This Sunday morning’s sermon from the OT reading in the lectionary (Proper 24) was on that text in Jeremiah which included the promise of the New Covenant, and one of the points describing it was that all would know God. As I was pondering Sacramentology that morning, too, this verse met with that subject, and I realized an underlying point: God, as an infinite being, and as the Creator of all things, is ontologically distinct from all creation. We bear his image or imprint and our souls are stamped with an impression of his existence, but it is impossible for us to relate to him at all.
Anything that could possibly connect us to him is nothing short of a miracle, because everything we perceive and sense is created matter; God has to use created matter to communicate the unknowable infinity that is himself. As Colossians 1 eloquently declares, Jesus is the true and perfect image (or icon) of the invisible God (hence the title of this post). He is the full disclosure of who God is, and in a manner that we can completely understand and relate to – a fellow human being. But because Jesus isn’t around anymore, in the way he was 2,000 years ago, we have to rely upon secondary routes to get to know God. This isn’t a complete reversion to the OT situation, though, because now we can look back upon historical memory as well as God-ordained activity.
The fancy word for something that conveys unknowable or invisible truth of God is a sacrament. Jesus was the perfect Sacrament himself, but he ordained two in particular to connect us to key parts of his identity and ministry. Baptism was given to link us to him, which may or may not include Confirmation or Chrismation – the conveyance of the Holy Spirit – and Communion was given to link us to his ministry of his sacrifice by sharing in his liturgy of sprinkling his blood in the True Holy of Holies, until he returns to claim and judge his world.
But there are countless other sacramental acts and ceremonies. One major one is prayer, but that is best broken up into more meaningful categories. Prayers of confession can help us get ourselves in the right place before God, especially with assurance of pardon or words of absolution from an elder/πρεσβυτερος. Prayers for healing, especially anointing with oil, are another way of seeing God’s work in action and receiving his touch. Other intercessions, too, can reveal God’s heart for others, and call him into action, in a way. Marriage and Ordination, too, are opportunities to see God at work making impossible things happen, like making two people one, or making an ordinary person into a clergyman.
A note on clergymen before I proceed. Clergymen, especially priests/elders/πρεσβυτεροι are still sheep in God’s flock; they’re not so much as undershepherds as they are special sheep. They don’t represent God to the laity, or even the laity to God – Christ is the only mediator in between. Rather, priests are representatives of the Church, which is not the the people or God, but both. Priests are thus supposed to be examples of harmony between God and his people, and must act in accordance with the will of God in and for his Church. Therefore, when a priest prays, it is as if the whole Church has prayed.
Back to the sacraments, though, because the impossible is happening involving created matter, some things have to be “done right.” This is not to say that there’s a magic or science to revealing God or appropriating something from him, but there must be parameters for approaching the subject. For instance, prayer must be in the Holy Spirit. We cannot simply demand according to our personal desires, but we must pray according to God’s will, or he won’t honor it. With Baptism, Jesus ordained it be done in God’s Triune Name. We mightn’t even know why, beyond recognizing that the fullness of God is to be invoked and received. With Communion, Jesus used bread and wine, to appropriate certain imagery and symbolism found not only elsewhere in the Bible, but also in regular life. With Confession, a truly contrite heart is needed, as many Psalms suggest. And the practice of penance helps us to prove this: if we are willing to pay for our confessed wrongdoings, then we will accept the penances given to us. Music and preaching and reading the Bible are also sacramental opportunities. They’re lesser sacraments on the scale in the sense that they aren’t very objective in what they convey (necessarily), and they’re less guaranteed to have an effect, but many people do find spiritual benefit from them.
One tricky issue, though, is the question of restricting who can perform sacraments (as the earthly presider; obviously God is the real worker in sacraments, as in all miracles). We are told in the Bible that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. We’re told that elders should anoint the sick with oil. We see only Jesus and Apostles leading Communion, and (presumably) anyone baptizing, but again only the Apostles laying hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit if it didn’t happen at their baptism. Ordination, too, was done by the Apostles and other ordained by them. No hints about marriage, though – that seems to be a self-administerable sacrament. Finally, the Apostles, specifically, are given the right to forgive people of their sins in the name of Jesus, giving a special edge to sacramental Confessions. The ways these are parsed out in the Church today match these patterns quite closely, with little additional clarification. As for “lesser” sacramental acts such as healing, intercession, music, preaching, and evangelizing, these are best-wielded by those with those spiritual gifts, although some things (like anointing for healing and preaching) ought to be done by some people by virtue of their office, such as priests (and deacons, depending on their localized use and need).
This is just a basic overview of how I approach sacramental theology. It is important to note that many of the Early Christian Fathers wrote about the Sacrament of Communion as if it were a part of their theology of the incarnation – heretics who denied the humanity of Christ did so by refusing to believe the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements! I have tried, in keeping with this early approach, to keep my Sacramentology firmly grounded in Christology. Hopefully it makes sense so far.