Archive for June 17th, 2008

Sacraments: The World as Mystery

June 17, 2008

My recent post on Pentecost and Evangelism occasioned several thoughtful responses. One of the responses seemed to me particularly worth further reflection. I start with an excerpt:

Truly it is God we need and want, nothing less. I experienced in my heart, but didn’t realize in my head until I began to study Orthodoxy, that in my evangelical world we affirmed “by faith” having God living by His Spirit within us and that His Presence was with us in our corporate context. But in reality, because a sacramental view of reality had largely eluded us, we failed to really experience that Presence in any consistent way, especially in the context of corporate worship.

The comment goes to the very heart of the modern Christian dilemma. Without a truly “sacramental” world-view, the presence of God and of all things holy remain alien to our life and are reached only occasionally and with great difficulty (if at all). The writings I have offered on Christianity as a One-Storey Universe are precisely an effort on my part to find language to describe the alienation of the holy from a secularized world.

The whole of Orthodoxy is rooted in an understanding of the world that is not only non-secular, but even pre-secular. The language of Orthodox worship, hagiography, and writings of the Fathers, never imagines a situation in which God is removed from the world and inherently inaccessible. The world itself is a sacrament – or in Orthodox language – the world is mystery (mysterion).

It is important to say just this much – “the world is mystery” – for if we say less – we run the danger of saying that the world is indeed secular, but that there are “sacramental” moments within it. This is the danger carried by the notion of limiting the sacraments to seven in number. Of course those actions and occasions which the Church formally refers to as “mysteries” or “sacraments” are precisely what the Church says of them – but in actions such as the annual blessing of the waters on Theophany – the Church reveals that all of creation is intended to be an occasion of communion with God. Indeed, it is the very purpose of creation.

I am not suggesting anything here that has not already been better said by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his classic For the Life of the World, nor is he asserting anything there that is not simply a clear statement of the Orthodox mind. In many ways such expressions are simply commentaries on St. Paul’s theology (in any number of passages). I quote only one for this purpose:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).

There is a vast difference and distinction between a world-view which allows for such things as sacraments and a world-view which understands that all of creation is a sacrament. With the first, one can be religious from time-to-time. With the latter, communion with God is a way of life and the whole of life.

Everything is changed in such an understanding. It is in just such a context (and quoting from Scripture) that we can understand that the Church not only reads the Scriptures, but is itself the Scriptures (see my earlier series on an Orthodox hermeneutic). In the same way we not only eat the Body of Christ, we also are the Body of Christ.

Prayer and worship cease to be specialized activities that we attend and become the very fabric of our lives. This in no way diminishes the worship of the assembled Church, but we do not cease to be Church when we exit the doors of a building. We are commanded to “pray without ceasing,” and to “give thanks always for all things.” In the language of Fr. Schmemann, human beings live rightly when we live as “eucharistic, doxological beings,” that is, human beings exist to give thanks to God and to worship Him.

As the angels ceaselessly cry: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Even so we can reply: “Glory to God for all things.”


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