Thursday, February 23, 2012

Letter to PennyQuostal, part 6

Letter to Penny Quostal, continued:

Where was I when I was so rudely interrupted by the government’s attempt to destroy religious freedom? 

Oh yes.... sacraments. As I have said, a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. It is very hard not to think magically about sacraments. Sacraments aren’t magic. A lot of superstitious people treat them that way. What pray tell, does the Catechism say about superstition? Paragraph 2111 tells us that:
 “Superstition.... attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.”   
Say what?  Can you translate that into English? Certainly!  The catechism is simply saying that it isn’t just the appearance that counts. A sacrament doesn’t work like magic. It is an outward sign that gives grace to the degree that a person is disposed to that grace. So, what is grace?  Paragraph 1997 of the Catechism says “Grace is a participation in the life of God”  and Paragraph 1999 “The grace of Christ is the gratuitous (free, unmerited) gift that God makes to us of his own life.”

In other words God is freely  offering us His own life in the sacraments. It is free but it isn’t automatic. It is the offer of the new life and the only thing we do is allow the Holy Spirit to take way our old life. God will not give the new life to His children if we cling to our life. Grace doesn’t overwhelm us like a magic spell. We have to say yes to that offer. He offers, but we can refuse.

Perhaps we need to back up and look at the Greek word for grace. That’s always fun. The word is “Kharis.” and it means “favor, even attractiveness,” as in “to find favor with someone.”. It can also mean “help, goodwill, that which someone experiences from another.” A common definition of the word grace is “an unmerited favor.” This means that a sacrament is the offer of a gift from God. What kind of gift?  As I’ve already said, it is the gift of adoption as God’s sons and daughters. 

Sacraments are NOT magic ceremonies that make our lives nicer. They are visible signs that invite us into the process of being turned into God’s children. They are entrances to conversion, to transformation. This is not always a pleasant process, “Those whom He foreknew  He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son that He (Jesus ) might be the first of many brothers.”  Remember Jesus had holes in His hands even when he rose from the dead.

A sacrament is not a voodoo ritual. It is an adoption ceremony that really works. It really changes us into something new and different but it is not a quick or easy process. Falling over at a camp meeting is very quick and easy (Remember that’s what this harangue is about.) Mystery, in the sense of a secret may be the Greek word for a sacrament, but when the first Christians wanted to talk about these things in Latin, they chose the word sacramentum, which means “an oath to the death,” or “a solemn oath between lovers.”  The Roman soldier swore a “Sacramentum” on a regular basis, that he would die, if need be, for the emperor.  This is precisely the word that Pliny, a Roman governor in Turkey uses in about 110 AD when writing to the Emperor Trajan about the Christian  They were accustomed, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn in alternating antiphons, to Christ, as to a god, and to oblige themselves by a sacrament, not to do anything that was evil, but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery...”  This sacramentum, this solemn oath was Mass. 

It may seem almost blasphemous to say, but to receive the Lord in Holy Communion is more than to receive the whole Christ, in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. It is, as St. Paul says, to make up in our flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. (Col.1:24)  What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Simple: my participation. 

To take Holy Communion is to say that, just as Christ gave His life for me on the altar of the cross, I give my life for Him and His Bride, the Church on this altar. Like the Roman soldier swearing the sacramentum for his emperor, or the lover offering his life for the beloved, I will live for Him and, if necessary, die for Him. That’s what a sacrament is. It isn’t a nice experience of God’s love that causes me to fall over. It is not the laying on of hands for the sake of blessing. It is the laying on of hands for sacrifice.

If this is true of the Holy Eucharist, it is most certainly true of Holy Orders, by which the Eucharist is made available and it is a commitment most certainly made by deacons priests and bishops. Part of this “being conformed to the image of Christ” is the visible nature of the sacrifice. A Greek mystery made the secret things of the gods visible to the elect. So it is with us. The world sees a piece of bread, we see the Lord. A sacrament make the invisible realities of the Kingdom of God visible to us sinners. “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to Me.” (Jn. 12:32)and again “He is the visible image of the invisible God.” Col. 1:15) 

The sacrament of Holy Orders makes bishops, priests and deacons into marked men. They are targets. That’s why they wear the odd clothes at Mass. It is as if they are wearing bulls’ eyes on their clothing that say, “Arrest me first. Shoot me first.” There is no such thing as an invisible sacrament. Religious experience is  interior and invisible. The sacramental, sacrificial reality of the Christian Mysteries is there for all the world to see, even if they don’t understand. “Seeing, they do not see.” (Matt. 13: 13) That’s why you wear a ring if you are married and the clergy wear clerical garb, though those things are not sacraments in themselves. They are extensions of the visible nature of the sacrament.  Believe me, they don’t get the respect they used to. They get you some really funny looks in the super market and the occasional insult.

The liturgy is not a drama. It is not a show, but it does have some elements of drama. It is a presentation of the mystery. The Eucharist is the un-bloody representation of the sacrifice of Calvary. It is the foreshadowing of the Heavenly Wedding of the Lamb, that is of Christ and His bride, the Church. The tradition is that while we all have our roles, we are all standing in for someone else, as in a wedding by proxy. The congregation stands in for the Church, the bride. The congregation in itself is not the Church. She may be part of the Church, but despite the Neo-Congregationalists who write the vapid liturgical music so popular these days, we are not the Church. She has existed from all times and we have the privilege of being joined to her. We are her members and her children, but we are not the whole ecclesial enchilada. We represent the saints, though poorly, who stand at the Father’s throne.

The priest, an unworthy sinner, stands in for Christ. The Latin phrase  in persona Christi” is usually translated , “in the person of Christ.” In Latin, the word “persona” primarily referred to a mask worn by an actor in one of the solemn religious dramas of the Greco Roman theater. It had a double use. It was actually a loudspeaker, but it also hid the actors individual face so that the audience was in no doubt which god or hero was being portrayed. So the phrase “in persona Christi” really means “representing,” or in “the guise” of Christ.” The individual actor didn’t matter in the drama, just as the individual priest shouldn’t matter at Mass. We priests are there wearing the mask of Christ. So we have the Bride, and the saints her children, and we have the Lord in His priestly role, but what use are deacons?

Deacons represent that most understudied element of the Kingdom of God. Deacons stand in for the Angels! In the Eastern Liturgy of St, John Chrysostom, at a certain point, the deacon’s stole is rearranged during the Mass to make it represent the wings of angels. The word deacon means minister, steward. The angels are called ministering spirits. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent in service to those who will inherit salvation?”  (Heb:1:14) the word “ministering” in the text is “liturguca” and “service” here in Greek is “diakonia.” The very word angel means “messenger” The angels go back and forth between the altar in heaven and the altar on earth, bringing the messages of God to earth “In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high.” (Words for the Roman Canon of the Mass.)  The role of the deacon is not just to clean up the altar and read the announcements. He stands in for the angelic choir without which the Heavenly Wedding would not be quite complete. The deacon is more than a functionary. He is the messenger of God in the Church and that role is symbolized in the Eucharist.

So there you have it. There is the laying on of hands for blessing and the laying on of hands for sacrifice. You have ecstatic experience and you have the absolute commitment of the sacraments. “Gather my saints together before me. Those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.” (Psalm 50:5) I have nothing against a good revival meeting. I thoroughly enjoy them, and I’ve fallen over with the best of them, but if falling over is the high point of your religious life, you’ve set the bar pretty low. “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come!” (Rev. 22:17)   Come where? “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.”(Heb.11:1)   

That’s what Mass is.  It is Calvary seen from heaven. Sacrifice and Joy at the same eternal moment. It is the best God has to offer. Falling over is swell, but God has a lot more to offer.

Yours truly,

The Rev. Know it all

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