Unpacking the Sacraments
When one looks up the definition of sacrament, it is often expressed in other religious jargon, e.g. the ‘outward sign of an inward grace’ or a means of making God present. Sacraments certainly can be symbols that effectively communicate to the people of the in-group (church members) who have been conditioned to receive this communication. For example, if people believe that the bread and wine of communion are the body and blood of Jesus, then it is likely that receiving this sacrament will be very meaningful to them. If one has not been conditioned to believe an otherwise unbelievable idea, will anything result from participation? If so, what?
Another way of stating the question is: do the sacraments have any power of their own apart from the beliefs of the participants? Are sacraments a kind of God-magic? In answer to this, I can draw a parallel with ability of the Bible to communicate the Word of God. I have written elsewhere that readers may be inspired (in-spirited) by the words of Bible; that they receive the living Word of God, even though the words themselves are not God’s. Similarly, it is conceivable that the sacraments can communicate something of God even if there is no supernatural aspect to them. Just as the early Church chose the content of the Bible to support its beliefs, so it chose rites to do likewise.
The Roman Catholic Church names seven rites as sacramental, and a few denominations such as the Salvation Army have none, but the Uniting Church, like most Protestant denominations, has only two: baptism and the eucharist (holy communion).
I am interested in what the sacraments have to offer at a basic level; that is, to the uninitiated and the skeptic. Is it conceivable they can have meaning even without any supernatural associations?
The rite we call baptism has a long pre-Christian history. Wikipedia tells us the practice of baptism-like rituals in pagan religions seem to have been based on a belief in the purifying properties of water; e.g., in the ancient civilisations in Babylon and Egypt. Egyptians practised baptism of newborn children in order to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb. Water was also used to baptise the dead because of a belief in regeneration through water. Like Christian baptism, also, the Egyptians used immersion in water to symbolically represent a person’s death to the life of this world.
In the cult of Cybele, a baptism of blood was practiced, believing it brought about a new birth in eternity. Immortality was also associated with baptism in the ancient Greek world. Other concepts said to have been associated with various cultic baptisms included the transformation of one’s life, the removal of sins, symbolic representation, the attainment of greater physical vitality, a new beginning and spiritual regeneration. It is believed that all ancient religions recognised some form of spiritual cleansing, renewal or initiation that was accomplished through a washing or immersion in water.
Not surprisingly, the liturgical use of water was common in the Jewish world, also. Not only was washing prescribed for ritual cleansing, but toward the beginning of the Christian era, the Jews adopted the custom of baptising proselytes seven days after their circumcision. When John the Baptist came on the scene in the first century Jewish world, his teaching included the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins.
This range of blessings conveyed by ritual immersion by earlier groups has found its way into Christians’ various understandings of baptism. I have no difficulty understanding the powerful role that immersion plays. A number of people have related to me their experiences, and it seems to have functioned, at least in these cases, as a stimulus for a real life-changing experience, similar to the event described in the Gospels that changed Jesus from a previously unknown middle-aged Palestinian to one of the most influential people in history.
To be immersed can be experienced as coming to the border of life and death, subject to drowning, but then raised back to life with that first breath. It can take one back to the waters of the womb to be reborn, or be a cleansing both physically and symbolically. In short, the act of immersion, independent of any religious beliefs that may be attached to it, can have a powerful effect on a person’s psyche. In many churches, including the Uniting Church, infants are baptised with a sprinkling of water, and so most of our members don’t have the opportunity to experience immersion, which is unfortunate. The Baptist Church only baptises adults and only by immersion, so it is conceivable that this is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, why it has the highest participation rate of any of the major denominations.
What if one is not baptised? At the very least, baptism is a membership rite, and this remains so regardless of one’s beliefs. Whilst those who are not baptised are not members; there are no negative theological implications. Some would say that baptism is a rite of adoption by God, making one a child of God, while others fear that, if one is not baptised, one cannot go to heaven, dragged down by ‘original sin’. The former is theologically untenable, given the teachings of Jesus; the latter is a mixture of superstition and ignorance, and has no place among Christian beliefs. I am content to leave baptism as a rite of membership, symbolising the death to the world and rebirth into the realm of God as a new being, although I acknowledge that the very act of immersion may trigger a profound religious experience in some people.
The Eucharist (Holy Communion)
The development of the Eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving’ in Greek, is more complicated. Scholars debate the origins and point out that there seems to be at least two separate meal traditions in the early church, and it is not at all clear that either was instituted by Jesus or a representative of a real ‘Last Supper.’ However, it seems from the Gospel accounts that Jesus valued meal gatherings, and for good reason. When sharing a meal, people are at ease, their defences come down and they allow themselves to be a bit more vulnerable. This is a precondition to fellowship and the building of relationships, so early Christians appropriately met around a meal. As the church grew from these small house groups to a larger, more formal worship setting, meals together were impractical, so they evolved into a ritual observance. The form of the Eucharist, with the elements of the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Jesus, evolved over the first two or three centuries. That a meal should become ritualised is understandable; why it should involve eating the ‘body’ and ‘blood’ of Jesus is not so clear. Some scholars see here a primitive pattern, repeated in many cultures, whereby people eat that which has traits they want to incorporate into themselves, e.g. one may eat a gorilla for strength. Others see the practice as stemming from practices among members of the cult of Dionysus (Greek), and still others point to the various ‘mystery’ cults in the Hellenic region, which had rites in which members ate the body and blood of their god.
What does one gain from participating in this sacrament? Again, it depends upon one’s previous conditioning and beliefs, but at the very least, it conveys the benefits of fellowship that comes from sharing a meal among fellow travellers on a spiritual journey, and this is certainly a good thing worth doing regularly.