Thursday, 9 September 1999

Understanding Sacraments, week 1 - An overview of sacaments

A theology assignment from 1999

Instances where Christ is present and acts in some way are both communicative and saving. They are communicative because, in some, way they communicate information about the nature of Christ to the people who are present. How this is done depends on a range of factors – primarily the situation and the ability of the people to understand the various forms of communication which are open. Typically, however, it occurs via signs and symbols.

Christ’s presence and action is also saving, in the sense of changing participants from what they are to what they could be. They are enable to have contact with the divine in some way, which is not something which humans beings are able to do in the normal course of events.

The traditional term ‘sanctifying grace’ refers to this transformation. However, because the sacraments are the means by which human experience is changed in this way, the term ‘sacramental grace; is also used. The only difference between the two is that sacramental grace is only present through the sacraments. [Question – is this circular – aren’t the sacraments defined as the moments when this transformation occurs.]

The terms ‘raw experience’ and ‘lived experience’ denote two types of event that occur in human lives. A raw experience is simply a part of the pattern of activity of everyday life, with no particular meaning or significance attached to it. A lived experience is one where the experience is transformed into an event of particular significance. An example is a team meeting. The raw experience consists of going to a particular room at the same day and time each week, exchanging routine pleasantries with colleagues, receiving a briefing about the state of current projects and the business in general, and reporting about the current state of my particular work. The meeting is not normally memorable. The experience becomes lived when something occurs which adds significant meaning to it for the participants. For example, a team member provides a lavish home-made morning tea, or the manager announces a major change in the business purpose.

As an aside, I suspect that there is another dimension to these experiences. The individual team meetings I attended in January and February have no particular significance attached to them. But the overall impression, that team meetings in early 1998 were particularly tedious, with continual low-level interpersonal conflict between the manager and a particular colleague, and poor communication of overall business issues, remains. I have drawn some particular significance from the sum of these raw experiences, which was not available from any of them, and it has indeed been the stimulus for re-telling the stories associated with the period (ie, material for lunch-time gossip with a former colleague). As the course progresses, it may be interesting to reflect on the way that this summation of raw experiences is lived out sacramentally. (Or I may be barking up the wrong tree totally.)

Ritual is essentially a re-telling of stories, using any or all of the languages (eg English, body language, actions) available to the participants. The way that humans react to a lived experience is essentially ritualistic. For instance, a team meeting may have become a lived experience because a colleague is publicly humiliated manager because they were not able to describe the status of their projects. Remembering this, I may re-tell the events to other colleagues not present, or dissect them with others who were there to determine appropriate action to take. When I realise that a team meeting is approaching, I honour the memory of the significant event by my own actions in preparing carefully for the meeting.

A sacramental celebration is a visible, public acknowledgement which, according to Bernard Cook, has basic aspects of:
• involving the ultimate meaning of human life, and
• a divine saving presence which calls forth a human response, and
• some transformation of the human, both as an individual and as part of a community.

Thus, there are three basic relational aspects of the sacramental celebration. These are the relationship between:
• the divine and the individual human
• the divine and the community of humans
• the individual and the community.

It is through these relational aspects that the sacraments are both communicative and saving or transforming. The relationships imply that certain things must happen in this life, however. For the human to relate to God (the divine) on a personal left, the human must in a sense be equal to the divine. The natural human state is not Godly. So, the divine must either bring itself to human level, or must elevate the human to Godself. The first option contradicts the definition of the divine. Thus, the transforming aspect of a sacramental celebration means that the divine must uplift or elevate the human to a state where the human can relate to the divine.

It is not enough, however to simply elevate the human in isolation from his or her or their humanity. Some aspect of brokeness from God (sin) is intrinsically part of what it is to be human. For the human to relate to the divine therefore requires healing of this brokeness as well as elevation. Catholic belief is that these aspects of elevation and healing occur in the sacraments through the human being incorporated into Christ, because Christ is where God became both fully divine and fully human, and in Christ, God enabled humanity to ultimately overcome sin.

General consideration of sacraments provides a number of key insights. The description of sacraments as moments of significance to the individual and the community and involve both of these and the divine in relationship is particularly helpful. It gives a basis for understanding sacraments beyond the level of ‘a mystery’ (meaning something that teachers were not prepared to even try explaining), or some sort of magic (a description which is never used, but is difficult to deny without a sound theoretical basis).

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