Monday, January 7, 2013

Ruminations on the Sacrament

The sacrament has become my favorite part of church.

Rivaling scripture-reading and prayer, the sacrament as an intensely real spiritual experience is often the most spiritually clear moment of my week. But why do I find it so powerful? Aside from the obvious fact that the Spirit is present, I wonder what specifically invites it to come, what makes it such a unique weekly event. I give an answer with this post. Here I will endeavor to show what components of the sacrament make it the powerful symbol that it is, and where it invites in the Spirit.

Let's begin with the obvious: the bread symbolizes the body of Christ, and thus his incarnation into the world of flesh. On the other hand, the water (originally wine) represents the blood of Christ, or his all-atoning sacrifice. But this just scratches the surface - there are many levels of meaning for this powerful ritual.

For example, the sacrament exists as a uniquely physical aspect of Gospel worship. The bread and water are not abstract concepts which we absentmindedly ponder - they are real objects, which are both tangible and corporeal. This is above all a reminder that we should never deny the physical or the material; God has a body of flesh and bones, and all spirit is matter. But even the specific traits of these objects remind us what they stand for. The bread has concrete substance, and is quite literally in one place at one time. However, the water can pervade space much more readily than its solid counterpart, having the capability of figurative omnipresence. Here, (as Alan Watts once pointed out) the bread and water symbolize the unity of matter and spirit, of the finite and the infinite. But most importantly, these symbols can literally enter into us, and thus become a very real manifestation of the fact that God lives in us, and that by partaking of his fullness, it can become part of our very being.

There is also very clear resurrection imagery in the Sacrament. The cloth draped in turn over the bread and water is nothing less than a shroud, meant to represent the death which Christ experienced. But for each emblem priests uncover the shroud, thus symbolizing that he has emerged from the grave victorious.

In addition, all participants in the Sacrament ritual partake of the bread and water together. We all, more or less, do the same thing at the same time, hopefully thinking the same thoughts. In a very real, yet also very symbolic sense, we become one with those around us.

Finally, we can apply the traditional interpretations of this ceremony to us, as well as to Christ. We commemorate Christ's suffering, yes. But he suffered for all of our sins, and so by partaking of the water we remember not only the pain of Christ, but vicariously the pain of the entire human race.

The sacrament is an intensely real, intensely present experience of spiritual oneness with God and with our neighbor. This is a time when boundaries between the spiritual and the physical become thin, and when we can connect with God readily.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed what you wrote. An additional aspect of the sacrament that you didn't include is that the sacrament table is literally an altar on which the symbolic sacrifice takes place. To me that adds another important aspect to this ordinance.