Dom Aidan Kavanagh on sacramental discourse

From On Liturgical Theology:

It would be foolish not to recognize that placing sacramental discourse prior to, above, and in a role which subordinates theology in the modern academic sense is a difficult if not incomprehensible move for many people. We generally think of the two sorts of discourse the other way around, theology coming first and sacramental discourse very much later as a possibly implied excursus off the former. Sacramental discourse in fact is often thought of as theological adiaphora best practiced by those with a taste for banners, ceremonial, and arts and crafts. It is regarded as an academically less than disciplined swamp in which Anglican high churchmen, Orthodox bishops, and many if not all Roman Catholics and others are hopelessly mired. …

The relationship of embroidery to the driving of a diesel locomotive seems easier to demonstrate than the connection between stoles and proclaiming the Gospel. Something here seems to have been enthusiastically trivialized. Incongruities are joined, reality warped, meaning maimed. Artifact becomes plaything, sacramentum a rubber duck.

Human language about worldly matters such as reality, life and death, City and Church, always goes “sacramental” when it gets beneath mere surface appearances. Scientists start talking about charmed quarks; Christians start talking about tombs and wombs. While the City may often seem little more than a cluster of stores and alleys, it is more than this because people live and work there, and their corporate aspirations image the City as exalted, timeless, with streets of gold and walls of precious stones, a heavenly Jerusalem. While the Church may often seem little more than an institution like all others, it has from the beginning been deemed more than that because its members are graced people. St. Paul called it a Body, a mysterious entity to which only the intimate metaphor of marriage between man and woman, that primordial human society, gives access.

In the case of City and Church, the need to image in order to know gives rise to special sorts of discourse which are more necessary than optional. The discourse thickens with meaning found in reality and then increments that meaning with style. People do this sort of thing when statements of mere fact fail due to the complexity of what the statement needs to express. It is not poetry to report that I love someone. It is poetry to say “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” Meaning is being thickened and is about to be incremented with style. Again, it is not poetry to report that one stopped for the evening. But it is poetry to report that:

“My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.”

Another poet stops differently:

“I have percieved that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough.
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breating
laughing flesh is enough.”

One cannot imagine Walt Whitman stopping by cold woods or Robert Frost frolicking amid laughing flesh. Each has in his own way thickened the meaning he found in the reality of stopping at day’s end and then incremented that meaning with such exquisite style that everyone else is stunned by the reality being revealed with sharp precision, seduced into transacting more deeply with the real. Thickening meaning and then incrementing that meaning with style is no easy task, and it does not happen by accident. It is a knowledgeable accomplishment of the highest order, moreso even that what goes on in laboratories, banks, and institutions of what is called higher learning. Writing a sonnet is at least as hard as figuring compound interest or teaching a course, which is why so few even attempt it.

Sacramental discourse is the same sort of enterprise. It is not mere garnish to a dull dish of Gospel. Sacrament is to Gospel what style is to meaning. Christian Gospel is, like reality itself, larger than any of its sacramental increments, just as redemption is larger than any one of Jesus’ own parables about it. But these increments render Gospel operational, effective, gripping, accessible. They thicken Gospel meaning and increment it with style, throwing it open for those to whom it is addressed, saying that it is like a prodigal son come home, a dinner among friends, a swim in the surf.

The Good news, which is what Gospel means, of God’s will to commune with a world reconciled to him, even to the point of pouring out his only Son into the strictures of space and time and alienated human malevolence, can never be left as a mere prosaic statement of fact anymore than Frost and Whitman could have left it at saying only that they stopped for the night. Sacramental discourse will bespeak Gospel in ways that embrace and articulate not just words but the whole worldly context in which such a pouring out occurs. It must do this because the Gospel which sacramentum images and gives access to is just this all-encompassing. This is why sacramental discourse is primary for understanding the Church, why it transcends and subordinates theological reflection on the Church just as the law of worship transcends and subordinates the law of belief. One cannot know the Church without having access to its paradoxical and inversionary nature, a nature no less paradoxical and inversionary than the fact of a Creator becoming creature, the Source of all becoming the child of an unmarried mother, the impassible submitting to suffering and death. And to not know the Church catholic is not to know the One who has called it into so odd an existence.

There is nothing novel in any of this. It suffuses the various theologies of the patristic period, where it is found focused in and arising from christological concerns addressed in the first several ecumenical councils. These councils were not absorbed with maintaining a Christian platonism but a biblical incarnationalism. The sacramental principle derives from holding that God did in fact become a male of the human species in time and space by the agency of a female of the same species. This makes it inevitable that discourse about the no less human community of believers in him must also unroll in sacramental terms as well.

Christian orthodoxy has rarely if ever talked about or acted in terms as exquisitely neat as Richard Niebuhr’s Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, and Christ transformer of culture. The tradition has talked and acted more in terms of a God-Man who infests human culture as inmate of it. Only thus could he be transcender, critic, and exorcist of it. He does not transform culture as such. He recreates the World not by making new things but by making all things new. He does this by divine power working upon all that is through the agency of a human nature he holds in solidarity with us. He summons all into a restored communion with his Father, not in spite of matter but through matter, even spit and dirt, thereby clarifying the true meaning of the material world itself. He summons all to his Father in time, thereby renewing both time and its spatial functions. Apart from this renewal, which is also revelation, we are left as we were — aliens in creation and congenitally alone.

The tradition has never seen the Church as having any purpose or work different from Christ’s own. The Church’s concerns have always been with the Gospel translated into act, matter, time, and space, with the various cultures the Church has touched being renovated as an inevitable result not directly striven for. Not only is there little conscious reflection on culture as such in the pre-Renaissance Church, but there is surprisingly little ex professo writing about the Church itself as distinct from World and City. Thomas Aquinas, certainly one of the greatest theologians of the Church East or West, wrote no self-contained tract on ecclesiology. Rather, what he does say about the Church is almost wholly contained in the third part of his Summa Theologiae, which is about the sacraments. It is as though until the modern era, the Church was considered simply as the city center of a restored World, occupied with doing the business of God by faith in Christ. It is now necessary to illustrate what this means in practice.


Church Doing World

That a major theologian such as Thomas Aquinas apparently saw no reason to write a self-contained treatise on the Church, but allowed his ecclesiology to arise from a rigorous discourse on the sacraments, contains many lessons. One of them seems to be that taking some things too seriously can result in not taking them seriously enough.

There is, for example, a way of taking World so seriously that it is trivialized. People are bombarded today with the presumption that the worldly worth of human existence is determined by the degree to which the organism is biologically fine-tuned, and that when the fine-tuning goes out of kilter life in the World becomes less than worthwhile. The right to a biologically fine-tuned human existence may then become an absolute right to good health, an entitlement over which even the common good cannot prevail. The common good, in fact, may be reduced to the level of being servant to the individual’s fine-tuned life. Fred’s glands set state policy. This is to take the World so seriously that it becomes, paradoxically, an expensive triviality.

Against such a background, Christianity takes World rather lightly. For if here we have no abiding City, why should we be concerned with cities and the human groups — male and female, slave and master, Jew and Greek, black and white — which inhabit them?

Plundering the community’s wealth to pay for fine-tuning the lives of members of such groups seems a massive waste of capital if they must finally die anyhow. Better to put the wealth to more lasting use, into Parthenons and cathedrals whose beauty will nourish milions for centuries rather than into adjusting Fred’s glands. Having them adjusted at vast public expense, Fred would nourish few if any, and for relatively no time at all. While it sounds outrageous to say so, Christianity has traditionally been reserved about getting involved with Fred’s glands because it does not find them to abide, nor does it find them to be of ultimate significance to many others besides Fred himself. Christianity’s sights, it seems, track larger game, and about that larger game Christianity gets very serious indeed.

Similarly with the Church. Ancient theologians are remarkably silent about Church in our modern terms, which is not to say that they do not mention it or concern themselves with it. But their mention of it and their concern with it lie more in the direction of seeing the Church as a function of faith rather than faith as a possible function of a problematic institution. They were more interested and concerned to maintain the churches’ peace and faith than in intricate speculation on what the Church might be. The scriptures and tradition had settled that all long since. Augustine, not atypically for theologians of his time of great civil upset and pastoral difficulties, was too preoccupied with being bishop of the church of Hippo to have much time for spinning out ecclesiologies. He did have a towering theology of faith, however, to which his notion of the Church catholic as as a communion of churches was subordinated. One can glimpse this in a sermon he preached on Psalm 44:13-14, “The Queen is arrayed in her chamber in robes gold-woven.” He said in part: “The apostles preached the word of truth and begot churches not for themselves but for Christ. Behold Rome, behold Carthage, behold all those other cities which became daughters of the king, who delighted in them for his own honor’s sake. And all these churches together constitute one Queen Consort of the King … one Faith.” This most western of church fathers seems to imagine the great churches of his day as a harem of concubines provided by their apostolic progenitors, like lesser sheiks, for the delight of their lord and master, Christ, the sheik of sheiks.

The point I wish to make is that earlier theologians did not ignore the Church any more than healthy people ignore health. But earlier theologians, it seems, did not speak of the Church as we often do today, like hypochondriacs speak of health as an absorbing problem or an absence in their lives. Earlier theologians presume the Church, allude to it, are concerned with it. But their presumptions, allusions, and concern do not suggest pathology or warped obsession so much as the normal taking-for-granted a fish has for water. They could not have imagined, I think, that Christian faith could be lived in any way other than socially, communally, ecclesially, with one foot deep in the scriptures and the other deep in apostolic teaching (didaskalia) and fellowship (koinonia). They understood the Church to be a holistic enterprise whose faith criscrossed and interacted with every human experience and institution, rather than a jumble of analytical categories separable from each other and capable of being exploited independently. It seems that they thought it far more important to be Church than to talk a lot about it. In this their approach to the Church exhibits a sort of ruddy good health when compared to our more complex ways of approaching the Church, ways which often seem palsied, nervously abstract, skittish at being too definite, overloaded with disjunctive grammar which freezes the Church in past (bad) or future (good) tenses, and phobic lest it act in a way which might suggest that it savors a triumph at the very heart of its own self-awareness. Our wary approach produces a tentative and propositional shadow of what the Church might be like were it to exist, a vastly qualified committee or therapy group bent to the needs of its members and awash in talk about the vague possibility of doing good somewhere at some time for someone. Such a Church is a far cry from Ignatius of Antioch’s declaration that wherever the bishop is, there is the Church Catholic. Ignatius, being on his way to martyrdom in Rome, had little time to fool around.

It seems that we begin by taking the Church too seriously and end by not taking it seriously enough. In view of this, it may help to realize that in order to learn how earlier Christians really understood Church as well as World, we cannot look only at polemical works, conciliar definitions, or later tractates de ecclesia. One might look first of all at the sacramental discourse of articulated enactments by which earlier Christians corporately set about doing the World in the presence of the World’s Creator. This is strange territory for us moderns since it will amount to an examination not only of words but of events as well, events which incorporate words without being reduced to them. These events are those of liturgical worship, which punctuates Christian communal life with regular frequency from earliest times. Perhaps from such an examination a holistic ecclesiology may emerge, at least in an outline accessible to modern minds.

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