Monday, 25 March 2019

Discovering the sacramental life

The incarnational Tradition:
Discovering the sacramental life.
When thinking about the Christian tradition, all forms of spirituality are subsumed within the sacramental tradition, because Christianity is in its very being a sacramental religion.
When you think about the definition of a sacrament that you may well have learned at Sunday school it is an outward physical sign/manifestation of an inner spiritual grace – a physical enfleshing of an invisible Spirit.
In that sense, Jesus is actually the primordial sacrament – a physical manifestation of God and is therefore the basis on which all sacramental life is based. St. Paul Col. 1: 15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”
You can even take a further step back and say that creation itself is a physical manifestation of the source less source we call God.
As John writes in chapter 4:24 of his gospel “God is Spirit” so creation is itself an emanation of that Spirit.
All Sacramentality finds its source in God as Spirit being manifest – given life and flesh – in our daily lives.
This takes two forms. How this life takes form within our personal lives and in the sacramental life of the church – the church itself being a sacrament.
Let me take the sacraments of the church first. According to the protestant tradition there are two dominical sacraments – that is, ordained by Jesus himself – baptism and the Eucharist.
According to the Western Catholic tradition there are seven sacraments – Baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing, marriage and Holy Orders.
I had my eyes opened completely when I went and lived within the Orthodox tradition in Romania between 2006 and 2009 when they laughed at us and said why on earth do you Westerners count them? Surely everything and anything can be a sacrament.
And of course, taking into account how I opened this talk they are completely right. God as creator, and Jesus as the primordial sacrament means that our puny Western attempts to codify and number what can and cannot be counted as a sacrament owes far more to our Western pre-disposition for wanting or needing forensic accuracy when dealing with the Divine.
We try and codify and box God into a corner instead of letting God be God and luxuriating in His divine mystery.
Mystery is a fundamental strand of Orthodox belief. Mystery means that there is always more than we can ever know or understand or codify.
It is no accident that the Eucharist is also known as the “Divine Mysteries” in the East.
In the West tens of thousands of people have died fighting over what does or does not happen to a piece of bread in a church service.
The Orthodox are content to say “We don’t know – or certainly don’t know or understand enough to pronounce on the subject”.
It is a mystery. And therein lies the root of the other form of sacramental life.
For while we were killing each other over what happens or not, to a piece of bread or goblet of wine we entirely missed the central point that God doesn’t care what happens to a piece of bread or goblet of wine – He cares about the only true change he wants to see – the change of heart soul and mind of the individual believer and of society as a whole.
The whole of the Biblical witness attests to this central fact, from the scandal of the empty rituals of a corrupt religion and state of Israel.
Isaiah 1:13-15
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!

Amos 5:21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals…..”

1 Samuel 15:22 New International Version (NIV)
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
James 1:27 New International Version (NIV)
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Just one instance of the letter of James which possibly more than any other writing in the N.T. states the case for sacramental Christianity more succinctly when he writes boldy in chapter 2
26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
The entire witness of the N.T. is that we are told to go and bear fruit. Fruit that will last. Faith without works is dead.
The fruit that grows is as much to do with character as with fighting for justice for the poor. In Paul’s famous list of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians are  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. ...
One of the most impressive and influential books I have ever read is called “Against an infinite horizon” by a catholic priest called Ronald Rolheiser where he expounds the truly sacramental life, and he writes some strong stuff about the most sacramental thing that almost everyone engages in, believer or unbeliever – the act of sex.
Sex is a sacramental act and can be abusive, which destroys the soul, casual, which trivialises the soul, or sacramental which builds up the soul.
What Fr. Ronald says about sex can be said about a sacramental sensibility as a whole. It builds up the soul when you can discern and experience God in the everyday hurly burly of life. When you can, to quote William Blake  To see a World in a Grain of Sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.
Life infused with the infinite, with Divinity, is like making the switch from Black and White to glorious technicolour. Life and creation alive with the life and spirit of God we see the world as it is in reality, as seen through God’s eyes.
When we start to see ourselves as part of the whole and wish to manifest more of the fruit of the Spirit and see God’s reality in a piece of bread we have truly crossed over from death to life.

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