Monday, June 14, 2010

Beyond sacrament

The comments on last week’s blog lead me to the university library next door and one of my favorite books, The Oxford English Dictionary. The article on “sacrament” gave three root meanings of this word that has wiggled its way through Latin and French into the English language: 1) oath; 2) something holy, dedicated, set apart; and 3) mystery (this latter being the 3rd century translation of the Greek mysterium, mirrored in the Eastern Orthodox view of the sacraments). In reference to ecclesiology across denominations, the word has become “the common name for certain solemn ceremonies of the Christian church…belonging to the institutions of the Christian church.”

I even found a reference to the controversy between the words “sacrament” and “ordinance”: “By some of the English Puritans and Nonconformists, the word was avoided as being associated with opinions regarded by them as superstitious; the usual term applied by them to baptism and the Lord’s Supper was ordinance.”

The OED gives the wider connotation of the word as “something likened to the recognized sacraments, as having a sacred character or function; a sacred seal set upon some part of a man’s life”, “a sign of grace.” As an example of usage (I love how the OED does this!) the Book of Common Prayer is cited (1604):

“Q: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
“A: I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us.”

In the same vein, the OED cites W.R. Inge (1899): “To the true mystic, life itself is a sacrament,” along with a reference to a 1921 English translation of De Caussades’ classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence and its concept “the sacrament of the present moment.” We Quakers would add a reference to Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion and our testimony to the sacramentality of life.

But as meaningful as these definitions are, they still don’t address the issue of Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me,” as pointed out by my conversation partners last week. While embracing the Quaker perspective, I struggle with this aspect. And I love it when I visit other faith communities and can participate in the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, afterwards I always think how nice it would have been to have followed up the experience with some gathered silence.

It’s usually in the waiting, receptive stillness that I best hear the voice of Jesus. That’s where communion with the crucified and risen Lord happens. And that’s what this is really all about.

1 comment:

  1. Monks win hands down over dictionaries.