A few years back I mused on the question of “What is a sacrament?” In that essay I tried to get at what makes these two rituals that we Protestants accept “special”, and not the other five that the Roman Catholic Church identifies as such, or the innumerable other “mysteries”—but I don’t think I came to a firm conclusion.
Today, I’d like to continue that discussion by looking at what’s going on in the sacraments—because the Church has always held (and with good reason) that a baptism is not just some words being said and someone getting wet, and that in the Eucharist the consumption of the bread and wine is not all that happens. What’s really going on?
As I noted in my earlier essay, a somewhat standard description of a sacrament (perhaps coming from Augustine) is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Just as a rainbow, even an artificial one, is a sign of God’s promise to never again destroy the world by water, not just a pretty sight or (even more prosaically) merely light refracted through water, so each sacrament is a sign of something that God is doing, has done, or promises to do.
But that’s not all. The Church also understands the sacraments to be “means of grace”, tools that God uses to convey his grace to us. (This is part of why excommunication is the most severe penalty it can impose.) There’s a great deal of argument within the Church about how this works, but I’ll explain my understanding in a moment.
It’s important to note that the sacraments are, well, “sacramental”—valid—even if the leader doesn’t intend them to be. Even if he isn’t a Christian at all. What makes them “work” isn’t the faith of the minister or liturgist, or the words used in the ritual, or even (though of all the elements I’ve mentioned so far this one is the most relevant) the faith of the catechumen or celebrant. Instead, it’s God who provides the substance that the rituals are intended to evoke (and invoke).
Now, let’s look at them individually. First is baptism. I understand baptism to be a sign of entrance into Christ’s Church and of membership in his new covenant, as circumcision was to the old covenant. By it the catachumen is symbolically shown to have died and been raised with Christ. In times past, new believers were trained in the faith (using what became the catechism) for up to a year before being baptized on Pentecost (which is also called Whitsunday because of the white robes they wore) and only then could fully participate in the life and rituals of the church. So baptism is intended to be the outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the believer—the seal of salvation—and a statement to the Church that the new believer has indeed become a member of the Body.
In churches that deny the sacraments to children, it’s common to call adult baptism “believer’s baptism” (though I’m not sure of where the apostrophe ought to be placed there). (I wrote a little bit about this earlier.) This shows a great deal of confusion, because the churches that baptize infants assert that the children of believers, brought up “in the fear of the Lord”, are regenerate—i.e. believers—from infancy. What saves us is not “our decision to accept Christ”, but God’s grace. Even the faith by which we are saved is a gift from God.. It’s telling that in churches that only baptize after profession of faith, children often enough make profession of faith and are baptized as soon as they are permitted. And there is far too long a list of former nominal Christians who professed faith and were baptized as adults but then fell away, so a profession of faith is no guarantee that the candidate is truly, not merely nominally, a believer.
Second is the Eucharist (or “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper”). It is (we know from Paul’s instructions on the matter) a proclamation of the Lord’s death. And we repeat the ritual regularly because it is commanded. But that’s not all that’s going on in it. First, I am convinced that for those who believe, by the ministry of the Spirit on us and on them, the elements are (to us, at the very least) the body and blood of the Lord, as all but the most deliberately liturgically ignorant churches claim each time the sacrament is celebrated. (“King of Kings, yet born of Mary, once upon the earth he stood; Lord of Lords we now perceive him in the body and the blood …”) Second, by tasting them, we become “partakers in the divine nature.” This is why it’s called “communion.” And this is part of why we are warned against eating “without recognizing the body of Christ” (in the elements? or in the church?) or “in an unworthy manner”—communion with God is always dangerous for us (“‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”), and it is only by the grace of God that the “mystery” is life, not death, to his elect. But it is; this sacrament is spiritual nourishment to the believer.
What exactly takes place in the Lord’s Supper is a matter of great debate. I find Luther’s stand in the Marburg Colloquy somewhat compelling (“‘Hoc est meum corpus! Hoc est meum corpus!'” Churches that say “Christ said it, I believe it, and that settles it” about all sorts of other doctrines, even when it’s not remotely that clear, shy away from the idea that he might have meant what he said in the Institution …), though I certainly wouldn’t, as he did, deny that anyone who disagrees could be a Christian. On the other hand, Calvin’s position, that Christ is “sacramentally and spiritually” present, and when we partake of the sacrament the Holy Spirit raises us up to heaven—by partaking we are united with Christ, who is even now seated at God’s right hand–is quite persuasive, and the more I read his arguments the more I find to agree with. But on the gripping hand, I am even now only beginning to understand the various issues and positions on them, let alone what is really going on …