Musing on Sacraments and Saints

Here’s a thought I’ve been rolling around a bit recently: The higher your sacramental theology, the more necessary it becomes that you have a robust theology of the saints.

That is, if we understand Baptism as a true joining of the self into the reality of God through Jesus, then we must (or perhaps “should”?) take more seriously our mystical connection with our fellow baptized. If we understand Eucharist as the share of the one bread that joins us in the one Body (as 1 Cor speaks about it) then—again—our relation to the “communion of the Saints” is that much more important. In essence, we must posit a stronger eschatological bond between the members of the Body.

But, a thoughtful evangelical student pushed me on this when I mentioned it in a class discussion of the saints: does this mean that a sacramentally higher church has a “better” understanding of Christian community than a sacramentally lower church? Furthermore, does it necessarily have a better embodiment of Christian community?

My answer was that it is not necessarily better—it is just different. I think it can be said that a higher sacramental theology requires a less individualistic understanding of spirituality and salvation—but does it play out this way in reality? And in how we embody our theologies communally?

10 Replies to “Musing on Sacraments and Saints”

  1. Though I hold a moderate-to-high view of the sacraments, it was actually a reflection on Romans 8 that led me to my current place of teetering on belief in the saints. My belief and practice regarding came second in this development for me.

    If nothing, not even death, separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – a love best seen in his death on the cross and experienced sacramentally in the death and new life of baptism and the gift of his bodily presence in the eucharist – then we who are united in that love – thru baptism and the eucharist – are united thru Christ, and nothing can separate us. Through Christ I am connected to the saints, and it is thru the sacraments that I remain close to Christ.

    Of course, are we speaking of Church Triumphant or Church Expectant, or both? Capital ‘S’ Saints or lower case ‘s’ saints? Does a high view of the saints necessitate a high, Roman view on the Saints/Church Triumphant, or is it sufficient with a high view of the sacraments to believe in a Church Expectant that remains mystically united across time and space by the power of God’s love and practice of the sacraments as the body of Christ? I see and agree with your view on the “mystical connection with our fellow baptized” of all time, but I’m not sure this necessarily translates into a robust belief in the Church Triumphant, a Roman belief in interccesing Saints in heaven.

    Ever since my post on All Saints and All Souls, I’ve been exploring and wondering about eschatology. Your post is helpful as I continue to grow in this area. Thanks!

  2. Chris–I’d say on the Expectant/Triumphant question that it’d necessarily demand a higher view of the Church Expectant and could recommend a higher view of the Church Triumphant.

    I’d wonder about Romans 6, though—what is the nature of the resurrection life into which we’ve been baptized? I’d get more into the Church Triumphant that way…

  3. In my third paragraph there, I meant to write, “Does a high view of the sacraments (not saints) necessitate a high, Roman view on the Saints/Church Triumphant, or is it sufficient . . .”

    Sorry about the error!

  4. Having been raised in the old Anglo-Catholic Socialist tradition, I find that “community” just about aces everything else in ecclesiology — and it lies at the core of both sacramental theology and eschatology.

    Derek, I think you are exactly right: raise up the sacraments and one raises up the saints: the sacramental Presence is that of the resurrected and glorified Lord in the heavenly courts — and one can hardly avoid noticing the OTHER inhabitants of those courts!

    I cannot see how the Sacramental Body (confected by God through the Assembled Body) can do anything except point to the Mystical Body of the Church, and that simply cannot exclude any of the Estates of that Church.

    In a highly mystical sense, one can say that bonding in union with Christ in the Sacrament, means automatically bonding in union with all who are “in Christ” (since Christ doesn’t come in bits and pieces – see Aquinas).

    I wonder: might it also work in reverse? Discovering the saints leads one to discover the union with Christ in the Sacrament? Seems an odd spiritual itinerary, but may well be so — certainly many would witness that the encounter with a true saint in the Church Militant could indeed lead one to the Church and the Sacraments.

    Just thinking….

  5. Derek,

    What do you mean by “higher” in sacramental theology?

    I ask this because most Lutherans I know have a rather high understanding of the sacraments, sometimes higher than many Episcopalians, and yet, due in part to historical abuses (i.e., the laity were forbidden in places like English dioceses from receiving more than once a year by the time of Luther) which themselves arose originally from well-intended responses to Arianism that led to a deemphasis on Christ’s Mediatorial/High Priestly role, which in turn led to a greater emphasis on the intercession of saints, especially Mary, and Luther reacted (perhaps too strongly) in wanting to place Christ’s mediatorial role front and center. If we understand this in context, perhaps a sensitive recovery is possible that takes seriously Christology as central and through Christology itself we are bound to one another?

    The liturgy C and used for our commitment drew heavily on All Saints liturgical pieces in thinking about shape and Sacrament but ably bridged this in a way that the many Lutherans present, including a Lutheran professor of liturgy of rather strong Lutheran tendencies, were able to heartily join in perhaps because of the focus on our relationship to the saints in and through Christ’s making himself available to us in the Word and Sacrament? The adaptation of the litany away from intercession to availability of the saints with us through Christ in the Spirit by using “Bless the Lord” rather than “Pray for us” that culminated in the Sanctus, I’m told helped many discover a sense of the saints’ presence with us and availability (that Lutheran sense of Presence rather than emphasis on location)to us.

    On the flipside, a year out reflecting on the liturgy, it dawned on me that in using presanctified Sacrament carefully on display on the altar, the litury could be seen as a Benediction of sorts ;)

    All of that is to say, on the whole I agree with you, but then I’m partial to certain saints and appreciate their presence and prayers.

  6. When I started praying in front of icons I saw them mainly as esthetically pleasing pieces of religious art. Now, after a few years, I have this subtle but real sense of conversing with old friends. The Eastern tradition says that veneration (proskynesis) shown to an icon is mystically transferred to its prototype (the subject of the icon). Cf. John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite.

  7. I certainly see community as the key issue. The more one thinks it is just “me and my God” the less one feels a need for the sacraments and the saints (both here below and there above). I think the catholic tradition points us towards finding God in and through others who bear God’s likeness external to ourselves, even while, in the manner of Julian, finding God within us each and each and all of us within God.

  8. I know this is long, but I think it is relevant — it locates grace/goodness in God not in the Saints themselves — but it doesn’t exclude our relationship with the Saints.

    (from Julian of Norwich: Revelations):

    “And in the same way, all the help that we have from special saints and all the blessed company of heaven—the dearworthy love and endless friendship that we have from them—it is from His goodness.

    “For God of His goodness has ordained intermediaries to help us, all fair and many, of which the chief and principal intermediary is the blessed Human Nature that He took from the Maid, with all the intermediaries that go before and come after which are part of our redemption and our endless salvation.

    “Wherefore it pleases Him that we seek Him and worship Him by intermediaries, understanding and recognizing that He is the goodness of all.

    “For the goodness of God is the highest prayer and it comes down to the lowest part of our need. It vitalizes our soul and brings it to life and makes it grow in grace and virtue. It is nearest us in nature and readiest in grace (for it is the same grace that the soul seeks and ever shall, till we know our God truly who has us all in Himself enclosed).”

  9. Derek,

    I do hope that you see this. I have been debating (and mistakingly) the theology of baptism. Or rather, outside of the basic theology, I am completely ignorant and out of my league. I know your preference and I do understand it. But in short, what do you say would be the theology of higher sacramental theology? I mean, there would be two theologies pertaining to baptism, would there not? The terms applied in the rubrics in the BCP indicate, to me, that higher sacramental practice is a preference–something to be encouraged (which I do agree with). I guess what the problem is, is what is the stance of the church in the rare cases of private baptism? What would be the theology of this?

Comments are closed.