“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time. Generally speaking, Protestants have two official sacraments (the Lord’s Supper, Baptism) and Roman Catholics have these two plus five others (Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony). In other words, at such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life. Needless to say, church isn’t the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody. Watching something get born. Making love. A high-school graduation. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger. If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

– Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

“Official sacraments” versus “sacramental moments,” “church” versus “life itself” – Buechner has well encapsulated one of the difficulties I have seen in modern Christianity and particularly Reformed Christianity: “If we weren’t blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.” Yet we seem to be blind as bats. Is that blindness just our human condition? Has it always been this way? Is there anything we can do to see through to that which is “deep inside time” more clearly?

A sacramental people

The Old Testament stories are records of transparent time, where the sacred becomes known in the ordinary.

It seems to me that the Hebrew people of the Old Testament had Buechner’s sense of the sacramentality of life. If they didn’t have it in their minds and hearts on a daily basis, at least they had it in their ritual and their literature. The Old Testament stories are, in fact, records of transparent time, where the sacred becomes known in the ordinary. Rivers and seas part to save and sanctify, dew becomes daily bread, rocks become witnesses of what has been vowed, a donkey talks because its rider refuses to listen to other clues. But it isn’t just “miracles” where the sacred breaks through into the profane. What we might call the everyday events of life, the experiences of the “natural laws,” were the activities of God – holy happenings. A child being born was proof of the activity of God.

Day unto day, the heavens were heard to be speaking God’s praise. The harvest was celebrated as God’s activity on the behalf of the earth. Rain was the goodness of God pouring down. They seemed to see that “all the world is one great sacramental loaf,” as Virginia Stem Owens put it (And the Trees Clap Their Hands: Faith, Perception, and the New Physics).

John Calvin says that “the term sacrament … embraces generally all those signs which God has ever enjoined upon men to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises” (Institutes of the Christian Religion).

Calvin acknowledged that in the Old Testament those signs were many. He includes in Old Testament sacraments the following things: the tree of life in the garden of Eden, Noah’s rainbow, Abraham’s smoking fire pot, Gideon’s watered fleece, Hezekiah’s shadow of the sundial, circumcision and sacrifices. But he goes on to say, for those Old Testament sacraments that were natural things (the tree of life and the rainbow), “When they were inscribed by God’s Word, a new form was put upon them, so that they began to be what they previously were not.”

There is a dualism at work here which denigrates the natural, physical items, assuming that they do not, without special activity on God’s part, convey God’s goodness. This dualism can be seen in a number of other places: God, Calvin says, “feeds our bodies through bread and other foods, he illumines the world through the sun, and he warms it through heat; yet neither bread, nor sun, nor fire is anything save in so far as he distributes his blessings to us through these instruments.”

This seems to assume that the world is profane unless it is especially imbued by God with sacred power. I think that the sacramental imagination calls us to see things the other way around – that all created things are sacred and thus communicating God’s essential character, unless some activity profanes a thing, turning it into that which it was not created for, thus hiding the natural light and turning the thing into a dark thing. In his wonderful book The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade says, “For those who have a religious experience, all nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can be become hierophany [the manifestation of the sacred].”

The influence of Calvin’s Platonism

Calvin’s tendency to see things the other way around stems from a Platonic view of the world as divided into two realms: the base, physical realm, which ultimately has little or no true meaning, and the exalted, spiritual realm, where all ultimate meaning is found. This dualism definitely distorts Calvin’s view of the sacraments, as seen in the following quote: “Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal (as Chrysostom says), he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls engrafted in bodies, he imparts spiritual blessings under visible ones.”

We have souls (the true part of us) engrafted in bodies (that necessary evil, the flesh)? Taking this view, how can one enjoy sensual, bodily pleasure and find it godly? How can one find in much of life – the physical, earthly part – an experience of the sacred? Is the physical part of our earthly existence consigned to meaninglessness, to the profane experience of the absence of God’s goodness?

Owens, on the other hand, suggests that all of our life is meant to be an experience of the sacred: “Either the world is holy or it’s not. Either the creator’s work is a sign of himself or it’s a sham. Where else can one draw the line between sacred and profane except around all the cosmos? For ‘profane’ meant, originally, outside the temple, and all creation was, in the beginning, a temple for God’s ‘very good.’ Whenever we eat. drink, breathe, see, take anything in by any means, we are commanded to remember the sacrifice.”

Against that, Calvin speaks of the “antithesis between eating sacramentally and [eating] in reality.” The Platonic dualism in Calvin affects the sacramental imagination by holding the spoken, rational word as more important than the activity of the sacrament (as if word and deed could be divided). For Calvin, the spoken word (and cognitive activity) is primary, and the sacrament (and physical activity) is secondary. He says, “You see how the sacrament requires preaching to beget faith … indeed it was known even from the beginning of the world that whenever God gave a sign to the holy patriarchs it was inseparably linked to doctrine, without which our senses would have been stunned in looking at a bare sign.”

A modern contrivance

The sacrament might be as powerful an experience of God’s truth as the sermon.

Owens says that “the separation, the disjunction, then, between mind and body is only a contrivance of conceptualization.” Modern psychology has come to recognize that one can act one’s way into a new way of thinking as well as thinking one’s way into a new way of acting. This suggests the possibility that the experience of God’s goodness might be just as powerful in drawing people to God as hearing about God’s goodness. Thus, the experience of the sacrament in and of itself might he effective for drawing humans to God. This view suggests that children might he able to receive God’s grace communicated through the bread and juice long before they are able intellectually, to discern grace or understand it as expressed in the spoken word. The sacrament might be as powerful an experience of God’s truth as the sermon. A tradition that includes preaching weekly but the Lord’s Supper only quarterly might be symptomatic of an imbalanced theology.

Within the early church this imbalance did not exist. The Lord’s Supper was that experience around which the regular, weekly gatherings were formed. Sacramental theology was not developed until the 12th century, and before that the church had as many as 30 sacraments, including the washing of feet, the anointing of kings and “various benedictions” (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics). The need for a highly developed doctrine of sacraments is not to be minimized. Yet the move toward a small, specific number of sacraments controlled by the church might be part of a move away from a highly developed sacramental imagination in which all the created order is an expression of God.

The Roman Catholic Church embraces some elements that lean toward a more sacramental view of reality than Protestants hold. Not only do they have seven sacraments, but they also have sacramentals: “Through the sacramentals, the Church brings all created things into the orbit of God’s blessing, in reality touches everything with the grace of redemption, making so many material things and persons instruments and channels of the grace of God” (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

Although this may sound like what I’ve been suggesting as a sacramental view of all of reality, it is not fully so. Vatican II has this to say about sacramentals: “These are sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the Sacraments; they signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, which are obtained through the Church’s intercession. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the Sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (New Catholic Encyclopedia).

That “various occasions in life are rendered holy,” and this through the Church’s intercession suggests the difficulty. Somehow, rendering life’s occasions holy demands the Church’s action; it is not God’s action that breaks this membrane between sacred and profane. And it is “various occasions” rather than all of life that are rendered holy. This is not the full- blown sacramental view of the world suggested by Buechner, Eliade or Owens.

Seeking to control

Maybe the largest single factor in this problem has been the church’s embrace of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationalism and the demand of science to take a detached, objective, rational view of the world. Owens says, “All the natural imagery of Scripture that calls for creation to participate in the praise of its maker has been demoted to the level of mere metaphor and decorative figures of speech, or else seen as unfortunate vestiges of a primitive people’s animism. For ever since the age of Newton and the classical laws of physics, civilized folk have agreed that matter is essentially a manipulable machine. No ‘spirit’ or knowledge was observed to inhabit matter, regardless of the psalmist’s assertion that the heavens proclaim the glory of God … And Christians, as creatures of their culture, have been content to bump along with Newtonian laws of motion, adding an occasional vague reference to Einstein and the relativity of time and space.”

Owens speaks strongly of our use of science and technology to be in control of our world. She suggests that the root of this need to be in control is idolatry, replacing God with something of which we can be in charge: “Perhaps we are so willing to reduce ourselves to abstractions of thought, principles of personality, because God, too, could then be an abstraction or a principle, and not a person,” she writes.

The view of all the world as sacramental is diametrically opposed to modem humanity’s desire to he in control, suggests Eliade: “The numinous presents itself as something ‘wholly other,’ something basically and totally different. It is like nothing human or cosmic; confronted with it, man senses his profound nothingness, feels that he is only a creature, or, in the words which Abraham addressed the Lord, is ‘but dust and ashes.’”

Eliade goes on to say that “the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.” He suggests that this movement infiltrates our philosophy, science, technology, economics and all other endeavors. For Eliade, religion is the way one sees the world. Thus, loss of a sacred vision of all reality affects all of life, and the modern, desacralized world is a world where everything is profane:

“Let us think of agricultural work in a desacralized society. Here, it has become a profane act, justified by the economic profit that it brings. The ground is tilled to be exploited: the end pursued is profit and food. Emptied of religious symbolism, agricultural work becomes at once opaque and exhausting; it reveals no meaning, it makes possible no opening toward the universal, toward the world of spirit.”

How might the church, besides embracing of the world’s profanation of reality, have contributed to the loss of the sacramental imagination? Maybe, like the culture, the church has lived out its desire for control. In attempts to protect the sacraments from profanation, the church has created a hierarchical structure in which it sees itself as the dispenser of the sacred. This can be seen in the earlier quote from Vatican II, where the Roman Catholic Church sees its job as rendering various occasions of life holy. In such a view, not only are things not holy without the special activity of God, things are not holy without the special activity of the church and its agents.

Ritual that helps us see

Eugene Peterson sees things in a considerably different way. He gives us a view of the sacramental imagination flourishing in our movement from one place to another: “In every visit, every meeting I attend, every appointment I keep, I have been anticipated. The risen Christ got there ahead of me. The risen Christ is in that room already. What is he doing?” (Under the Unpredictable Plant).

If we see the sacred penetrating all of reality because of the activity of God, then we can see all of our lives, all of the cosmos as filled with meaning, instead of seeing it all as just “one damned thing after another.” Owens says, “The world is holy, having come from a holy hand. Why did we ever separate it into sacred and secular?”

Ritual is a helpful tool in helping us see through to something deep inside time, but the church needs to he careful in how it uses ritual and ask, “Does the ritual convey the universality of the sacred or the sense that the experience of the sacred is special, limited, and controlled by the church?” Owens has a wonderful image that speaks to this: “Still, we take the big black crayon in our hands and draw these little islands where we will let God live in the world. In the tiny cups and on the unfamiliar silver plates so cold you can see your breath on them. We cover him up with white linen napkins just as they did in the grave. We draw more lines around Bibles and sanctuaries, thus adding a few more islands to this archipelago of the holy, and there you have it. Little concentration camps for Christ. Our incremental piety bristles around the perimeters like barbed wire, hemming him in.”

I propose that the church work at seeing the sacraments (to borrow language from Paul Hiebert) as a centered set instead of bounded set. Those sacraments that we practice in church are not the totality of the sacramental but instead a sign to all that God is bursting forth in all of creation, that life itself is sacramental. The analog of the ministry may he a helpful one here. The church exercises high control over those who are allowed to minister in the name of God and the church. Preparation, structure and accountability are necessary for clergy. But this is not so that the church or the minister can be in control of ministry in the world but so that the minister can equip the saints for the work of ministry. Although the church has standards to be followed, it is, in the end, in the business of giving the authority for ministry away.

Carrying this principle over to the sacraments, then, the church has two (or seven) sacraments that it celebrates by way of living out on a small scale the universal sacramentality of life. Control over the sacraments it is not the major issue, nor should it be heavily emphasized. The major issue is to celebrate the sacraments in ways that foster a sacramental imagination, giving both vision and permission to those who partake as well as those who stand far off and observe. In this way, the church’s ritual will say, “We celebrate specific promises of God here in these rituals. We use normal, everyday elements because God comes to us in the normal and the everyday. And God’s promises are all encompassing. ‘I will be with you.’ Who can ask for more of the sacred in the everyday than that? Therefore, all of life can be a rite by which we receive reminder and assurance of God’s promises. We hold these things used today in these sacraments as sacred, not because of some special control we have over them, but because all of life is sacred. As you go from here, look for the presence of God in all that comes your way. Live in these sacraments here in this sacred space so that you can go out and live sacramentally in all of your life, in the whole sacred cosmos.”

I believe that in that way the sacramental imagination will flourish and grow in God’s people and in the world. May it be so. Even so. come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Cite this article
David Wygmans, “The Sacramental Imagination: How Can We Foster and Grow It?”, Reformed Journal, 34:1 , 4-7

David Wygmans

David Wygmans is a writer living in Michigan.