Project Canterbury

The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter I. The Sacramental Principle

THAT body which rejoices in or is afflicted by the name of "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America," is marked off from other bodies which are commonly classed as Protestant by the fact that it is very definitely, and quite incurably, sacramental. If you are inclined to doubt this statement, glance some time when you have nothing else to do at the Church Notices in the columns of one of our daily papers. There you will find, in the case of churches other than those of our own communion, that the great feature of the services on which stress is laid is the sermon,--its subject and the man who is to deliver it. Under the heading "Protestant Episcopal" you will indeed sometimes find the name of the preacher at the different services, less often the subject of the sermon, but the whole is subordinated to services of liturgical worship in which the sermon plays but a part. You will notice something else. In all of our churches, with but negligible exceptions, you will find advertised at some time on each Sunday, a service which is altogether sacramental in character,--the Holy Communion. You will look in vain for any such announcement in the services of the Protestant bodies, though even here there is a growing tendency to approach to the practice of the Church. If you enter one of our churches and compare its appearance with the ordinary Protestant church the contrast will again be apparent. In the latter, the important feature is the reading desk and pulpit, while the entire building is arranged primarily as an auditorium, emphasizing the central place of the sermon and the preacher. In our own churches you will behold a font, speaking to you of the Sacrament of Baptism, while the most conspicuous feature of the building will be the Altar, the Holy Table for the Holy Mysteries, while altar rails will remind you that there the worshippers will meet their Lord in the great Sacrament of Holy Communion.

It could not be otherwise. The Episcopal Church claims to be one with the Church of all the ages. She did not come into being through any quarrel with Rome, nor through any separation of the American Colonies from the realm of England. The latter separation led to some changes in this American Church of ours, in Prayer Book, in forms of worship, in discipline; but essentially the Church was declared to be, and was intended to be, one with the Mother Church of England. In a similar way the breach which took place between the English Church and the See of Rome brought into being new forms of worship and a modification of discipline, but essentially the Church was intended to be, and was, one with the Ancient Catholic Church of the ages. The Church is proud of her ancient heritage. So the Church must be sacramental, for the simple reason that the historic Church from the beginning has always been sacramental. In the New Testament, the speech of St. Peter on Pentecost is marked, not only by the exhortation to his hearers to repent, but also to be baptized. The one is as important as the other. And in the "Breaking of the Bread" as practised by the Apostles we see the primitive Eucharist, as important and as essential as the doctrine or the prayers. As Canon Carnegie of Westminster has well said, "Traditional Christianity, Christianity as history portrays it, is fundamentally and essentially a sacramental movement--the gradual unfolding of the principle underlying the fact of the Incarnation, the fact that God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us, that He manifested Himself under the forms of space and time, using the apparatus of the natural world as the implement of His activities and the vehicle of His life-giving power." [W. H. Carnegie, "Anglicanism," p. 94.]

If God is to reveal Himself to man and speak to him, it must be in modes and in terms capable of appealing to man as he is. The inward and the outward, the spiritual and the material, the thing signified and the sign, are not, or should not be, put in opposition one to another. They are instead complementary truths, even as a curve is both convex on one side and concave on the other. Man is a creature made up of body and soul, even as a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is the tragedy of some religious thought, and a real denial of the basic principle of Christianity, when it is assumed that a thing must necessarily be more spiritual because it is not material. The opposite of spiritual is not material, but non-spiritual. The material gifts of God may be as spiritual as His gifts of grace if they are properly used.

The simple principle underlying sacramentalism, that an inward and spiritual reality can be conveyed through an outward and visible sign, is never doubted in the common walks of life. A man walking along a street meets a lady of his acquaintance. He doffs his hat, thereby expressing recognition and friendship. He expresses also by his action, be it noted, something even more fundamental. He is expressing the general veneration for womanhood and motherhood felt by Christians because the Christian religion has taught that God chose a woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the supreme privilege of becoming the mother of Jesus. All these purely spiritual things are symbolized and set forth in what may seem a pure conventionality. If a man should reason to himself that this means of recognizing a lady may often be merely conventional, that friendship, respect and reverence, the inward and spiritual graces, are more important than any outward acts of recognition; and should he henceforth omit the outward signs, the bow and the smile, he would be judged, and rightly, not a very spiritual man, but a boor. So again, patriotism and love of country are purely spiritual qualities. Yet the patriot who refuses to honor his national flag, or to respond to the thrill which comes to the heart when in a far country he catches a glimpse of the Stars and Stripes, would rightly be regarded with suspicion.

The sacramental principle in our ordinary lives is so far-reaching, that our list of illustrations might be indefinitely prolonged. It is only in relation to religion that anyone has suggested that the same principle has no place. It is somehow thought that to connect the thought of God with material things is degrading to Him. This idea rests upon the profoundly un-Christian belief that matter in itself is evil. Christianity, on the contrary, is bound to the characteristically Jewish premise "that the material world is not evil, but good--since God made it and saw it to be good." [Frank Gavin, "The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments," p. 21] And we further believe, as Christians, that "in the Incarnation God found a material human body no unfit vehicle by which to express the Divine," and that in the Incarnation of the Son of God "all of human nature, indissolubly body and soul, was caught up into juxtaposition and intimate union with Deity."

It is a great misfortune that, as a result of a reaction from a one-sided and unethical view of the Sacraments which was too often tolerated in the Mediaeval Church, the modern world has fallen heir to a piece-meal universe. The whole of reality has been split asunder into mutually exclusive halves, which are set in sharp antithesis one to another. It is our contention that the philosophy of an ethical sacramentalism which distinguishes historic Christianity offers the only rational, because the only whole and satisfying, view of the world, of God, and of religion.

To begin with the world, we find at the present time two diametrically opposed views in the field. These are the purely spiritualistic and the purely materialistic views of the universe. The first may be illustrated from the popular fallacy which goes by the name of Christian Science. It has kinship with certain of the ancient philosophic systems of India, though it is not so consistent and thoroughgoing as these. To it, matter is evil and an illusion. Mind is all. As mind becomes capable of realizing the illusory character of the material world, the "errors" of mortal mind, producing suffering, sickness, and death, will be done away. To undertake to use any "material" remedy for the healing of disease or the alleviation of pain, only encourages "error" and so is to be deprecated. Christian Science is however not so consistent in refusing to use material means for securing warmth or nourishment! But it illustrates the fallacy that "matter" is not of God and evil is non-existent.

At the opposite extreme stands scientific materialism. There are signs that the vogue of this is losing ground among our greater and more thoughtful scientists, but it was exceedingly popular in the Nineteenth Century. It is the view of the world which is probably really held by the majority of present-day people in the Western world. According to this theory, matter alone is real. All of the universe, so it teaches, can be completely explained by mathematical formulae, and mechanical and chemical laws. God, the soul, and even thought are illusions and superstitions. It is only by giving up our primitive credulity as to the reality of the spiritual that we can hope to make any progress.

Opposed to both of these exclusive views, but mediating between them stands Christian sacramentalism. Holding firmly to the existence of both material and spiritual realities, it claims that the true meaning of the material can only be found as it is transfigured and transformed by the spiritual. It is built upon a basis of solid fact, the immediately experienced relationship in man himself of a material organism and a spiritual self. It sees constantly how the material body reacts on the soul, that sins committed by the body cannot help but stain and pollute the soul, and how the thought of high and holy things may even physically transform the body. It believes that God, the great Spiritual Reality, has spoken in the past to men by means which were sacramental. It believes that He used the prophets of old, their human bodies, their human tongues to deliver to men a spiritual message. Above all, historic Christianity is forever completely committed to the belief that God has delivered His supreme message to men by sacramental means. For it was not through the inspiration of the prophets, nor by any merely spiritual vision or message, according to Christianity, that God gave to man the great and supreme revelation of Himself. Instead it was through a literal Incarnation, through the taking of a real human body into union with His very Godhood, and through an Atonement involving the giving up of that flesh to be crucified and that human blood to be shed;--it was through these material means, these outward and visible signs, that man has come to the fullest knowledge of God which it is possible for him to have. "The Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us," and "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself," these are the fundamentals of the Christian religion. These sacramental truths, this sacramental unity knits into one concordant whole the discordant views of the spiritualists and the materialists.

Again we may notice how sacramentalism holds the balance between conflicting views about God Himself. To some, God is wholly transcendent, wholly "other," as contrasted with the world and with man, wholly separate, lifted far above the world and its petty concerns in an inapproachable glory. This was the view of the Deists and Rationalists of the Eighteenth Century,--of Voltaire, and in our own country of Thomas Paine. It is not today a fashionable view of God, but there are not lacking signs that it may again" be fashionable tomorrow.

Contrasted with this is the view of God as immanent in nature, as shut up and confined in the universe which is, as it were, His Body. Logically, in this view, there is no reason why we should find God in any particular part of the universe rather than in another. He is as fully manifested in the stock or stone, as in the intellect and life of a Shakespeare, a Darwin, a Socrates, or a Jesus Christ. He is as fully revealed in the evil as in the good; the death of a martyr exhibits him, but so does an act of lust or a brutal murder. An English writer on mystical subjects has in one of the less fortunate passages in her writings waxed eloquent over the revelation of divinity disclosed in a dilapidated alley cat! Once more we find our Christian sacramentalism coming to the rescue.

We inherit from Judaism the necessary belief in the majesty and transcendence of God. He is the Almighty indeed, exalted far above His creation. Before Him, in the prophet's vision, the seraphim veil their faces with their wings, while they cry one to another, "Holy, Holy, Holy," expressing thus His awful majesty, and purity, and separateness. But He is not shut out from His Creation. He notices the fall of every sparrow. He manifests His presence to His people in sacramental signs given in the Wilderness, the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night. He manifests Himself to Moses in the burning bush, and speaks to him through this outward and visible sign. In the Holy of Holies He is thought of as dwelling personally and really with His people. And as Christians, we believe that in the sacred humanity of Jesus Christ there dwelt "the fulness of the Godhead bodily." Through the Christian Sacraments, and especially in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Communion, He comes again, we believe, as to a trysting place to visit His people, that under our conditions of time and space we may find and acknowledge Him who nevertheless is present in, and through and above all creation, above all, and through all, and in all, in Whom we live and move and have our being.

Again, in our view of the function of religion in our lives, the sacramental principle reconciles opposing opinions. One view of religion, which has been held in the history of the human race, makes of it a purely corporate, social, or State matter. This was true in the case of the official Roman religion, and is also true to a certain extent in the Shintoism of modern Japan. "If we leave out of account the bizarre phenomenon of Caesar-worship, it is true to say that official 'paganism,' that is, the established religious system or systems with which Christianity found itself confronted when for the first time it spread beyond the borders of Palestine into Northern Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe, consisted of an immense multitude of localised and mutually independent cults, closely associated for the most part with the life of the State and of its provinces and municipalities. When they did not represent mere survivals of primitive magic and fetichism, these 'established' cults were based on a strictly commercial view of the relation between the gods and their worshippers, the god being bound to protect the State or the municipality in return for a given quantum of sacrifices, but otherwise being under no obligation to interest himself in the community or its members. It will be clear that so purely contractual a system did not even pretend to satisfy the deeper needs or aspirations of the individual soul, nor were its ministers conceived to be invested with what we know as 'pastoral' functions. A Roman who was oppressed by the enigma of the universe, by the weight of unmerited misfortune, or by the sense of personal guilt, would no more have thought of applying to the flamen Dialis or to the quindecemviri sacris faciundis for ghostly aid and comfort than of confiding in the Prefect of the Praetorian Guards." [N. P. Williams, "Essays Catholic and Critical," pp. 385, 386]

At the opposite pole from this is the view of religion seen in some forms of modern Protestantism, which makes it an exclusively personal relationship between the individual soul and God, a matter of the salvation of the individual with little or no thought of the corporate or social aspects of religion.

The truly Christian approach to God through sacramental means, is a constant reminder not only of God's care for each of us as individuals, as He gives to each in the Sacraments His gifts of grace and strength; it is also a constant reminder that we receive such gifts only as parts of a great Society, a corporate body. We can only receive the gifts of God as belonging to a Society not limited in its membership to any race, or nation, or political division, a body which transcends all such artificial divisions on earth, and stretches even beyond the earth to include all who have gone before us, and all who will come after us, angels, and archangels, and all the company of Heaven,--in short the Holy Catholic Church of Christ. Our acceptance and use of the Sacraments, shows that we share in the life of the body, and reminds us that blessings received from God require of us duties towards our neighbor. The life of Christ mediated to us through the Sacraments is shared by all the members of the body, and we are saved not purely as individuals but as members of the great family of God. The corporate and individualist views of religion thus find their balanced expression in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints.

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