What is a Sacrament? (Happy Corpus Christi!)


Today is the Church Holy Day called Corpus Christi (Wiki), Latin for “the Body of Christ”, in which the Church takes a few moments to reflect and meditate upon the gift that is the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist, or Communion). In honor of this, I thought I’d share a recent essay I wrote articulating what I believe is happening in the Sacraments. Let me know what you think!

A sacrament is any material thing that God uses to communicate himself within Creation. Yes, this is quite the broad definition for “sacrament” (little “s”). Every single way that God has ever revealed himself in this world has always been in a mediated sense. God has never been revealed in his full “Godness”. It is always through a material means, and mostly clearly in Jesus Christ.

In this sense, I can accept things like marriage and confirmation as sacraments; but I can also see a good beer, TV show, conversation, or even suffering (like the Cross) as a sacrament. Any material means by which God communicates any part of who he is a sacrament.  It has also been quite freeing for me to see all of life as inherently sacramental.

In this sense, sacramentalism becomes a primary filter through which to understand and describe reality as it is and the nature of the Creator/Creation distinction. This collapses the old unhelpfully-gnostic “transcendence/imminence” dichotomies.

And yet, I’m haunted by these words to Abraham as God is describing how circumcision will be the sign of his special covenant relationship: “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.” That is a dynamic fundamentally “other” than a burning bush, Balaam’s ass, or a good beer. This is Sacrament (big “S”).

As I’ve sat with this, I really do think the Reformation terminology of sign and seal captures well my thoughts about the Sacraments. A sign is not a dispensable symbol of something else, nor is it the thing in itself. It is an indispensable marker that the signified phenomena are real and present.

In the New Testament there is no such concept as an unbaptized Christian, or a Christian life without the Lord’s Supper. Sacraments are the sign that what you’re looking at is a Christian. Where there is Christian fire, there is Sacrament smoke (that’s probably a terrible analogy).

The other beautiful term here is seal. Sacraments seal us as God’s own. The Supper is an act of our perseverance as saints, and it is a way that God keeps those who are his. The Lord marks us as God’s children and part of his church family. Sure, the baptized may reject the faith later, but they do so as rebellious children, not as those unknown to God.

This means I do think that Baptism puts our children in a place where they actually have to work harder than most to run away from the faith. They have a greater grace against which to fight if they are to refuse their family name. In a sense, Baptism is like the initial deposit of grace that puts our souls on lay away. The Spirit then spends our lives making more “payments” of grace until calling us efficaciously (another lame analogy, I know).

On the effectiveness of Sacraments, I actually go further than John Calvin is willing to go. I do think the Sacraments have a mysterious power in-and-of-themselves, and this power is still at work regardless of cognitive assent, and perhaps even faith itself.

Most of the church’s history had liturgy happening in languages other than the popular language. Am I to believe, along with Calvin (it seems), that for one and a half millennia God’s people were not being fed by the Lord’s Supper because they didn’t know “the Word” that accompanied it?

On another note, though I believe that God’s grace, presence, and union is communicated through Sacraments in spite of humans and not in partnership with them, Calvin has swayed me to see the truth in having only baptized Christians at the table. I’ve flirted with the idea that the Supper may have gracious efficacy towards non-believers, but I liked how Calvin put it, that it strengthens the weak faith that is already there, rather than birthing in the first place. I don’t know that I can go as far as Calvin, though to say that if any non-believer takes and eats, they are taking judgment on themselves. If anything, it’s not condemning, it simply isn’t efficacious for them.

Lastly, and most importantly, I see Sacraments fundamentally as the collision of the doctrines of The Incarnation, Union with Christ, and Theosis.

I think that the Incarnation shows that the human and divine interpenetrate one another and can/do experience a true union this is another place where I differ with Calvin and lean more towards Luther). Sacraments are the foretaste and anticipation of our eschatological Theosis–our union with the Divine.

And so when we each are baptized into Christ’s death and life, we really are partaking in the divine nature.

In the Supper we are really spiritually metabolizing the body of Christ in us.

The Sacraments, therefore, are the interpenetrating perichoretic dance between life/death, hunger/food, past/future, and human/divine—all the things we try and separate in our minds are made one in the waters and at the table.

Jesus, My God and my all
my soul longs for You.
My heart yearns
to receive you in Holy Communion.
Come, Bread of Angels,
to nourish my soul and to rejoice my heart.
Come most lovable Friend of my soul,
to inflame me with such love
that I may never again
be separated from You.

(Catholic Act of Desire Prayer before Communion)


5 thoughts on “What is a Sacrament? (Happy Corpus Christi!)

  1. What do I think? Well, I hope that what I think is congruent with what the Church thinks, so I’ll try to offer some thoughts, however incomplete they may be.

    Of course all of what I write here will reflect what the Orthodox Church teaches, but to make it applicable to all Christians anything I cite will come pre-schism (before 1054). On non-believers taking the Eucharist — well, that could be a damnable offense (what that even means is something I don’t even understand). In St John’s Liturgy (5th century), not even Catechumens were permitted to be present during the reception of the gifts. It was unthinkable for a non-Christian to even be in the presence of the gifts, let alone receive them.

    The sign and seal analogy does not go far enough because it does not consider the ontology of the Sacrament. Again, in St John’s Liturgy (and in all commonly used Liturgies (St James and St Basil’s) prior to 1054), the gifts are prayed over and in that prayer the Holy Spirit changes them into the Body and the Blood of Christ. They are not signs, they are the thing; they are Christ. I referenced this in the piece I wrote during Holy Week — it is why the Priest wears the aer over his face during the pre-sanctified Liturgy; he is carrying Christ himself into the altar.

    I like that you’re taking this stuff farther than evangelicals tend to, what I think you could do better is to take it further. You’re stopping just a little bit short.


  2. I also wouldn’t say that TV or beer is sacramental. Try reading For the Life of the World by Fr Schmemann. You can borrow my copy.


  3. …one more thing in relation to TV and beer being non-sacramental. Sacrament is often a poor translation. The Gk word for sacrament is Mysterion; obviously, better translated as Mystery. In the Mysteries, we are mystically united to Christ. I can’t say that happens when watching TV or drinking beer. We can surely be grateful for God’s revealing himself to us in unusual ways, but those are not sacraments. Interestingly, in the East (and in the whole church before 1054) there was no formal number of Mysteries. there is a generally agreed upon number of 7 — baptism, chrismation, holy eucharist, penance, matrimony, holy orders and the unction of the sick. But they are not limited to that.


  4. Pingback: What happens during Confirmation? - The Modern Catholic

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