Last week we read in the Gospel that the ‘work’ that God wants us to do is to believe in Jesus. So then at our Gospel Reflection Group last Tuesday, we got onto the subject of the relationship between Sacraments and belief. Here is the problem. If you go along with the 1662 book’s idea that a sacrament is an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ then you could ask ‘So why does one need the ‘outward and visible.’ If the true thing is inward and spiritual, why not do what the Quakers do and just say so, and so dispense with sacraments all together? If we are asked to ‘believe’ then there is no obvious pathway that leads us from ‘believing in Jesus’ to being baptized and celebrating the Eucharist.
It is possible to make an argument that goes ‘Well, God in Christ is present in Church as the bread and wine actually change into his Body and Blood. Who would not want to believe in Christ in this way?’ Most people I talk to don’t think this. I think that there has to be a better account of why sacraments are absolutely necessary. Let me have a go with some stories.
When my beloved Border Collie, Suzie, was still alive she would have to be brushed from time to time. This involved, first of all, a bath, which she tolerated. Then it meant gong outside with the ‘rake’ and as gently as possible combing out all the under-hair. From time to time it would hurt. She would turn around and try to bight me. This was not an angry bight, but something that said ‘This hurts, stop.’ But I used to say ‘No dog, you have to have this! It will be over soon, but you have to have it.’
I know a similar story about riding. Some friends of mine follow a system of riding which involves a lot of handling of the horses. Before going riding, one does not just put on the gear and then get on. There is another step. This involves patting the horse all over (and I mean all over) with one’s hand. All of a horses body is touched by the rider.
Here is what I think. Both actions are kinds of sacraments, because the relationship that I have with the horse and my dog involve being physically present. ‘The relationship’ can be replaced by words like ‘the connection between’ or ‘the communion’. I participate in the life of my dog, and she in me because she allows me not only to talk to her, but to handle her body. She participates in me because she allows herself to be handled. So the relationship between me and Suzie is one that of necessity involves physicality to give it expression.
So now I come to this idea. The main category to describe our relationship with God is not ‘belief’ but ‘indwelling’ (Participation). Believing is a secondary category to indwelling. Then we start to get somewhere. In John’s Gospel, we have all those images of vine and branches. Jesus asks us not to ‘believe in the vine’ but to ‘dwell’ in the vine or ‘remain in’ the vine. He goes on to say that he and the Father ‘dwell in’ each other. And at the last supper in John, the sacrament of sharing bread and wine is replaced by the sacrament of washing the feet. But Jesus says to Peter ‘If you do not let me wash you, you can have no part in me’. Now the words ‘having no part in me’ send the message that what is required is that we ‘are in Christ’ we participate in Him. And the way of participation has to do not just with our minds, but with our whole being: this includes our bodies.
This is the first reason that I think that the presence of God to us necessarily involves things physical. It is because without ‘the physicality of sacraments’ there is no ‘whole person’ participation in the life of God. Human beings are not just embodied souls who only need to ‘believe’. Instead, we are whole people who find ourselves participating in the very life of God, in Christ.
This is the purpose of the incarnation. God comes to us as ‘a self’. When the first disciples encountered Jesus they did not encounter ‘an idea’ that their souls could grasp, but encountered a live human being whose whole being commanded their attention and respect. More, in an incomplete way they began to see that it was ‘God for us’ whom they were encountering in Christ. They failed often, but after Easter, this became clear.
But then the encounter with ‘God-coming-to-us-in Christ’ after Easter is as much a physical participation in Him as before Easter. That is why we need sacraments. Baptism, as the primary sacrament makes this clear. We are ‘plunged’ into Christ. This plunging has to be physical because the reality of Christ comes to ‘us’ not just ‘us as mind or soul.’ The main category is ‘participation in’ not ‘belief.’
There is a great proverb that I have heard that captures this idea of participation very well. It says ‘The incarnation is not just an advertising campaign for a good idea.’ We can’t get away from participation in Christ and substitute it for something ‘inward and spiritual.’ Christ is continually ‘made flesh’ so that we can continually participate in him with all that we are.
But there is more. I am indebted to James Alison for saying this first. The Gospel is not in the first instance a doctrine, but a liturgy. A doctrine is something we have to believe. But a liturgy is something we have to participate in. More, I want to say that just as my Suzie had to ‘undergo’ the combing out of her coat, so as we enter into the liturgy, we ;’under go’ the ‘coming of God’ to us. The liturgy (Baptism/Eucharist) is not something where we are active, but something where we experience the God who comes to us. This is new for me. I used to say ‘The liturgy is not something that the people up the front put on for the people in the pews, it is something that we all do for God. But now I think it is better to say ‘The Eucharist is not something we put on for God, but something God puts on for us! We are invited to God’s table. We ‘undergo’ God’s presence in the Eucharist. This is why I like the image of the luge or bob sled run in the winter Olympics. The walls of ice that make up the rrun are the strong walls of the Eucharist. As we ‘get a run up’ at it, by preparing, and bringing our whole selves, attentively to this liturgy, we experience the ‘encounter with God-in-Christ’ as the liturgy runs. The more we try to steer, the slower we go. The idea is to ‘get out of the way’ and let God come to us. The luge run, like the Eucharist and the brushing of Suzie is something that has to be undergone.
This is why I think that the annunciation keeps pride of place in the life of the Church. It represents exactly what I mean. Mary encounter God. He indwells her body. She replies ‘Let it be done to me according to your Word’. That is why we need sacraments.