Christian Life ...

Christian Life ...
Christian life is meant to be a life of bearing much fruit. What does that look like? How do we get there? This blog will record thoughts and meditations about living a life striving to be a fruitful branch.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sacrament: ... "Remember Me"

A long while back now I had a particularly intense theological-musing about two of the sacraments of the Christian faith. To set the stage for this session of theological musing, I was at a small Orthodox Church that my sister and her family go to to witness my little niece's baptism.

I find their Church very refreshing. While the method and pattern of worship is not necessarily what I am used to, I see a very healthy and encouraging congregation of Christ followers. 

However, in my theological studies, as non-extensive as they have been, I learned that the word Orthodox means "right worship". Since learning this, I've carried it with me like a shield whenever I visited Orthodox churches. 

I feel the sentiment that "we have it right", is contrary to the act of following of Christ. The same Christ who was the definition of humility even while holding all of the power in creation in his being. There is pridefulness in the declaration that anyone is "right!" Even Christ didn't do that. He had the power to do whatever, but he humbled himself to the will of God the Father and he sought his council day and night. This strong, though subconscious, judgment of Orthodoxy is magnified by how much they criticize pride in their very theology. Anyways ... moving on. 

This makes me (even more) hyper-attentive (than usual) when I enter into a Orthodox worship space. 

Emilia's baptism occurred on a Sunday morning, so it took me out of my normal routine of assisting with leading worship at Aldrich Ave. Presbyterian Church in South Minneapolis. I wanted to support my sister and her family but I also came with the desire to worship.

I confess that I feel most comfortable worshiping with a grand piano in front of me, and the freedom to worship without any constraints. I atleast want a hymnal or a hand out/powerpoint that tells be what is being said and sung. These things are not present at an Orthodox church. There is liturgy that is sung by a choir, and memorized by members of the congregation. 

It is beautiful. The chanting and the music the choir sang is wonderful and it brings glory to God. I just never really know what's going on and therefore, feel like an outsider. A welcomed outsider, but an outsider nonetheless.

Then there was the baptizm. During the baptism, Emilia was held by her God parents at the door of the church, where the Priest asked the God parents many-many times: "Do you reject Satan?" "Do you reject Satan?" "Do you reject Satan?" 

They said "Yes I reject Satan" each time. And then, at the Priest command: "Now spit on him ...", they both spat out the door. 

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of being God father to one of my good friends' baby daughter, and their Lutheran Church had very similar wording about "rejecting Satan". Actively declaring that "I reject Satan", was a powerful experience for me.

Throughout the whole time I found myself observing the faces of my Brother in Law's agnostic family, who were also was graciously welcomed into this ... for lack of a better word ... peculiar congregation. They had respectful but quizzical demeanors. Clearly all that ritual must have seem extremely odd to them ... especially the repetition and the spitting.

So there I was focused on every ritualistic element of the Orthodox service, focussing attentively, desiring to worship and learn , but subconsciously waiting to hear some "subtlety-protestant-condemning-Orthodox-pride" statement.

I didn't hear one.

In fact one element that I thought was fascinating and very interesting, was the way the Priest anointed Emilia with oil. It was an act of sealing her with the Spirit of God, symbolized in oil, by marking her with it, above her eyes (sight), beside her ears (hearing), under her mouth (speach) on her hands (work) and feet (where she goes). I remembered that from when my other Niece, Macrina, and my Nephew, Basil, were baptized. I love that symbolism and it reminded me of the very power that ritual can have. The power that sacrament can have.

As the Priest was giving his sermon, out of John 9 and declared that that passage reveals that the Church is not a perfect place, but a broken place. In John 9 a man who was blind from birth is healed by Jesus. The people of the community begin arguing and debating. They wondered whose sin made the man blind. They argued about who Jesus was. Jesus had, after all, healed the man on the sabbath. I kept thinking, while listening to this passage, that Jesus acted outside of the ridid bounds of religion. He did good work on the Sabbath. He brought glory to God the Father by restoring the mans sight. And I looked around at the icons surounding me, thought of the repetitive lituragy and I wondered what Jesus would think of contemporary Orthodox worship.

Then the priest blew me away. He said, and I paraphrase, that Emilia was not baptized into a church that was perfect. That she was baptized into a place of discourse. A community bound together by the love they have for God, united by the person of Christ in his Spirit, but imperfect, and bound to disagree.

I found those statements very shocking coming from this Orthodox priest. I think of them to be true. I simply did not expect that truth to be spoken.

He then said something that deeply connected with the way I was thinking. He said, and I paraphrase again: "What is in this water?"

He was looking down at the massive metal goblet-like thing that Emilia was baptized in.

"What is in this oil? It's only water and oil. Things of this world that we use as a physical reminder of spiritual truths. Is the spirit any more present here, in this water, than elsewhere?" (still paraphrasing)

I really liked that. The water isn't magical. It might be ritual, but it's ritual in the symbolic sense, not a magical or superstitious sense.

He spoke about the peculiar language used in the baptizmal liturgy that, the spirit give my infant niece a new body: let the old body pass away. This is so odd, and he acknowledged that. She's a baby, for heaven's sake. How much newer of a body can there be? But he said, that in the symbolism of baptism we are dunked in the water, like Christ was buried, and lifted up from the water as Christ was raised from the dead. In that way we are spiritually connecting our baptized bodies with the new body of the resurrected Christ.

In baptism, we are declaring that the church is made up of a collection of bodies that will be made new, by the promise of what Christ has done in his death and resurrection. We are not new, we are being made new. We are not perfect, we are being made whole. So like the Jew's who disagreed when Jesus restored the man's sight on the sabbath, the church is bound to disagree.

Only minutes after this humble theological statement, while preparing for communion, the priest waved his hands over the elements saying "let them become your body and blood". Talk about magical and superstitious. What an odd contradiction. The water of baptism isn't special, it's just water. But the bread and wine of communion are somehow meant to turn into the flesh and blood of our risen Lord?

Welcome to my critical mind, everyone.

Now I'm not Catholic or Orthodox and I do not mean judge anyone who is. I love people who are Catholic and people who are Orthodox, and most of the time I find that I agree with them on the most essential theological bases.

I know, there is power in the symbolic. There is power in ritual. There is power in the action of being baptized and there is power in the practice of taking communion.

But what is the point!?

A definition of "sacrament" is this:
An outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace.
I think of it as this:
A sacrament is a tangible, physical, sensory, and covenantal experience that expresses to us the reality of inward and spiritual divine grace in a symbolic manor.  
And while I don't claim to have greater understanding than the centuries of theology of the Catholic and Orthodox of history, I feel that this makes them even more powerful and enlightening.

I have learned, some from majoring in english (and some from the teaching and preaching of my now former pastor Matt Johnson) that biblical texts have defined purposes, goals, audiences and contexts.

Text is a tricky thing, because no matter what is said with language, there can not ever be a perfect linguistic representation of an event. Language is made up of symbols, and an image or symbol of something can never amass to exactly what it is or was.

At the same time the symbolism in a text does not supersede the reality of the actual concrete information that the text suggests.

For instance the word baptize can mean to dunk, submerge, or immerse. It can be used to describe  part of the process of pickling a vegetable.

In baptism we are submerged into water. Immersed in it's purifying nature, and sensitized by this on a physical level. At least this is how it was for my adult baptism. I remember the feeling. The cleansing and freeing sensation. It was beautiful. But it was beautiful in the symbolism of water as spirit.

When John the Baptist was baptizing, it couldn't have had much to do with the spirit of God. The Holy Spirit, the part of the trinity had not entered the world yet, as it has today. John was baptizing under the symbolic power of a sensory action, being submerged in the water, to remind people of their vow to repentance. To let the river wash them clean.

The word communion means: The sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.

Now how many times is communion really all that "communal" at all? In churches it seems like a very personal and individualistic practice.

"This is the body of Christ, broken for you."

Yes, this is individualistic... at least at the level of it being a very introspective, eat the bread/wafer soaked or followed by (at least at my church) your choice of wine or juice, and think about Jesus. This isn't bad, but I think Christ's message at the last supper was deeper than this. I think the church-ly sacrament of Communion has to call to remind us of what Jesus was really saying.

If a sacrament is a tangible, physical, sensory, and covenantal experiences that expresses to us inward and spiritual divine grace in a symbolic manor, that must mean that the tanglible experience must be something great.

Nope, that's not true at all. When Jesus broke bread and said "this is by body broken for you" and took wine and said, "this is my blood poored out for you", He was equating his sacrafice with some of the most mundane elements of life: bread and water. 

What does it mean then to "do this in remembrance of me"?

Was this Christ's mandate for all Christians to march to the front of a sactuary and tear of a tiny piece of his body and dip it into a cup filled with his blood?

Kind of ... but not really. Christ was saying: "remember me". Remember what I will do for you, remember the cross, remember the resurrection, in the mundane things. In the breaking of bread, a thing that happenes three times a day, not simply on a sunday at church. 

Baptism is a sacrament of spirit and of blessing. Of entering into the body of Christ through sumberging under water, as he died, and rising above it, as he rose to life. 

Water, oil, bread, wine are not magic. Sacrament is not magic. Sacrament is holy.  Sacrament says "remember Christ", not just while participating in the sacrament at Church, but in bathing in water, and while eating food. The sacraments use the mundane things, to point us to the truths they represent, and that they are truly everywhere.

In the sacramental church practice of Communion, we receive what I would call a meta image. It is an image of an image. A reminder to remember.

If anyone endured all the way to the end of this post I hope it was worth it.

Sometimes my mind is a crazy place ... Thanks for reading.

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