Sacrament and Sacraments
From its very beginning thirteen billion years ago, the raw material of the world was already permeated and filled with God’s subtle but powerful presence. There never was a time or space in the history of evolution when God was absent from this planet. In the person of Christ this tremendous love-story has been finally revealed. A new consciousness has enfolded the world. The human is now the home of the divine. The redemption has happened. What was begun in creation is finalised in the incarnation. The Son is the completion of the Father’s initiative. In Jesus we recognise the salvation that is already throbbing within us. It is divine power that energises our daily lives, that finds the summer of God’s grace in the winters we must live through. The whole world is perceived as sacrament. This way of seeing things is called the sacramental vision. And it is this vision of the deepest reality that we celebrate in the sacraments. Without the wider sacramental vision, the sacraments themselves would lose their true meaning and become dead ritual. Given the relentless reality of our fallen nature, this possibility is always uncomfortably close.
Because, like the disciples in the Emmaus story, we tend to forget. The heavy clouds of original sin forever obscure the clarity of the divine presence all around us. It is in the fog of this blindness that we sin. We ‘miss the mark’, as Scripture puts it, because we cannot see clearly anymore. We miss the mystery too. Our act of seeing stops at first appearances. Sin has no imagination. No longer is the smallest particle of creation a theophany of grace. No longer is every moment a revelation of eternity, of ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’. Sin is blind. It is blind to beauty. It fears the light of openness. It cannot bless or celebrate or be passionate about anything. It chooses to live in illusion and isolation. As Aquinas believed, sin is a ‘defect in goodness’; it happens through a loss – the loss of the sacramental vision.
In a striking paragraph, Fr Sean Fagan, Irish theologian and author, combines elements of the sacramental vision and sacramental celebration. The latter becomes more meaningful, he writes, ‘when it is seen as a high-point, a peak moment, a special occasion in a life that is already sacramental in its own right. The sacraments are of a piece with the rest of life and reality, not eruptions from a different world. In this sense it is more helpful to approach them from the context of life as a whole. They are moments of insight, bringing home to us, each in its own way, the deeper meaning of our life and destiny. The sacraments declare forth what is otherwise hidden in the darkness of the world, in the routine of everyday. They bring into focus and draw our attention to what we tend to ignore and lose sight of, when we are busy about many things.’
If we did but know it, we would be hard put to avoid the experience of God. It is practically inescapable. We cannot help coming into the embrace of the divine presence in all our experiences. ‘We do not sometimes have experiences of love, fear, ourselves, or anything else and then have experiences of God as well. The basic, original experience of God, on the contrary, is the ultimate depth and radical essence of every personal experience. . . .
Without this understanding it is difficult, too, to experience the true meaning of liturgical celebration. If we cannot see God in the ordinary events of life, Rahner holds, then we cannot expect to suddenly experience God when we gather to worship. To the extent that we have a heightened awareness of the absolute mystery in all the joys and sufferings of life, will we have little trouble in finding God at the moment of the sacraments. The sacraments of the church make explicit what is implicit in the sacrament of the world. ‘That which is lived out in an everyday manner outside the sacraments,’ Schillebeeckx writes, ‘grows to its full maturity in them. The anonymity of everyday Christian living is removed by the telling power of Christ’s symbolic action in and through his Church.’ He is convinced that we all carry a child-mystic within us; that mysticism, in it real meaning, is not as remote as we often assume; that Christians must become mystics who are attuned to the mysterious light that shines behind all that happens . . .
‘Make ready for Christ,’ shouts Thomas Merton, ‘whose smile, like lightning, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite.’ This process begins and ends at the heart of life.
(Begin with the Heart pp 82- 84)