The Sacramental Universe

23 08 2014

082414_0157_TheSacramen1.pngEveryone eats. Not everyone gives thanks for the food consumed.

The Greek New Testament word for “giving thanks” is eucharisteo, which by the second century quickly became shorthand for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper itself– the Eucharist.

Perhaps one reason the Eucharist is such a low priority for many churches today is because giving thanks to our creator for all His good gifts is hard to come by in a time when many, in North America, are seemingly self-sufficient. We work to earn money to buy food. What did God have to do with it?

Simultaneously, the very presence of God in our daily lives is ignored or belittled. God has become, at best, a mysterious force quite removed from the morning commute and the paying of bills. Most now believe, in behavior if not in thought, that the commerce between heaven and earth dried up long, long ago– if it ever really existed in the first place.

For those who lift thankful hearts to the Lord for every good gift, however, the Eucharist is the culmination of a thank-filled week. The Lord’s Table and the sacramental food shared there bring life and meaning and understanding to everything else.

 

My own “mental furniture” is arranged within a home whose architecture has been largely influenced by the cosmology of a little book by Alexander Schmemann, entitled, For the Life of the World. What follows comes from the early pages of the first chapter. If we would think and live as Biblical Christians–disciples of Jesus the Messiah–the worldview espoused and described in what follows ought to inform our own presuppositions about God, the universe, and the human race.

 

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exits is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God know to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” . . .

 

And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or a “cultic” act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness– made all this “very good.” So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanct082414_0202_TheSacramen2.pngified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and–in this act of gratitude and adoration –to know, name and possess the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens,” “homo faber” . . . yes, but, first of all, “homo adorans.” The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God–and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

 

Men understand all this instinctively if not rationally. Centuries of secularization have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite–the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.” To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that “something more” is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.  

 

By “sacramental life”, Schmemann does not mean that everyone is secretly pining to attend church services that celebrate communion. Rather, human beings are innately desirous to have deep meaning and purpose even in and through mundane necessities like eating and drinking. To put it more plainly, we humans need to find connections to our Creator in and through his creation.

 

Andrew Peterson’s song, Don’t You Want to Thank Someone, is a great poetic expression of Schmemann’s philosophical framework:

 

Can’t you feel it in your bones

Something isn’t right here

Something that you’ve always known

But you don’t know why

 

‘Cause every time the sun goes down

We face another night here

Waiting for the world to spin around

Just to survive

 

But when you see the morning sun

Burning through a silver mist

Don’t you want to thank someone?

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

Don’t you ever wonder why

In spite of all that’s wrong here

There’s still so much that goes so right

And beauty abounds?

 

‘Cause sometimes when you walk outside

The air is full of song here

The thunder rolls and the baby sighs

And the rain comes down

 

And when you see that spring has come

And it warms you like a mother’s kiss

Don’t you want to thank someone?

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

I used to be a little boy

As golden as a sunrise

Breaking over Illinois

When the corn was tall

 

Yeah, but every little boy grows up

And he’s haunted by the heart that died

Longing for the world that was

Before the Fall

 

Oh, but then forgiveness comes

A grace that I cannot resist

And I just want to thank someone

I just want to thank someone for this

 

Now I can see the world is charged

It’s glimmering with promises

Written in a script of stars

Dripping from prophets’ lips

 

But still, my thirst is never slaked

I am hounded by a restlessness

Eaten by this endless ache

But still I will give thanks for this

 

‘Cause I can see it in the seas of wheat

I can feel it when the horses run

It’s howling in the snowy peaks

It’s blazing in the midnight sun

 

Just behind a veil of wind

A million angels waiting in the wings

A swirling storm of cherubim

Making ready for the Reckoning

 

Oh, how long, how long?

Oh, sing on, sing on

 

And when the world is new again

And the children of the King

Are ancient in their youth again

Maybe it’s a better thing

A better thing

 

To be more than merely innocent

But to be broken then redeemed by love

Maybe this old world is bent

But it’s waking up

And I’m waking up

 

‘Cause I can hear the voice of one

He’s crying in the wilderness

“Make ready for the Kingdom Come”

Don’t you want to thank someone for this?

 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Hallalujah! Hallelujah!

Come back soon

Come back soon

 

082414_0202_TheSacramen3.pngThis eschatological longing for the “Kingdom Come” makes all our thanksgivings here and now bitter-sweet. We have the joy of experiencing God’s love in and through all that He has made. But our hunger and thirst is not satisfied even by this. Indeed, much of the power of the Eucharistic celebration in the liturgy is its anticipation of the day when we will eat and drink with Jesus face-to-face. For only God can truly satisfy what all of our appetites are really after:

 

“Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”

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Things Are Not What They Seem

17 05 2014

 

Call me a hopeless romantic. I love fairy tales, super heroes, wizards, and knights with inhuman courage. And there seems to be a boy inside me always looking for the wardrobe– a portal to another reality that is somehow intertwined with the seemingly mundane one that I inhabit.

I remember, vaguely, when it all started. I was five, playing super heroes with my cousin. The liturgy for this is pretty standard. When your opponent displays a power that trumps your power, you “upgrade” to another, more powerful, hero. Superman trumps Batman, etc. At one point in our play-acting my cousin declared himself Superman. No one can beat Superman. Well, I couldn’t let it end there, so I put on my cape AND my cowboy boots and became. . . Super Cowboy! Who, conveniently, possessed the super-powers of ALL the super heroes combined.

I think we all, deep inside the child within each of us, hope and believe that the onion of reality can be peeled back until the ultimate– love, strength, courage, beauty, and skill is revealed– in us! In me, and in you.

Now, stay with me, there is some serious theology at play here (and “play” is the right word).

Fast-forward to when I turned 12 or 13. I learned that those with super powers were real: angels and demons. And we were all engaged in battle with and against them. And in youth group, I saw strong evidence of this hidden reality. And when I prayed I could see the battle between the Light of Christ and the Darkness of the Adversary. In the keen imagination that was still alive at that tender age, as God’s people prayed and praised, I could see heaven’s hidden doors crack open. And that crack was enough to flood our sanctuary with uncreated, all-pervasive light. I knew, simultaneously, I had been brought into something so, so much bigger than me, which also gave me a unique and irreplaceable part to play in the struggle to push back the Dark Lord and his minions.

Over the next few years that clarity faded– all too soon. Other things took precedence, like grades, girls, and getting my driver’s license. I became myopically focused on the visible world.

In college I was given the great gift of rational, empirical thinking. My faith was greatly bolstered and set in stone in my fertile, hungry intellect. But, unbeknown to me, my imagination, my heart, was sorely underfed and began to make some noise to regain my attention. I entered Seminary in the midst of a faith crisis– what was the point of church and prayer?! I already had all the knowledge that really mattered! Then I sat down in Don Boyd’s worship course and discovered a powerful mystery: the sacraments. As it turned out the angels had returned to my world (as if they had ever left!) as fellow worshippers who were present at every sacred gathering of believers. But, like the cheesy, bombastic infomercial, there was more–much more. Jesus himself was present, giving away his very self and life through silly little things like bits of bread and Welch’s grape juice. And as He gave, and we received, we became united to Him and to each other. The church was re-born at every communion service. The church: a sacred fellowship of warriors following their Captain into the fray for the pure joy and love of Him and His Kingdom. (For you Middle-earth geeks, it’s like the Guard of the Tower, Beregond, breaking man-made rules for the love of his captain, Faramir– whose life he rescues in the process).

Super-heroes, saints and angels, had re-entered my story, my imagination. And as I became a pastor this truth– that the supernatural is always impinging and penetrating our hermetically sealed (so we think!) natural order. Things are almost never what they seem! And, oh the mistakes I’ve made, and continue to make, because I do not take that aphorism seriously. And how I wish more Evangelicals, those intrepid inheritors of the late Middle-Ages AND the Enlightenment, would awaken from their slumber induced by naturalism and materialism! Far too many of us who believe the right things about Jesus and accept Him as Lord and Savior, have insisted that He leave His superpowers at the door as He enters the church! Miracles, angels, demons, transformed Bread and Wine– these are fairy tales and we are all grown up now with our exegetical tools, and church growth strategies. Only the emotional Pentecostals and archaic Catholics still follow such outmoded methods of doing ministry. We know better, however.

I grant that such sentiments (theologies?) are rarely expressed so directly. And most Evangelicals would vehemently deny being anti-supernatural. But our actions, the way we behave and the things we don’t do as Christians betray our true beliefs. Fortunately, the tide is turning. Younger Evangelicals are recapturing their imaginations, and the faith of the Apostles and Fathers.

Hans Boersma in his book, Heavenly Participation, labors to help Evangelicals reclaim the ancient faith and a truly Biblical imagination: A way of thinking, feeling and living where we see that there truly is an intricate and real connection with the heavenly, spiritual universe.

And I will have more to say about this soon…