As much as the flavor of one’s faith is defined by the things they believe, it’s the practice of that faith that reveals. The tactile, experiential is where the proverbial rubber of faith hits the road of life.
And hazarding to stretch the analogy beyond its tensile strength, the rubber of our faith is the way we understand sacrament.
A decade ago I did my internship at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saginaw, Michigan. Back then, the worship space looked different from how it looks today.
St. John’s is a large, 19th Century traditional church. And in this spacious building we ‘d crowd around the altar in the tiny space at the front. A space not designed for a whole team. Or for us to be behind the altar.
There were two priest, a seminarian (me), a pair of Eucharistic ministers, and three acolytes. I spent Sunday morning ducking my head so the candelabra behind me wouldn’t light my hair on fire.
They have since flipped the nave, restoring it to the eastward facing congregation it was designed to be. The space is now accessible and there is much more room for those serving at the table to move around it.
I’m reminded of this when I celebrate at the altar, that our spaces and our bodies have an impact on our worship. A serious one. Far more than we normally consider. Especially when it comes to the sacrament.
What are Sacraments?
Not all churches deal with sacraments. And some deal with them but don’t call them that.
The Book of Common Prayer, describes them this way:
The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.
What has long moved me about the sacraments is that we have always had them and used them. Whether we bestowed the title of sacrament upon them or rejected the idea of them as “too Roman” but maintained the practice of at least two of them, we keep connecting to God through these same rituals.
We’ve had them and used them. Used them to interact with God and one another in love and devotion.
See, the sacrament doesn’t exist only in the realm of the theoretical. They don’t require elaborate theories or systems of belief for us to practice them. You don’t even have to believe anything about them. They are things touched and done.
We don’t have to believe before them, we can believe through them.
They involve eating, getting wet, having hands placed on our head, or on our shoulders, confessing with language rolling off our tongue, or having oil rubbed across our forehead in the sign of the cross.
We feel them as a tactile experience of the divine, serving as a way of knowing God with us and around us and upon us and within us.
Some Christians don’t use them.
Or know them this way. They don’t use the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, but they do share in communion. Or use the sacrament of Holy Baptism, but they baptize their people in community anyway. Hallmarks and symbols of the faith.
The classic debate being over what happens in the Eucharist. A transformation? Or just a symbol?
The reformers, with their perpetual protests, distrust anything which seems too much like institutional BS. The sort of thing which puts humans in charge of the divine.
It all comes out like some heavy-handed overreaction. Like not only throwing out the baby with the bath water, but then drying up the lake so we can’t have any more baths.
Then taking a bath elsewhere and calling it something else.
But if we put a pause to our protest for a moment, we might see ways in which Catholics and Protestants are only seeing part of the picture. And unlike the old adage of the people touching the elephant, there is a lot of overlap in what we describe.
Why I love the sacraments
If we continue to treat our sacraments as things only to be understood, defined, and treated as barometers of our faith, then they will continue to be a source of division, confusion, and dysfunction.
But if we take them as points of contact: the way human beings can know that God is with us, showering us with grace, forgiving us of our sin, making our communities whole, then we don’t have time for these ridiculous reindeer games.
It isn’t about the stuff. Or what happens. It’s about who we encounter. It’s not the Sacraments, but the sacramental.
Every Christian knows the sacramental: the encounter with grace. Maybe not personally. Maybe they’re still searching for it. But that’s the deal. That’s what so many of us are searching for.
And we’re looking past the institutions and the traditions and the ways our culture makes it harder to know God in our lives or to feel forgiven.
But we’re also looking past the ephemeral and the charismatic and the functional and toward traditional and timeless practices.
We’re looking for something more than 500 years of fighting over what something means.
We’re looking to get on the open road and squeal some tires and drive. Wind whipping our hair, stopping for gas in a downpour, crossing our country with anticipation of what we’ll find on the other side.
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This is from a series on Choices. We have plenty more choices to make!