Sacramentality: You can’t “get” the Middle Ages if you don’t get this


Rogier van der Weyden. Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. Baptism, Confirmation, and Penance. Detail of the left wing. c.1445-1450. Oil on panel. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium

In a lecture I’m giving today in the humanities program of Bethel University, I’ll be talking about the ideas of “sacramentality” and “sacraments” in the medieval period. Here’s what I’ll be saying:

Some definitions and facets of “sacrament”

Now we turn the page to a key preoccupation of “those who prayed”—one of the most central theological ideas of the medieval period—the idea of sacramentality.

Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

Or to turn it around, taking the God’s-eye-view, so to speak, sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world. The correlation to this is that religion is not separated from, or compartmentalized from, the rest of life. It’s not something left for Sunday morning. It’s a pervasive notion of the way the world is, and that God can manifest himself in and through the creation that he’s made.

Why believe this? Because God incarnated himself in Christ. The transcendent God dug down and took on human flesh. The purely spiritual became human, two natures in one person. In late medieval Christianity, far from the Incarnation being seen as a kind of one-time, bizarre aberration, with no connection to the rest of salvation history, it’s the paradigm, the model, for everything that follows. Sacramentality expresses God’s mysterious presence in and through the created world. He is at the same time transcendent—that is, above our cultural and material world, and immanent—that is, expressing himself in our cultural and material world.

Here’s another correlate: God can be, and is, present in some places more than he is in others. [We may not know why he chooses the places he does. That’s for him to decide.] If he wanted a shrine to be located at Compostela in Spain, or in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, that’s God’s prerogative, not ours.

Just below the surface of life, then, there hovers the constant presence of the holy, sacramentality. This is more than simply the seven sacraments of the Church—which we’ll talk about in a moment. Sacramentality is a much broader category.

A secular example might be the American flag; or for some, competitive sports. One historian of Christian worship comments, “Football weekends on some college campuses have all the aura of the great holy days of the liturgical year.” Or think of college basketball’s Holy Week: the NCAA finals—“March Madness.” Tangible events that communicate spiritual realities. In these cases, the realities of school spirit, character, and the larger human struggle.

How then did the particular sacraments develop, and how were they understood through various phases of the Christian tradition?

There were in fact few dramatic changes over the centuries—much fewer than in the area of theology. The development of sacraments as the center of Christian worship was a slow unfolding. Even the # of sacraments was indeterminate through most of the Christian centuries.

Sources of the idea of sacrament

Jewish worship

We must begin with the Jewish mentality. It is, as one scholar says, “hard to imagine a sacramental life evolving from any religion other than Judaism. The Jews held in tension the transcendence of God with God’s concrete involvement in the actual events of human history.”

Thus Christians got from Judaism the conception that certain actions and objects could be used as a means for God and humans to communicate with each other.

In  the Old Testament, a pillar of fire, a cloud, daily bread, all could become ways through which God was revealed, but God was none of these things, of course. God remained transcendent, never to be confused with the created order.

The example and teaching of Jesus

Jesus himself, it is clear, saw the annual Passover commemoration as bringing to life the crucial moment in Jewish history. The Passover meal itself was a series of sign-acts that recalled what God had done to make the Jews a distinctive people. These customs were part of the very air Jesus and his disciples breathed.

It has been debated by scholars whether the scriptural passages giving actual commands of Jesus to baptize (Matt. 28:19) or to eat and drink as a memorial of him (1 Cor. 11:24-25 and the gospel “institution narratives”—the words Jesus supposedly spoke at the Last Supper) were indeed straight from Jesus’ lips, or whether they were inserted by the church later on to reflect practices they had already long observed.

The practice of the earliest church

There is little doubt that the early church believed it was fulfilling its Master’s will in continuing these practices in Jesus’ name. They certainly had his example in receiving baptism and in keeping the Passover feast. And in a sense, they were just extending what they saw as Jesus’ own identity as a sort of “sacrament”—a “visual aid” that revealed God—when they practiced these rituals.

One thing is clear: a wide variety of sacramental practices—“sign-acts”—is recorded in the New Testament. These include not just baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but also laying on of hands, healing, and forgiving. And nowhere did the writers of the NT try to sit down and prescribe ritual forms for any of them. It is hard to say, from the glimpses we get, what these practices meant, exactly, to the participants. It was up to later ages to prescribe and elaborate on certain acts.

A change in terminology

In NT times, the term used to describe these acts was not the Latin Sacramentum—that did not come into use until Tertullian in the third century—but the Greek mysterion. This term refers to the secret thoughts of God, which transcend human reason. Basically, the use of this term for what we now call sacraments implies that these are acts in which God is disclosed to those who participate in them—everything depends on God’s acting in self-giving.

The word Sacramentum, on the other hand, is a more legalistic term, referring to an oath of allegiance taken by a soldier or a vow to keep a promise. This term lacks the dimension of divine personal self-giving that mysterion implies. It is, however, the word the Western church chose from the third century on.

For medieval thinkers, once the term “sacrament” was in use, it meant a prescribed ritual/liturgical act that conveys the grace which it symbolizes.  It doesn’t JUST symbolize grace, it conveys it. And if the sacrament is rightly performed—it always conveys grace. As Augustine had argued against the Donatists, the sacrament, performed correctly, never fails.

What counted as a sacrament?

Now, what counted as a sacrament? For nearly 1200 years, there was no consensus on how many sacraments there were. Augustine had mentioned several dozen possible sacraments, although focusing on Baptism and the Eucharist as the two central ones. But in the 13th century, the sacraments were limited to the seven already mentioned.

This happened under the scholastics–the term just means “schoolmen”–that is, theologians trained up in the universities and inclined to impose elaborate intellectual structure on their thinking about God and humanity.

From the 13th century on, church leaders also decided that all seven of these sacraments had been instituted by God. The seven were Baptism, Penance/Reconciliation, The Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme unction.

By the Middle Ages, the entire life of the Christian from cradle to grave was ministered to by these sacraments. They operated at every key life moment, as well as in daily life. Birth was greeted within a very few days by baptism. Marriage was considered a sacrament, and death was preceded by a final anointing. In between birth and death, one might receive confirmation if a bishop chanced by, and throughout life one found a remedy for sin in confession. The Mass provided weekly, if not daily, encounter with Christ. The sacraments were the chief system of ministering to the people and of sustaining their religious life.

Two distinctions

A couple of distinctions drawn from medieval thought are helpful in understanding the role of sacrament in the church of this period.

Sacrament and sacramental

First, a sacrament was to be distinguished from a “sacramental.” The latter was a pious act that MAY provide grace, and may not.  Crossing yourself, for instance, or using Holy Water as one goes into church. If you have the right inner disposition, this might provide grace. It is a good, approved act, but what matters here is not so much the act itself as the disposition with which one does that act. That’s a “sacramental.”

Ex opera operato and ex opera operantis

So, God’s grace was thought to be communicated from God to the believer in a different way in the sacrament than in the sacramental—and this is the second distinction:  Grace was effective “ex opera operato” in the sacrament, and “ex opera operantis” in the sacramental. The two phrases mean “from the work that has been worked” and “from the work of the worker.”

The first focuses on the act itself, the second on the person who is doing the act.  The first is objective, outside us, done on our behalf, and effective on the basis of the performance of the rite.  So when the priest stands and offers up the sacramental elements, blesses them, pronounces words of institution, and invokes the HS, the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ not because the priest or congregation are holy or pious, but because the rite has been properly and correctly performed. Christ is then present, on the basis of the performance of the rite.

On the other hand, there are these other pious acts, the sacramentals—crossing oneself, using holy water, and other pious devotions—these were effective not on the basis of the performance of the rite, but rather, on the basis of the disposition of the participant. God does not HAVE to give grace in these cases.

Now, baptism was ALWAYS effective. And for the Catholic tradition, unlike much Protestant practice, Baptism is effective NOT because there is a program of instruction that it follows (although that is prescribed), but simply by virtue of God’s free grace.

When you think about it, this fact contains something of an irony. In the Reformation period, the Protestants attacked the Catholics for works righteousness—saying “you try to justify yourself before God by pilgrimages, special devotions, and so forth.” But the Catholics could legitimately respond: you believe as Protestants that you have to do a “work of disposition” in order to get grace!  You have to prepare your heart.  That is a kind of work, too!

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2 responses to “Sacramentality: You can’t “get” the Middle Ages if you don’t get this

  1. Chris,
    Excellent post.
    I have grown to love the sacramental world view.
    You express the heart of it well when you write:
    “Why believe this? Because God incarnated himself in Christ. The transcendent God dug down and took on human flesh. The purely spiritual became human, two natures in one person. In late medieval Christianity, far from the Incarnation being seen as a kind of one-time, bizarre aberration, with no connection to the rest of salvation history, it’s the paradigm, the model, for everything that follows. ”

    Not only the cross–but the Incarnation changed everything!

  2. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (11/15) « scientia et sapientia

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