The Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches: Mysterion (Sacrament)
Part III of a VII Part Series
“Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’”
We Protestants are a talky little bunch of beasts, aren’t we? Almost everything we do everywhere in the life of our church is talk; this is true in worship, in Sunday School, at coffee hour, and–most tediously–in committee meetings, some of which are longer than Lent. Sometimes we sing, but mostly we talk. Protestants live and die by the spoken and written word.
Right now, I am going to talk to you for 15 minutes straight. I’m not going to show you any pictures. You’re not going to get to ask any questions. You are going to keep your cell phones in your pockets and forget them. Something like this happens almost nowhere else in contemporary society. Protestants talk.
This is partly because the Protestant Reformation was born near the beginning of nearly universal literacy in Europe. Before Johannes Gutenberg unveiled his printing press around 1450, all books were copied laboriously by human hand. These books were beautiful, but they were also expensive; it might take a scribe a full year to copy a single book, which means that by today’s valuations, every book in Europe cost the equivalent of a year’s salary; let’s say $50,000. Without books you can’t learn to read, so most of Europe was illiterate.
Then Mr. Gutenberg comes along and shows us how to cut little wooden blocks of letters and slap them together in a wooden frame which could copy 42 lines of text at a time, and the world changed forever.
When you Google “history’s most important inventions,” various contraptions pop up on different lists, but a few inventions appear on nearly every list: the wheel, the nail, the internal combustion engine, the light bulb, penicillin, the pill, the computer, the internet, and of course the printing press.
So when Martin Luther comes along about 70 years after Gutenberg, Europe is beginning to learn how to read; not just students and scholars, but butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers as well. Dr. Luther has spent his adulthood contemplating what he thought of as the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church, and finally, on October 31, 1517, says, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and posts 95 bullet points on the door of the Church at Wittenberg, and these bullet points are immediately copied down into paper pamphlets, and within days, Europe is prolifically plastered with paper permutations of his provocative principles and proclamations, until they finally end up on Pope Leo’s desk at the Vatican, where he must have torn them up into a million pieces in disgust.
Dr. Luther spends years translating the Bible into German from the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, where, for centuries, that Great Book had lain dark, dormant, and distant from the dim denizens of Dublin, Dresden, and Dunkirk, and for the first time in a thousand years, people can read the Bible in their own native tongues, and millions of lives are changed and sanctified.
Ever since, Protestants have ridden the spoken and written word hard as if it were California Chrome. We have lived by it, and we might die by it. For better and for worse, we communicate our precious Gospel truth verbally and textually.
Think about what Church must have been like in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and Gutenberg, Luther, and literacy. The Roman Church thinks it has been entrusted with the most important truth in human history–the Glorious Good News of our Great God’s Glad Gospel–but the Church feels that it is stuck with Latin, which it thinks of as holy and God-given, so every word in Christian worship is in Latin, which nobody but the priest understands, and you can’t give them a Bible, which of course is printed in Latin, and they can’t read even their own languages anyway, so what do you do? You tell the Jesus Story with images and pictures and drama.
You fill your churches with icons and statues and crucifixes. The priest’s lavish vestments are more splendid than Charlize Theron’s gown on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. And in a cloud of dense smoke and a flash of glowing ember, the priest fills the soaring nave with incense, so that the congregation can smell and even taste the sweetness of the Lord.
They cover the walls of the nave with Bible stories–every stained glass window tells a discreet Bible story, and the cathedrals of medieval Europe become Translucent Bibles, and so those medieval Christians at church are sitting inside the Bible, and they see, not hear–the words are Latin and they don’t understand it–they see the story of salvation history. It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it? Sitting inside the Bible? Just like we are in this space?
And of course, most prominently, the Christian Church in a preliterate age doesn’t just tell the Gospel, and doesn’t just show the Gospel, it enacts the Gospel with its holy sacraments. With a handful of water streaming down a child’s face, we reenact Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan. With a scrap of bread and a mouthful of wine we recapitulate that simple meal in that Upper Room the night before he died.
Not everybody can read; not everybody can think like Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, but everybody can be washed by the cleansing waters of baptism and everybody can be nourished by the body and blood of the Lord.
That’s the way the Roman Catholic Church has always told the story, right? That when the priest raises the wafer high above his head and fractures it audibly in the hearing of the congregation, and pronounces those words Hoc est corpus meum–“This is my body”–the bread literally transforms–literally becomes–the body of our Lord. And then the priest raises the chalice and says Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei–“this is the chalice of my blood”–the wine literally transforms–literally becomes–the blood of Christ, and when the believer partakes, Christ becomes one with the Christian. It is the most extraordinary claim.Literally.
Here’s a fun if partly pointless aside. So, at the celebration of the mass, almost nobody in the congregation understands Latin, right? It’s all hocus pocus to them. The priest says, Hoc est corpus meum–“this is my body”. What does the congregation hear? Say it fast a couple of times: Hoc est corpus meum, Hoc est corpus meum, Hoc est corpus meum. What does the congregation hear? Hocus pocus. Some claim that’s where the phrase comes from. Hocus pocus. Because it is a magical, miraculous moment.
Protestants dropped that understanding of the Eucharist like a glowing hot rock of incense, and the sacraments receded from the Protestant imagination, almost from the beginning, in significance, and in practice. Riding a thundering wave of nearly universal literacy in Europe, the Protestant Reformation made sure that the word supplanted the image in Christian worship; the pulpit replaced the table as the most important piece of furniture in the Protestant chancel.
We no longer act out the Gospel; we tell the Gospel. We stopped filling the nave with the smoke of incense. Priests lost the splendid vestments and donned boring black Genevan gowns instead, worn elsewhere in society only by judges and academics. We cut the heads off the statues and took Jesus off the cross. And we talked. Two-hour sermons replaced the Eucharist as the zenith of divine worship; Jesus became one with the Christian not through the mouth but through the ear and the mind and the comprehension.
We talked and talked and talked–“yada, yada, yada, ba-blah, ba-blah, ba-blah.” We developed a bad case of logorrhea, which means “a tendency toward extreme loquacity,” and which rhymes, tellingly, with–well, I won’t tell you what it rhymes with.
Well, it wasn’t all bad. The Protestant Reformation changed millions of lives across vast swaths of Europe and even more spectacularly in North America. But I wonder what we’ve lost in neglecting the sacrament in favor of the spoken and written word.
St. Augustine, a Christian theologian in the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era from what is now Algeria, gave us a simple definition of ‘Sacrament’, and no one has improved on his definition in sixteen centuries. Augustine called a ‘Sacrament’ “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” He believed–we believe–that with and through these visible signs–water, bread, and wine; common, everyday staples of human existence–God reaches down with pure, unmerited, invisible grace to touch our pedestrian existence with holiness.
The English word ‘Sacrament’ comes from a Latin word which means ‘oath of allegiance’. When a soldier enlisted in the Roman Legions, he took a ‘Sacrament’ of loyalty to the Empire. A centurion would smear blood on the candidate’s breastplate, and by that ritual he became a Roman legionnaire; the Roman Christian Church quickly coopted that secular word ‘Sacrament’ to sacred meaning.
So you can see why I prefer the Greek word which lies behind the Latin word ‘Sacrament.’ When the Christian Church was still speaking Greek, the Lord’s Supper was called Mysterion, and you don’t need me to translate that for you. In the Greek-speaking Church, Baptism and Eucharist were ‘holy mysteries.’ A ‘mystery’ is something which partly reveals, but mostly conceals, the inscrutable grace that flows from it and above it and behind it and within it.
You can’t really talk about a mystery; it’s too unknowable; it’s too mysterious. You can’t really describe a mystery; it’s too unapproachable. You can only enact it; you can only touch it; you can only taste it. When we handle the grain and vine of the Lord’s Supper, we are touching holy mysteries. I hope you experience something like that when you come to this table.
At First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, I had a young colleague who was the most accomplished young pastor I ever knew till I met Jo and Katie; he went on to greater things ten years ago, but he is still one of my dearest friends. Greenwich was his first call; we ordained him to the Christian ministry. I don’t think he was yet 30 years old when he officiated at his first Lord’s Supper.
Well, you can see what’s coming. At his inaugural celebration of the Eucharist, something went wrong with the flagon holding the communion wine; you’ve heard of a Wardrobe Malfunction; well, this was a Flagon Malfunction. First the lid got stuck closed, and then it suddenly gaped wide open, and he spilled about ten ounces of wine all over the pristine white tablecloth draping the communion table; the burgundy blemish on the tablecloth crept slowly out to the edge of the table; you could see it from the last row of the balcony. And I remember to this day the look of abject horror on his face. The congregation first smiled, and then was crestfallen because it felt so sorry for him when they saw the look on his face. We didn’t care; we’re not Catholics; we’re Presbyterians, and Presbyterians know that it’s not literally the blood of Christ; it’s just Welch’s Grape Juice.
But the aspect of terror on my friend’s face that morning was so touching. There was something deep within him–something primordially Catholic maybe–that told him he was handling holy mysteries at that table. His ‘mistake’ taught us all something important about communion that morning. We loved him all the more for it.
Christians don’t agree about the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper, but we still celebrate it, and we’ve been doing it without interruption for two thousand years. We don’t agree on what it looks like. We don’t agree on what exactly happens when we gather there. We don’t agree on what it is that we actually eat and drink. We don’t agree on the proper table or altar we gather round. We don’t even agree on who precisely should gather round that table, but we all agree–two billion Christians around the world agree–that the sacrament is one of the Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches. It is a holy mystery, and integral to the shaping of our character. It is a visible sign of an invisible grace. Thanks be to God.