worshipper--how much of each do you need to have a “real sacrament” in contemporary Christian thinking? There are two positions, hot button points in the Reformation dialogues of the 1500’s and beyond. Catholic sacramental theology holds to the principle of ex opere operato. Loosely translated from Latin, this means that the spiritual effects of the sacrament come “from the work of the work,” that is, when the sacrament is celebrated by its Church approved format. Christ’s saving grace is present. The faith of the people, or even of the priest, is not the determining factor in whether a sacrament has the power to save or not.
Classical Protestantism, on the other hand, holds to the principle of ex opere operantis, “by the work of the one doing the work.” In practice, this means that there is some correlation between the work of worship and the disposition of the clergy and the congregation, individually and as a group. We will look at these positions more closely with Martos in weeks to come, as you can probably see arguments for and against each position. The Catholic legal teaching is the first position, but the liturgical reforms of Vatican II speak significantly to the actual experience in every sacrament as critical to an encounter with Christ.
As Martos explains, early Christian fathers drew heavily from the actual biblical witness of Christ. “Take and eat….” Of course, even the New Testament clarity of Christ could be mysterious on certain points, as in John 6 when many of Jesus’ followers left him because he had commanded them to eat his flesh (literally, in the Greek vocabulary.) Again St. John Chrysostom to the rescue: “Let us believe God in all things and deny him nothing, even when what is said seems contrary to our judgment and to our senses.” (p. 32) On the other hand, the same fathers were deeply influenced by their own experience of baptismal conversion and the rite of Eucharist, which was now becoming a rather impressive affective ritual. In other words, experience was enlightening theory as theory clarified experience.
By the fourth century the Church had arrived at a working definition of sacraments that is not very distant from our catechetical definitions today. Martos summarized it well: “…the principal theologians of the early Church accepted and developed the idea that sacramenta were effective symbols: they actually caused what they signified. Or rather it was God who ultimately caused those effects, for only God could touch people’s souls, forgive their sins, impart the Spirit to them, or make the Son present to them.” (p. 33)
One of the biggest challenges facing the Church—and particularly the individual Catholic—is the expressed reality that we rarely feel anything in the celebration of sacraments. Naturally I remember nothing of my own baptism on March 4, 1948, when as was the custom of the time the godparents took me to my parish church in Buffalo. It is almost inconceivable today that parents did not attend their children’s baptism in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but for a number of reasons we will look at later when we treat Baptism individually, parental involvement was not the practice. I remember my mother making potato salad when my brother was baptized.
I can recall my First Communion, but not for the reasons given in the catechism of the day. I remember the actual first communion Mass and all of its pre-game warm-ups and rehearsals as a great deal of trouble, right down to trying to find a white shirt that fit properly. The ceremony itself was stressful, and in an abundance of caution and devotion I walked very slowly (apparently too slowly) back to my pew, only to be scolded about it later at home—a memory that is rather influential in my adult attitude toward the Church today, 60 years later. The next day, however, a Monday, the First Communion class had the day off from school, and I went to Mass by myself, the early morning parish Mass with several elderly nuns and a handful of day laborers. That day I felt something special was happening, I was receiving with the grown-ups and now enjoyed the privileges of a grown-up church. I count that day as my true First Communion. (I had no idea, of course, that I was instinctively embracing something of Martin Luther’s theology of sacraments, but I have no regrets about that, though.)
The other sacramental experiences of my life varied considerably. My sixth-grade Confirmation was a let-down. Having been told of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I remember sitting alone in my living room after the ceremony thinking to myself that I felt no different than two hours before. My ordination to priesthood, by contrast, was a profound moment. I still recall lying on the floor as Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin offered the consecrational prayer that conferred the order of presbyterate or priesthood. I felt the moment as the climax of twelve years of seminary training—from age 14 to age 26—and then I was vested in full chasuble by my professor and now fellow priest “Corky” Corcoran, the happiness and smile on his face overwhelming, and impressing on me the brotherhood of the clergy in the best sense of the word.
We can imagine that the “personal element” of sacramental experience was quite intense for first century Christians as well—probably much more intense than mine--that those who were saved from sin by baptism and who broke bread on Sunday in obedience to the Lord’s instruction (the two “sacraments” then celebrated by the post-Apostolic Church). All the same, as profoundly engaging as baptismal water and Eucharistic food might be, the subjective human experience of these rites was not powerful enough to transform their participants in totality. This is very evident from the letters of St. Paul himself, no less, addressed to churches or Christian communities he himself had founded. His letters give evidence of all sorts of human failings among baptized Christians, from incest to drunkenness at the Eucharistic banquet itself.
Paul and the other first century pastors did not coin the word “sacrament” in the sense we use it to describe our seven sacraments. (The full definition of seven sacraments was still a millennium away!) Paul would use the term sacramentum but in the sense that Romans and other contemporaries used the term, as a mystery or sign of divine action. Medieval scholars would misunderstand Paul as speaking of a sacramentum as it was understood in, say, the thirteenth century. For Paul, it was enough to say that at certain moments particular human rites connected with divine reality—in his time forgiveness of sins, rebirth in God’s new creation, and the eating of the Body and Blood of the Lord until he came again in glory.
Paul can be called the father of sacramental theology, though, because he understood that these rites combined a human experience with a divine reality. Paul believed and taught that baptism re-created a human being from a state of slavery of sin to a membership in the household of God. Clearly there were baptized persons who understood this and lived accordingly, and unfortunately there were those who after baptism returned to a life of selfishness and debauchery. For Paul, those who failed to live their baptismal promises did not just revert to their pre-baptism wretchedness, to so speak. Rather, their sin was a betrayal of their very selves, for Paul understood baptism as a pledge and a change that could never be reversed. Hence his strong words to the Corinthians that if they continued to eat and drink the Eucharist in sin, they were eating and drinking judgment unto themselves. In other words, regardless of their experience, the reality of their sacraments remained.
It would be later Church scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, who would expand upon the idea that certain sacramental events—baptism, confirmation, and orders, for example—changed the essence of a person; in medieval language it would be said that the soul—the metaphysical side of a person--was “marked indelibly” by certain sacraments and thus could never be repeated in the lifetime of a person. Other sacraments, though repeatable, would also impact the basic reality of a baptized person; and, as in Corinth, the participant’s reaction has consequences that can be experienced now—joy, indifference—and in the final judgment. In short, the reality of Catholic sacraments, then and today, involves both the action of the Holy Spirit through the Church and the subjective participation of the participant in faith. My sense is that in terms of Mass, for example, we are well aware that on many Sundays God does our heavy lifting--as He did for me in 1956.
For some weeks now the blog has labeled Saturday as “Sacramental Saturday,” but as I look back over the past month or two I see that half the time I was on the road on Saturday, and the other Saturdays were never posted due to life interruptions. So I would have to say, in the words of Alfred Hitchcock, the Sacrament Series has not gotten off to “an auspicious debut.” But if there is a blessing here, it is that I have had the opportunity to read and digest the introduction of Joseph Martos’ Doors to the Sacred (2014 edition) and to rearrange the deck chairs of my own thinking about sacraments.
The first hurdle is the very word “sacrament,” which we tend to associate with seven rites of the Roman Catholic tradition. The word is an ancient one that predates Christianity. The Latin word sacramentum was “a pledge of money or property that was deposited in a temple by parties to a lawsuit or contract, and that was forfeited by the one who lost the suit or broke the contract.” (Martos, 3) Later the term was applied to soldiers making an oath of allegiance to their commanders and the gods of Rome. In either case the term Sacramentum involved a religious ceremony in a sacred place.
In the second century Christian writers began to use the term sacramentum to describe the process of baptismal initiation to their Roman countrymen, as a ritual through which people began a new life of service to God. Martos observes that as polytheism gradually disappeared and Christianity became the state religion, the term sacramentum or sacrament took on broader usage, such that in the fifth century St. Augustine would write that “people cannot be united in any religion, whether it be true or false, unless they are brought together through a common sharing of some visible signs or sacraments; and the powers of these sacraments is so effective that scorning them is considered sacrilegious.” (Martos, 4)
Augustine had lived on two continents and embraced Christianity as an adult, so his world view, even as a churchman, reflects a rich range of human experience and practice. It did not escape him that tribes, families, and even empires experienced a need and recognition of powers beyond themselves, and that they practiced rites which channeled this power into their collective and individual existence. For Augustine, whose thinking on sacraments would shape Christianity for nearly a millennium, the ability of humans to reach greater depths of reality through symbolic acts was universal, a feature of personhood.
Neither Augustine nor any other Church Father of my acquaintance ever expressed shame or denial of the fact that in many respects Christianity had borrowed from the broader pool of religious experience in identifying and defining its sacred moments. Jesus himself, in leaving behind a meal to be shared in his memory, drew from the sacred rite of the Jewish Passover. But perhaps more surprisingly, the Gospel of John (John 9:6-7) makes mention of another instance where Jesus employed an unspecified religious rite to effect a miraculous cure: he spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste, spreads it on the eyes of a blind man, and commands him to go to a pool to wash it off, and consequently a man born blind was able to see.
If anything, our Christian history at its best is a tradition of experience: an involvement of our bodies, our beings, in our own rites of saving connectedness with the God of Abraham and the God of Jesus. Later in his work Martos will discuss the medieval shift in thinking about sacraments, and how official language changed from experience and participation into reception, as in “receiving a sacrament” from a deacon, priest, or bishop, with the strong connotation of passivity. The medieval mind, in its quest for philosophical logic, actually put space between the disposition of the worshipper and the structural rite of a sacrament.
Vatican II attempted to recover the wisdom and experience of the early Church in its reform of sacramental rites, a process Martos will detail, but it has been an uneven process at best. I suspect that part of the problem is a contemporary lack of understanding of symbol and experience; or, put another way, we have a limited set of tools for communicating symbolically. If I am getting confusing here, you are getting a taste of my own confusion at Catholic University when, as preparation for theology, one of my first courses as an undergraduate philosopher was “Semiology” (today “Semiotics”), the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes, and meaningful communication. The textbook by Roland Barthes is still available, described by one Amazon present day reviewer as “a terse, dense book on dealing with symbols.”
I remember vaguely from 1970 that I delivered a paper in that course on the then current day identification of large gaudy Cadillacs with Negroes in various lines of criminal business activities. I collected one of my many “gentleman’s C’s” for that course, but looking back 46 years I have gradually come to understand that what I was trying to say was that symbols vary with the times and the culture. My Cadillac example was certainly time conditioned, but other symbols endure, and their value increases along a continuum until the symbol and the reality are one and the same.
This is best explained in everyday Christian life by speaking of symbols of God. A picture of the Sacred Heart may be symbolic of God—if you understand the pierced heart as depicting Christ’s sorrow for sin. In Augustine’s mind a picture or icon of this nature might be sacramental under the right circumstances in that it causes the mind and emotions of the beholder to grow closer to God—but no one would ever say that the picture (or symbol) is the same as God (the reality); that would be idolatry. It is more accurate to say that the only perfect symbol of God is the living Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus does say this; at the Last Supper he told Phillip that “he who sees me seems him who sent me.”
It has long been Catholic teaching that with the Second Coming and final judgment the need for sacraments will cease, since all of the saved will behold God face to face. In this the “middle age” between the first and second comings of Christ, our task at hand is to insure that the celebration of the signs known as sacraments bring us to the closest experience of the holy as possible in imitation of the saving works of Christ.
If I do not take a day to get my personal affairs in order, specifically my tax related paperwork, I will be receiving my sacraments in Leavenworth Prison in the near future. Seriously, I'm guessing some of you have a lot to catch up on, too, so we'll take a pass on serious theology today. If you are a fantasy baseball buff, remember that the season opens tomorrow, not Monday.