A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”
Then he goes on to say:
“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”
Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.
What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”
I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?
Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.
Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.
What are sacraments?
Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)
Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.
Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:
And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)
Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.
It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.
Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)
With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.
Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.
The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)
Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:21-23 NIV)
The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.
Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.
The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?
Was it symbolic?
Was it necessary for our salvation?
Perhaps both and more.
But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.
Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?
Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.
To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?
In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9 NIV)
There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:
Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10-14 NIV)
Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.
So what about the New Testament?
This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20-22 NIV)
Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11-12 NIV)
Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?
Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?
We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.
A church without sacraments is not a church.
The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.
One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.
If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.
Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?
Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?
Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.
The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.
In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.