A new journey

Easter 4 – Sunday
ANZAC Day

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það besta sem guð hefur skapað er nýr dagur
(you can Google translate the above yourselves)

It has been very quiet on this blog of late. I haven’t felt as much of a need to post over the last month or so. I am embarking on a new sort of trek in May 2010 though.

From my regular church attendance on Sundays at CMCA – Eight Mile Plains, I will be heading off instead to explore the Anglo-Catholic roots that have watered my faith (even during the drought last year). It will be interesting being a regular parishioner at St. John’s Cathedral for the majority of May 2010. It will also be somewhat scary venturing out on my own as I embark on a journey of potentially finding a new church home, which may lead to jumping across the English Channel (to become Anglican, rejoining the mother church as it were), the Tiber (Roman Catholic) or the Bosphorus (Eastern Orthodox).

Or whether God still wants me to remain where I am and remain somewhat of a contradiction and possible abnormality: an evangelical Anglo-Catholic in an evangelical Methodist parish.

While I cherish my evangelical Methodist heritage, there has been a deep seated part of me that has been drawing me towards exploring the catholicity of my faith. In other parts of the world, this choice would be made easier: in the USA, if there was an ACNA parish near by, it would easier to move across; if in Singapore, the Anglican Diocese there would be the first place where I would search for a new church home. Here in Australia, it is more difficult.

But I am thinking about posting a series of posts on the Sacraments. The two dominical sacraments and the other five which may be considered as sacraments or as having sacramental value. So here goes (with what could be a large post and a taxing series)… and my apologies now if things aren’t covered here properly. I am but a mere layman in the Church, nothing more. And these are but my own notes to crystallize in my own mind what sacraments are. Take them for what they are…

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So what is a sacrament?

Anglican & Methodist views

In the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (39 Articles), Article 25 says:

Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as having partly grown out of the corrupt following of the Apostles and partly are states of life allowed in the Scripture; but yet have not the like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or be carried about; but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation; but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

Article 16 of the Methodist Twenty-Five Articles of Religion is substantially the same as Article 25 in the 39 Articles, with the adjustment of the first paragraph by Fr. John Wesley so that it reads as:

Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him.

The Anglican Church catechism (or teaching) on what a sacrament is states that it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us”.

By these words, the Anglican and Methodist position is that they are signs of grace (the “means of grace” to use theological terms) of God’s good will toward us. In the Anglican view, these signs are not just mere memorials, but they have an actual effect (“effectual signs of grace”) on each believer (whether one feels it in the here and now or not). I prefer the Anglican wording more than the Methodist one. By us participating in these signs, our faith is quickened, strengthened and confirmed by God’s grace that works within each follower of Christ. They are things that we do because we are Christians, simply put. We practice them because they are objectively true rather than doing such things because we feel like doing so.

The Anglican and Methodist positions posit that there are only two Sacraments that our Lord has commanded (the Dominical Sacraments) in his holy Gospel: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. However, the third paragraph is worded cryptically. They may not be Sacraments in the sense of the Dominical Sacraments, but that they may be considered to be Sacraments. This allows for these rites to be treated as Sacraments or as sacramental rites, both of which are considered to be, more or less, “means of God’s grace”.

The Lutheran view

In the churches that hold to Lutheran confessional standards, here is an English translation of the Latin text of the 1530 Augsburg Confession from The Book of Concord (1959, Fortress Press) that deals with the Sacraments:

Our churches teach that the sacraments were instituted not merely to be marks of profession among men but especially to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, intended to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Consequently the sacraments should be so used that faith, which believes the promises that are set forth and offered, is added.

Our churches therefore condemn those who teach that the sacraments justify by the outward act and who do not teach that faith, which believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the sacraments.

In it, the Lutheran understanding of Sacraments requires that faith be present in the use of sacraments or that the use of sacraments will awaken faith in those who partake of them (in line with the Lutheran understanding of baptism which brings those who are baptized, even babies, into a covenant with God’s grace and where faith will be awakened). In line with Anglican and Methodist understandings of sacraments, Lutherans also believe that the use of Sacraments helps to confirm the faith of those who partake of them. Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Augsburg Confession deal with Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Confession (that is, Private Confession). Confession could be considered to be a Sacrament in the Lutheran understanding.

Without faith being present or awakened, the sacraments are useless. The old adage of ex opere operato (that the action itself, apart from faith, produces a result) is therefore rejected.

The Roman Catholic view

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 774 describes how the Western and Eastern Churches describe sacraments:

774. The Greek word mysterion was translated into the Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: “For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.” (St. Augustine, Epistle 187, 11, 34) The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call “the holy mysteries”). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a “sacrament”.

CCC774 relates the concept of a sacrament back to who Christ is and his mission (by using a rather elegant quote from one of St. Augustine’s letters). Indeed, the Lord’s incarnation as a human baby is the supreme sacrament. The Church is the body which is the holder and dispenser of grace that God has entrusted to her by the power of the Holy Spirit. Outside of the Church, one cannot receive God’s grace. The visible Church then is a sign (possibly an “effectual sign”) of God’s grace that it mediates to those who would come to Christ.

This paragraph also alludes to the number of Sacraments that the Church practices. This is further elaborated in CCC1113 which says:

1113. The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony {note: as decreed at the Council of Lyons II (1274) DS 860; Council of Florence (1439) DS 1310; Council of Trent (1547) DS 1601}. …

Like the Anglican 39 Articles, CCC1131 reiterates that:

1131. The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

The rites that are used (which also encompass the material things that are used in the rites themselves) do produce an effect by making present God’s grace to those who partake. However, if one does not come to the Sacrament with a proper disposition (the right intention or prepared themselves properly), then there will be no fruit that is produced (an increase in faith that leads to good works, being one example I can think of off the top of my head). Ex opere operato is affirmed, but to me, the CCC also makes explicit that the person receiving must also receive the sacrament in and with faith for there to be some sort of lasting fruit. What St. Paul writes to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians on partaking of Holy Communion worthily could also be said to apply to the sacraments in general too.

So, what do we make of it all?

In simple terms to me, a sacrament uses material things to show and effect something spiritual within us. These can be actual items, like the water in baptism, the bread and wine in Communion and oil in confirmation/chrismation and the anointing of the sick (otherwise known as Unction). They can also be actions done with material things, like the laying on of hands in Holy Orders, Confirmation and also making the sign of the Cross over a person who does practice private confession when they are assured of God’s forgiveness towards them and that they are forgiven in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Further to that, the Sacraments are the means by which God shows and bestows grace (charis) on His children. Without grace, and our recognition as believers that we need God’s grace, the sacraments are “… no more than magical ceremonies” (to quote Claude Beaufort Moss on page 326 in his Dogmatic Theology treatise, The Chritsian Faith: An introduction to Dogmatic Theology). We learn from participating in the sacraments that we should learn to rely on God to provide us with grace in all things. Having said that, God doesn’t only just provide grace to us in the Sacraments. God’s grace is not limited to the Sacraments, however He has promised us that he will provide grace to us through faith which is a gift from Him to begin with (cf. Ephesians 2:8)

As Christians, the Sacraments are given us to participate in because they are what distinguishes us from others who are not Christian. They are part of the traditions of the Church that have been handed down to us over the centuries (to use a turn of phrase that St. Paul used when writing his letter to the church at Thessalonica – 2 Thess 2:15). As such we shouldn’t neglect the use of sacraments in the building up of our own spiritual lives and own faith in God.

Up next?

I think the next post on the Sacraments will deal with the Sacrament that is in a sense the “initiation” of a person into the Christian Church. This post took a couple of hours to write and I suspect that my own thoughts and reflections on baptism could take longer to write than I expected (as this post did).

+ 1949hrs

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