Monday, September 27, 2010

Sacraments: Magic or Mystery?

In a Scientific age, we are presented with the notion that all that there is can be observed or at least inferred through observation and measurement and that the existence for an unobservable reality is entirely redundant via Ockham’s razor. God is unobservable and therefore scientifically useless. Science has no need and because he does not need to exist, he does not exist, since by Norman Malcolm’s interpretation of The Ontological argument by St Anselm, the existence of God is either necessary or his nonexistence is unnecessary.

As a Christian, I do not know that God exists. Formally, I suppose that this makes me an agnostic, but then there is something in what Keith Ward (Why there almost certainly is a God) says when he argues that Personal Experience can give us a good reason for accepting the existence of God. However, my problem is that I cannot give voice to what I can only perceive as some giant wandering about in my soul. When I peer into the darkness of my interior, putting aside all thought and worry, going deeper than words, trying to make as little of myself as possible, there is still something there, or rather someone. And that someone, I somehow know to be God.

As a rational man that is somewhat disconcerting to be unable to find a language to describe it, and “I just know” is not an argument that I can really get away with unless you know me personally and trust me.

So where is all this leading? Well, I got round to thinking about sacraments and Magic following my criticism of Fr Clatworthy’s argument about magic. Often I’m presented with the notion that sacraments are like magic spells, that you just wave your hands and say the magic words and – poof – something happens. Now Sacramental theology is quite a deep area and one can plunge into it via history, or metaphysics or by mysticism or even by ecclesiology. Of course being both Anglican and Papal I come at it from both viewpoints and neither. Actually, there isn’t that great a difference. Anyway, let’s see how good my understanding of sacraments is.

As far as I can make out a Sacrament is simply an expression of Divine Love impinging on our observable reality through the Community of the Church. As the Anglican Catechism would say, an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. The Roman Catholic Catechism says something similar that a sacraments are “perceptible signs accessible to human nature” and “by the action of Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit make present efficaciously the grace they signify”. The Role of the Church is vital here since this forms as St Paul would say the “Royal Priesthood” namely that the Church as a a united body of Christians (male and female) transmits the grace of God to the world through acts of Divine Love.

So what makes a Sacrament like magic? Well, this really comes from a misunderstanding of how a sacrament appears to be effected. A sacrament needs matter, form, a minister and a recipient; it will then bestow a certain grace onto that recipient which has a specific effect.

The Holy Eucharist is one of the obvious Sacraments. The matter comprises of the bread and wine – visible elements – and the minister presents them to God with the form of (i.e. the intention) of re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ Himself during the Last supper which is utterly inseparable from His death upon the Cross. In John chapter 6, Christ Himself demonstrates the intention of the Eucharist that we are to consume Him and thus allow Him to become part of us and thus obversely we become part of Him.

What the unaffected observer sees is the ritual of the sign of the cross being made over the elements and the words of the anamnesis – the (more than) calling to mind the events of the last supper. It looks like this is all there is.

If you think about it, it really differs from magic, doesn’t it? If a magician pulled an invisible rabbit out of a hat, you wouldn’t be particularly impressed, much in the same way as Lisa Simpson wasn’t impressed by the mathemagician who used a “magic” seven to divide into 28 three times. Perhaps then it is even more tempting to suggest that, because it is all words and bread and wine, that’s all it is.

But you see it has to be more than that.

If we honestly believe in a Transcendent God, then clearly this presents communication problems. How does a temporal being communicate with One for Whom Time is not even meaningful? If human beings exist to a Transcendent being then they exist in some kind of entirety much like a reel of film in which past present and future exist all at once. Of course, God decides that He wants to communicate and, in the glorious paradox of the incarnation, presents Himself as Christ in order to present us with the Truth. Is there any other way that God can do this? If you concede that He exists as a living being who is responsible in some way for all that exists and why it continues to be, then this is a question that needs an answer.

For the Christian, the answer is the Incarnation. So powerful is the Incarnation that it casts ripples back in Time which we see as things that “prefigure” such as the Passover as well as the effects into history. What evidence is there for this? Well there is no evidence – I’m trying to demonstrate why Sacraments are happening a priori as a reasonable hypothesis. If you think I can be absolute about things like this, then I suggest you watch me try to hold the tide in. We read the words of Christ and, in St John’s Gospel in particular, we are met with the extraordinary promise that we will become like God, that we will become Transcendent. Christians already believe in the existence of the soul, so the concept of human beings being more than observable is no problem. If we believe ourselves only to be a biological machine and our consciousness as nothing more than some electro-chemical interactions in the brain, then this seems ridiculous.

So Christ presents us with the way to become Transcendent – to be like Him by consuming Him, taking Him inside ourselves so we can become like Him. No, of course this is unobservable – we are becoming Transcendent.

Then of course, you have to realise that this consumption of God can only come about because of Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrificial system has already been prefigured in the Jewish system as an atonement (at-one-ment) for sins –i.e. those ways in which we fail to be like Him – another set of future echoes? We have to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Now there was only one sacrifice which means that we who are 2000 years after the event are going to have difficulty sharing in that one sacrifice unless there is something to bind us with that sacrifice. Well, this is the Grace of Transcendent God. The Sacrament of the Eucharist provides us with the means to participate in that one sacrifice provided that we meet it in the same manner in which He showed us. Jesus does command us to “do this in remembrance of” Him. Thus we are given the form, i.e. intention, the matter, i.e bread and wine, and the minister a priest chosen by Christ to re-present the sacrifice and effectively become Christ Himself at the Last Supper. Olivier ClĂ©ment writing in On Human Being describes the celebrating priest as “the image of Christ, and Christ, while undoubtedly possessing human nature in its fullness, is a man and not a woman and not a hermaphrodite”. Likewise St Paul himself describes man as the image of God and the woman as bearing the image of man.

Obedience to the pattern set by Christ, leads us to the conclusion that provided that the priest is valid, i.e. integrated “into the orders…which permit the exercise of “sacred powers”… which comes only from Christ through the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1538)

If a sacrament is not validly performed then the grace cannot be conferred (or at least there is reason for grave doubt that it has been conferred). If one receives the flu-jab from the nurse, clearly one does not receive the effect if she fills the syringe with water and injects you (wrong matter) or injects you into your blazer pocket (wrong praxis) or waves the needle at you chanting “inoculate, inoculate” (wrong form). God of course is merciful and who can tell what He does: no-one, not even Stephen Hawking, can know the mind of God.

Thus I present what I hope can be seen as a reasonable worldview on the nature of Sacraments from what I perceive from my study of the Catholic Faith to which I subscribe, though I suspect that I have made some glaring errors and omissions. I hope that I have shown that validity is important, why sacraments are not valid and given at least some reasonable, if not entirely convincing thoughts as to why things are the way they are. I hope that you’ll let me know where my faults lie – but be gentle, I’m not a proper spokesman for the Catholic Church.

No comments: