There are certain ineffable actions. A kiss, for example, is a physical act that communicates things that are impossible to fully put into words. The most important things in life are difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets—to explore and probe the borders of language, and to create new metaphorical possibilities. If you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe what happened. Words alone make us feel empty. The sacraments are like that. They are actions that communicate beyond words. Unfortunately, post-enlightenment rationalism has taught us that reality is an intellectual formula. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1
That is what Advent and Christmas is all about. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation will be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one—the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world aright!
God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light; in a world without hope, eternal hope was born; in the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. The spirit of anticipation during Advent, and the realization of incarnation during Christmas ought to imbue the church with a sacramental understanding of salvation. There can be no true spirituality without sacramentality. But what does that mean? What is “sacramentality”?
It means that all reality is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s salvific activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of a sacrament as such—a visible sign and instrument of the invisible presence and activity of God.
Christianity sees in Christ the full embodiment of God. Since God became human, then God is seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. “He is the Image of the invisible God.” This is the principle of sacramentality. The church celebrates certain rituals (primarily baptism and communion) that make the saving presence of God tangible. They are moments of encounter with God that deeply affect our lives. Christ is present, LITERALLY, in baptism and communion in a sense that far surpasses anything conjured up by subjective remembrance. What we celebrate during Christmas is a tiny preface to this ongoing reality.
Most Evangelical Christians do not think in these terms, and it certainly does not describe my own church heritage. Leaving baptism aside for a separate discussion (regarding its efficacy), I was raised in a tradition that eschewed any “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It was done “in remembrance” of Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s remembrance ONLY. Anything beyond this radical Zwinglian understanding was deemed “too Catholic.” I currently attend a church where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month. While many of us would like to celebrate it weekly, that too has been deemed “too Catholic.” Sadly, this misses the point. Christianity affirms that God became human in the person of Christ, that we are receptacles of the Spirit, that the church, collectively, is the body of Christ on earth, and that Christ’s presence is mediated to us through real and tangible elements. Much of Christianity has become, in a sense, too spiritual. The obsession with spirituality that is disconnected from physical reality, and the preaching of salvation as a plan to escape this world is, at best, a reversal of what Christianity has always taught, and, at worst, a return to some early heresies.
But sacramentality embraces more than sacred rituals. It also promotes the idea that we live in a sacred world because it has been created by God. For this reason, every tangible element of creation from the natural environment to human persons provides an opportunity to encounter something of God’s presence. Understood in this way, the principle of sacramentality affirms that as we study and explore the human condition, as well as the natural environment, we are actually discovering more about the presence of God.
C.S. Lewis stated this brilliantly: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”