The Spirit Moves Over The Waters:  Renewing Our Vision of the Sacraments  

Editorial FAITH Magazine September-October 2007

 Why Sacraments?  

This editorial article takes more the character of a sustained theological meditation than a topical or controversial ‘op-ed’ piece. There is good precedent for this approach in the magnificent editorials which Fr Edward Holloway wrote for Faith in the nineteen seventies and eighties, some of which have now been republished by Family Publications. We hope and pray that more volumes will follow soon.

  The title of the first volume is Christ The Sacrament of Creation, which has prompted our theme here. Our choice of topic is also occasioned by a recent discussion in The Tablet about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, whether it is a physical presence or not. Detailed discussion of that precise point would deserve a major article in its own right, but one correspondent in the debate asked how the Church could insist on the literal presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist when surely the point of salvation was to “escape from the physical altogether” into the realm of unsullied spirit?

  The classical Protestant mindset, of course, regards sacramental thinking as something akin to paganism and magic. The primary reason for this in Protestant theology is the conviction that human nature has been utterly corrupted by Original Sin. Its instinctive tendency, therefore, is to become a religion of the Word alone rather than of the Word  made flesh.

  If this tendency were followed to its logical conclusion it would be difficult to believe in the literal truth of the Incarnation in the first place. And indeed many of the early Protestants were more or less explicitly Arian – seeing the Son of God as a being of lesser glory than the Father – or Docetist – denying the full humanity of the Lord – in their Christology. This is not said to be in any way anti-ecumenical, it is simply a fact of history. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the true heirs, in this sense, of some of the early Reformers. Mainstream Protestant denominations do not formally deny the Incarnation like this, but the point is that there is a certain tension and ambiguity regarding the Incarnation, more or less conscious, that runs through all Reformation thinking. It isa tension that is linked to the theological pessimism about matter.

 Tension Within Catholic Tradition

   Catholicism, of course, does not hold this absolute pessimism about matter or human nature. However, it has to be admitted that there has been a degree of tension about the understanding of the sacraments in Catholic tradition. It is a tension that is linked to the long standing debate about whether the Incarnation takes place wholly in response to human sin or primarily as the fulfilment of God ’s creative plan.

  The state of neo-scholastic sacramental theology in the mid twentieth century may be typified by Bernard Leeming’s magisterial work, Principles of Sacramental Theology (1955). For Leeming matter is simply used as a remedial instrument for leading man to God after the fall. So, in his estimation, the sacramental economy only exists as an expedient for correcting the wounds of sin. In which case one has to ask why did God bother creating the body, indeed matter, in the first place? It would seem to be nothing other than a drag upon the spirit. In the life of heaven the body would at the very least be a redundant appendix to eternal blessedness.

  This way of thinking ought to mean that pure spirit-to-spirit communication was the original ideal for men as well as for angels. And Leeming does indeed argue that unfallen man would have come to know spiritual truths not by discursive instruction and reasoning but by direct divine illumination – no need for Scripture or for the Church then?

  Leeming says that in a state of innocence God would not have needed to communicate with us through “artificial (sic) signs”. The worship of God before the fall would likewise “certainly not have involved his dependence on material things as a means of grace or knowledge.” He admits frankly that this is close to the non-sacramental beliefs of the Quaker movement and their doctrine of ‘inner light’. They are only to be criticised apparently for “not giving due weight to the effects of the fall”. (Leeming p.603-604)

 It has to be said that not all scholastics agreed with this perspective. Suarez, for example, argued that just as language and symbol are natural to humanity, so the sacraments are appropriate as means of communion with God. But by the time of Vatican II the dominant theories in the schools and manuals were those which shared the essential perspective of Leeming.

 The Patristic Vision: Flesh as “The Hinge of Salvation”

 However, if we go back to the Greek speaking Fathers of the Church, we find that they had a much more robustly organic and bodily vision of salvation. St. Irenaeus, for example, argued the case for the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist in emphatically physical terms.

 The Fathers maintained the sacredness of matter and its positive role in God’s saving plan. This was in the face of many related heresies all of which drew on the cosmic dualism at the heart of paganism and had a problem accepting the goodness of the body and hence that it participates in divinity or that it can inherit eternal life in the resurrection. The orthodox Christian outlook was summed up famously by the Latin FatherTertullian in the phrase: “The flesh is the hinge of salvation/caro salutis est cardo.” (De Carnis Resurrectione 8; PL 2,806)

 Divinisation Through “The Mysteries”

The wider context of this patristic vision is the idea of the ‘divinisation’ of man in Christ. We are saved not by escaping from tainted matter, but rather the touch of God on our humanity is through a communion of spirit that is intrinsically ministered through the physical, for that is the constitution of human nature as God intended it to be “from the beginning”.

 In fact, rather than matter being a burden and a drag upon the spirit, it is man’s incarnate nature that is the very reason for God’s personal Incarnation. This is the crowning glory of God’s overarching plan in order to bring about the perfect union of heaven and earth and the final communion of all creatures in eternal bliss. So for them matter, which might otherwise seem to be our source of humiliation, is in fact the very source of our exaltation and of God’s greatest glory.

 For them, the Incarnation was not an afterthought but is The Mystery at the heart of God’s creative purpose hidden in the Father’s heart from all eternity and revealed in Christ in the fullness of time. So far from matter being a remedial tool in God’s saving plans, the Holy Spirit empowers material things as essential instruments of Christ’s divinising ministry throughout time and space in the sacraments, which the Fathers referred to as “the Mysteries”.

 The Eucharist is the apex of this sacramental union between Christ and the Church. It is the Mystery of mysteries par excellence. It is what makes the Church Christ’s extended or Mystical Body. We too often forget that it is the Eucharist that makes the Church, the Mass that makes the community, not vice versa. The incarnate presence of Christ as Saviour and Redeemer in the Eucharist opens the fountainhead of Divine Life that flows through and energises all the other sacraments and indeed the whole life of the Church.

  The Fathers did not reflect on the exact causality of this process, but they constantly emphasised the fact of this living relationship with Christ through ‘the mysteries’ through which mortal men are incorporated – literally – into the Divine Life. This theme of sacramental ‘divinisation’ is found explicitly in the writings of St. Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil and John Chrysostom among others. They all teach clearly that the sacraments are the extension in the life of the Church of Christ’s work of raising man into union with the divine life, which is the primary purpose of the Incarnation, whether or not man had sinned.

 The Flawed Syntheses of Rahner and Teilhard

The recovery of this patristic vision was one of the aims of the Second Vatican Council, and indeed much of it is contained in such beautiful documents as Lumen Gentium. But in the event, post-Conciliar thinking has been dominated in large measure by the theology of Karl Rahner and the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin. Their influence has reached far beyond the halls of academia into popular catechesis and pastoral practice.

 Rahner proposed that all Being – which for him is equated with Spirit – must go out of itself into ‘non-being’ – which for him is equated with Matter – to become the ‘symbol’ of itself. In this way Being fully express its own identity. Being/Spirit then returns to itself in self-knowledge and acceptance through a paradoxical process of self-transcendence. He applies this dialectical – some might say ambiguous or even contradictory – principle to the whole of his philosophy and theology.

 For Rahner the humanity of Christ is nothing other than the ‘symbolisation’ of the eternal Logos, and the Church is in turn the ‘symbolisation’ of Christ. The sacraments are then easily assimilated to this model as the further ‘symbolisation’ of the Church which therefore both contain and effect the primal mystery of God’s Self-communication to human nature and its acceptance within human history. This mindset is behind the often repeated error that the sacraments ‘simply celebrate grace already achieved’. It may not be exactly what Rahner meant, but it is the inevitable translation into catechetical and pastoral reality of the tensions inherent in his system.

 Teilhard de Chardin uses more dynamic language, but his system in which matter and spirit are seen as essentially a single, twin-faceted energy that runs through the whole of reality, translates into much the same kind of ‘panentheistic’ vision. In Teilhard’s thought God immerses Himself into the creative dynamic of cosmic evolution so that spirit becomes the leading edge of material complexification. Christ is then the final flowering of this upthrust of Spirit from within evolving matter. The Church and the sacraments are simply the concrete expression of this emerging ‘Christosphere’. This thinking lies behind the pervasive idea that divine presence emerges from the human quality of the celebration and that the ‘grace’ of the sacraments is the crystallisation of qualitiesinherent in the community.

 Both of these theological syntheses were attempts to reconnect with a sense of the sacredness of matter. However, despite their best intentions, the confusion of matter and spirit that is common to their thought inevitably leads to the effective identification of God and creation, of nature and grace with far reaching consequences for the subversion of Catholic orthodoxy.

  A New Synthesis: Matter and Spirit –  Union without Confusion

Edward Holloway in his own monumental work, Catholicism: A New Synthesis addressed many of the same concerns both before and after the Council. At the core of his system is the idea of the Unity-Law of Control and Direction which presents creation and salvation as the manifestation of a single, dynamic wisdom and purpose that shapes the fabric of every created nature. Yet, crucially, his system does not blur the distinctions between matter and spirit, nature and grace, God and the world.

 Holloway considerably enhances and develops the patristic perspective about the flesh as the ‘hinge of salvation’ with his vision of the evolution of matter poised and framed from its beginning as a unity which culminates in the Incarnation of God. The Hollowayan principle which states that: ‘matter is that which is controlled and directed, mind is that which controls and directs’ is really a closer examination of the exact structure of that ‘hinge’ upon which all salvation hangs.

 It shows how matter is necessarily integrated into spirit, but is not to be identified with it. So the body is not the ‘selfsymbolisation’ of the spiritual soul, yet body and soul do integrate in a single nature. “Neither is meant to be handicap on the other” (Holloway, Catholicism A New Synthesis, Faith-Keyway 1971 p.309).

 God the ‘Environer’ of Man

 Holloway’s synthesis answers all that Rahner was looking for in his theory of ‘real symbol’ yet avoiding his incipient pantheism. For Holloway, all matter is aligned on Christ in the first place and is taken up into union with God as the fulfilment of its created constitution. This makes the sacramental economy completely coherent. For the Incarnation and all that flows from it is the very key to God’s purpose in creating the material cosmos at all.

 The principles of the ‘Unity-Law’ bring into accurate and orthodox focus the relationship by which the body can be the real and effective symbol of the spiritual without confusion of the two. The whole economy of creation is sacramental in principle, and this relationship is brought to its perfection and peak in Christ who is the perfect and perfecting gift of God to his creatures.

  The core principle of the sacraments of the Church therefore lies in this nature of man as ‘spirit wrapped in matter’ or, perhaps better to say, matter integrated into spirit, which has been created by God for intimate union with Himself through Jesus Christ. This means that in any order of creation and any state of man Christ is ‘The Sacrament of the World’. For “...the flesh without the Incarnation is a nuisance and an interference in the spiritual order... (so that)... in the very wisdom of God... physical reality must participate, and participate at a noble level, in the religious knowing, loving and adoration of mankind.” (Holloway 1971 p.310).

  Similarly the Hollowayan principle which says: “that which controls and directs must come into contact with that which it controls but cannot itself be controlled and directed by it” expresses the relationship of union without confusion between the natural and the supernatural, as well as between man’s physical body and spiritual soul. It is possible on this basis to argue for the providential necessity of the Incarnation without making the creature determine the Creator.

 We can present Christ as the fulfilment of matter and the key to the meaning of the cosmos without making the humanity of the Lord into the eternally necessary ‘Self-symbolisation’ of the eternal Logos. This in turn makes it possible to present the sacraments as a natural consequence of the relationship between Christ and his Church without making matter or human actions pre-determine divine grace.

Sacramental Causality and the Divinity of Christ

The formal principle of causality in the sacraments is always the Divinity of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but that causality involves in its very thought the fact of God made man who acts in and with the human community of the Church. It is not as if matter has been invested with some divine quality in its own right – that would indeed be a magical understanding – rather it is the dynamic, Spirit filled presence of the Christ in an enfleshed relationship with his People that constitutes the principle of sacramental life-giving empowerment.

 Matter is the hinge of salvation, but it is never confused with the Godhead that empowers it. In the sacraments matter and spirit are linked in an effective instrumental union – ‘outward signs of inward grace’ – but are never identified with each other. In the sacraments, as in the Incarnation, the natures remain distinct and unconfused yet are truly joined in the person and work of God the Son. It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh on its own counts for nothing, yet it remains true that unless we receive him in the flesh we do not have life within us (cf John 6,52-65). This truth applies not only to the Eucharist, but also as a general principle to all the sacraments.

 Sacraments as the Perfecting of Creation

For Holloway, unlike Teilhard, Spirit is not scattered and suffused throughout creation, rather the whole of the Universe is dependent on the Mind of God. The Spirit ‘hovering over the waters’ in Genesis is an image of divine power energising the physical but without any pantheist confusion of the Divine somehow immersing Itself into the material. The sacraments are the fuller development of this initial relationship between God and the universe, which has now been made plenary through the direct integration of Divinity and humanity in the person of Christ.

 This also makes sense of the sacraments as objective acts of God which function ex opere operato, rather than just subjective acts of humanity which yearn for, invoke and somehow evoke the divine. Before the coming of Christ that was precisely the situation with the religious rites of Israel. They were ‘sacramentals’ in the wider sense, but they were not guaranteed as saving actions. The seven Sacraments of the Incarnation are objectively guaranteed because they are based on the perfect union of God and Man. They are the fully human acts of the fully Divine Saviour in the midst of his community.

 So the sacramental rite does not have power simply as a ritual,  but because Jesus personally and historically has become the  principle of the final perfection of his creatures through his  continuing communion with men in the living bonds of nature  and grace which constitute the Church.

 The ‘Mystical Body’ – Extending the Incarnation

In the sacraments God acts upon the creature in Christ through ‘co-operative’ causes. This is really a fuller development and perfection of that pattern of creative causality centred upon the Mind of God which is written into the whole of material being, and which we name the Unity Law of Control and Direction (see Editorial, September 2006).

 This co-operative activity does not make the action of God  remote but rather as direct and immediate as communion between God and human nature can be. It is in fact the very character of the Incarnation itself, which for human beings represents the greatest possible intimacy with God. Christ  has taken the material creation to himself as his instrument and he has gathered ‘from East to West’, – or better ‘from the rising of the sun to its setting’ – his own hierarchically ordered family of brothers and sisters through whom, with whom and  in whom he loves and redeems us all unto heaven.  Once again we see a union without confusion between the Head and the members of the Church. The power is Christ’s alone, but the co-operative ministry of the Church is a realand necessary condition of divine communication and communion. As the Catechism puts it: “It is the whole community, the Body of Christ united with its Head that celebrates” in every sacramental liturgy (CCC 1140).

 The Divinisation of Man and the Unity-Law

The Catechism also speaks of the sacraments as the dispensation of the ‘plan of salvation as one vast blessing’ (CCC 1079). This ‘blessing’ is nothing less than the gift of the Beatific Vision itself. Human nature is brought into union and communion with Godhead as its proper environment – its principle of life and life more abundant – through the Self communication of God the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the plan of God laid out in Christ from before the foundation of the world.

 The Incarnation is not merely an event – not even The Event in salvation history – it is the final chapter in the unfolding history of creation and salvation through which God raises up his material creation to the heights of perfect union with Himself. It is the final and abiding relationship between heaven and earth. So the presence and ministry of Christ as God on earth extends and continues as a fact of history in the life of Church. Just as the Church fills up in the bodies of her members the sufferings of Christ, so also the consolations of the Lord overflow to others through her as she fills out the full measure of the healing love of Christ by her sacramental ministry (cf. Col 1,24).

 Sacraments and the Paschal Mystery – Both Purification and Perfection

Speaking of sacraments in terms of ‘divinisation’ or ‘blessing’ does not in any way play down the redemptive dimension of the sacraments. For redemptive healing is not essentially different from sanctifying or divinising grace. Redemption means restoring through pain and sorrow the original invitation to perfect love that terminates in beatific communion. “When we speak of faith ‘washing away’ sin or of ‘forgiving somebody’ we are not really making a negative release from something, but we are loving again or loving in greater abundance.” (Holloway p.322) The loving and its final outcome are not essentially different, but the love is massively intensified, filled with desperate pathos and struggle, and radically underlined in its utter freedom and generosity in the face ofrebellion and contradiction.

 Even in a fallen world order the sacraments are not exclusively ordered to the healing of sin. Vatican II re-emphasised how the sacraments of Christian Initiation restore and divinise inseparably – they redeem by making us co-sharers of Christ’s own Sonship and heirs with him to glory. Marriage and Holy Order appoint to office and function in the Church by giving recipients a particular share in the personal work and dignity of Christ. Even Penance and Anointing have a perfective as well as an obviously restorative dimension.

All the sacraments incorporate us into Christ with a restoration that simultaneously sweeps us onwards into the love of God. They heal, ennoble, and glorify in one breath because they are the incarnate actions of the Father’s beloved Son who is faithful to his original mission as the “first born of creation” (Col. 1,15) despite the disaster of sin. In the face of rejection and torture he was “humbler yet” (Phil. 2,8) even to accepting physical and emotional annihilation on the cross. As a result his glory shines out all the more powerfully against the darkness which could not overcome him. This is why the sacraments are all marked, each in their own way, by both the sign of the cross and the light and joy of the resurrection.

 Christ The Sacrament of Creation

In summary we can say that the heart principle of the sacraments is the Self-giving of God to his creatures according to the nature of the creature which raises them into perfect union with himself, One could even argue that God the Son is “sacrament of the angels” in a certain sense for He is their principle of Life and blessedness. It is through the Eternal Word that the angels grasp the Father’s Self revelation and through Him they receive the Holy Spirit of eternal joy. Only in the case of the angels, of course, God does not take their nature to himself (cf Heb 2,16). There is no need of it, for they commune natively spirit to Spirit. So there is no call for sacramental actions as we understand them.

 Yet in creating human beings with bodies formed from the unfolding of matter in cosmic development, God the Son committed himself from all eternity to become Man according to the Father’s will. This meaning and purpose is written into the very foundations of matter even in the ‘primal singularity’ of the universe. It is what controls and directs the laws and developmental phases of evolution right up to the brain of man. It is what guides and informs the history of revelation that culminates in the Incarnation. It is what shapes the sacramental economy of the Church, which eventually gives way to the Church of the Resurrection in heaven. Matter was made for the sacraments because Man was made for God in Christ who is“The Sacrament of Creation”.  

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