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So I really am going to post about Schmemann and the idea of the holy and all that. But I have been diverted by a fascinating discussion in class Tuesday regarding the sacramentality of marriage. Dr. Leithart had done some research, and offered us the results...which were more a host of new questions than answers. Raising the question of the sacramentality of marriage brings to the fore two other huge questions--What is a sacrament anyway? and How has the desacramentalization of marriage contributed to the secularization of Western society and the marginalization of the Church? On this latter point, Dr. Leithart suspects there may be a close connection, and I'm quite confident that there is. Which, of course, still doesn't answer the initial question--is marriage properly conceived of as a sacrament? To answer this, we of course have to answer what a sacrament is anyway, which, Dr. Leithart acknowledged on Tuesday, is a very slippery question after all. So here is a first stab at a definition of "sacrament"--one that seems to allow for the easy inclusion of five of the traditional seven, and maybe the sixth and seventh...but we'll have to see. Of course, it's possible this definition would also allow for the inclusion of acts that have traditionally not been classified as sacraments at all...I haven't thought of any examples yet, though. So here's the stab (currently awaiting feedback from Dr. Leithart.
Let us define a sacrament as “a ritual enactment carried out by lawfully ordained ministers of the Church
--in which the redemptive acts of God are pictured and proclaimed,
--in which the faithful recipients are mysteriously incorporated into this redemptive narrative, so as to partake of its benefits,
--in which God’s grace is poured out upon the recipients, both in clearly tangible ways and also in intangible, but very real ways,
--in which, although the grace pictured and offered might particularly concern an individual or individuals, the action functions to restructure in some way the relations within the whole community of believers
--in which common elements, which have already an accepted and valuable non-sacred use, retain that function in some respect, but are transfigured, by their sacred setting, by the divine promises annexed to them, and by their administration by lawfully ordained ministers, so as to offer a fuller, richer, and multi-dimensional, benefit to their recipients.”

In the Eucharist, minimally, the death and resurrection of Christ, his passing over from death to life, as well as the marriage supper of the eschaton are pictured and proclaimed, and the recipients of the Supper, by being united to Christ, share in the benefits of his death and resurrection; this grace, though real and objective, is mostly invisible and intangible, although the common reception of the elements by the community of believers also serves quite visibly and tangibly proclaim and accomplish the knitting together of the body; in this sacrament, the chief object is the whole community, not any particular individual, although of course Christ’s benefits are also shared with each individual—the partaking of the body of Christ re-constitutes the assembly of the saints as the body of Christ, uniting the saints again to their Head and to one another; in the Eucharist, the elements employed are common bread and wine, and the action is a communal meal, but the Eucharist is not simply common elements put into a sacred setting—while bread is always nourishing, the Eucharistic bread becomes nourishing unto everlasting life; while wine always gladdens the Spirit, the Eucharistic bread gladdens with the Holy Spirit; and while a communal meal always serves to proclaim and accomplish the binding-together of a community, the Eucharistic meal accomplishes this on a deeper and more mysterious level.

In Penance, the forgiveness that Christ has accomplished and offered in his death are displayed again, and the penitent individual is, so to speak, inserted into that story, so that this forgiveness is applied to him and becomes effective and powerful for him; psychologically, the penitent individual receives a very tangible benefit from hearing the minister pronounce the words of forgiveness, but the grace goes deeper, since his status is now actually changed before God; although this grace primarily concerns only the penitent individual, the whole community is involved, because if one member suffers, all suffer, and now, by his forgiveness, he is reintegrated into the community of believers and the sin that impeded fellowship is now gone; in penance, an action that has a valuable non-sacred function—confessing one’s faults to a mentor and being assured of forgiveness and given counsel by them—becomes a sacred action, and receives a new, fuller efficacy—the ability to actually change one’s status before Christ.

What about Marriage?
Well, the first criterion is covered rather easily—marriage pictures and proclaims the union between Christ and his Church, the fulfillment of history.
The second is rather hard to nail down…does the union of man and wife in Christian marriage not merely picture, but somehow participate in the union of Christ and the Church? What exactly would this mean?
As for the third, a rather tangible grace is received simply by the act of publicly making vows, which impresses upon both the solemnity of their obligation and a desire to be faithful to it; I think we would also want to say that the minister’s blessing of the marriage imparts a real, though intangible grace to husband and wife, that knits them closer together and gives them greater strength to live together faithfully.
As for the fourth, like Penance (or Baptism), we have an example of a sacrament that focuses on individuals, but in which the whole body participates and is restructured. Everyone in the congregation now relates differently to the married woman and to the married man than they related to them prior to marriage, and vice versa.
As for the fifth, this is where some of the controversy lies…but can’t we say that Christian marriage is to pagan marriage as the Eucharist is to a communal meal, or as Penance is to confession to a psychiatrist? Marriage takes a common, non-sacred action—namely, the sealing of a contract between a man and a woman, promising fidelity to one another, etc., etc.—and transforms it into a sacred function, so that the original function is still there (it’s still a contract, with all those obligations) yet the rite is now different and is greater, because now God has become part of the marriage covenant, and his blessing has been bestowed upon it, and the marriage has become a reflection of the relationship of Christ and the Church.

On these criterion, Confirmation, Ordination, and Penance are easily “sacraments”; Marriage seems to be (with the ambiguities just mentioned), and Unction is a bit more difficult, in several respects (how does it restructure the community? for example).


1. Perhaps we can think of Unction like a mini-baptism. Or more accurately, like a metaphorical baptism. It heals a man and thereby brings him back to meet with God's people on Sunday. It restores fellowship and strengthens it as we all pray for our sick brother. And it's quite clearly a redemptive act (healing the sick is part of the redemptive narrative, right?). I think Unction fits in quite nicely with your definition.

2. You define sacraments as actions "...carried out by lawfully ordained ministers of the Church." I'm not sure this should be a strict part of the definition. Sure, *some* sacraments can only be carried out by ministers, but not all of them. What about baptism? Lay baptisms are valid. Certainly not preferable, but valid and sacramental just the same. Even Roman Catholics accept them (I just made a short blogpost about that, actually). Perhaps it'd be simpler to say, "a ritual enactment carried out by the Church."

3. I don't agree with your fourth "in which." You say a sacrament must "restructure in some way the relations within the whole community of believers"? Why? Why can't a sacrament just bless one individual at a time, and thereby bless the whole community of believers?

4. I think my definition of the word "sacrament" is wider than yours. But what's the difference? How is that any better or worse than folks who strictly teach only two sacraments? Every Presbyterian wedding I've attended has had a Minister of the Church presiding; what does it matter if they don't call it a sacrament? It works out the same anyway. Plenty of Baptist Ministers perform Unction, they just wouldn't call it a sacrament. So long as we have a sacramental view of the world, why does it matter how narrowly or broadly we define the noun "sacrament"? I enjoy this discussion--like I do any theological discussion--but I have difficulty seeing its applications. Practically speaking, I can see that it might influence what we incorporate into our worship service on Sunday, but that's about it. (Remember, this paragraph is a question.)

April 26, 2009 at 1:46 AM  

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