What is a sacrament? The word has Greek and Latin roots, and literally means “sacred mystery.” But different churches have different understandings of what this means.
The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally understood a sacrament to be an “outward act, initiated by Christ, which mediates (or dispenses) God’s grace to humankind.”
The Church recognize seven official sacraments – baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (or communion), reconciliation (confession), marriage, holy orders (ordination for priesthood or monastic living), and unction (healing of the sick).
The Eastern Orthodox tradition also recognizes these seven sacraments, but sees many other things as potentially sacramental – so there’s not really an official number of sacraments recognized by the Orthodox Church. Theoretically, the list could be endless.
Among Protestants, only two sacraments are usually recognized – baptism and communion.
With a few exceptions (most notably Lutherans), most Protestants don’t believe that these sacraments actually dispense God’s grace. They’re usually seen more as symbolic acts that help us remember Jesus and build community around Him.
And then there are the Quakers – the only Christian denomination I know of that doesn’t recognize or practice any outward sacraments.
In traditional Quaker theology, the Spirit of God is believed to be present in all things – thus everything is sacramental! In this understanding, celebrating a fixed number of sacraments puts an artificial limit on God’s Spirit, and gives the appearance that the Spirit is present in some places more than others – which goes against the theology of most Quakers.
My own view is a combination of the Quaker and Orthodox understandings. Like the Quakers, I believe the Holy Spirit is present everywhere, and that God can use anything and everything to communicate His/Her grace to us. But Like the Orthodox, I also believe that there is value in celebrating this presence in outward forms, as a community.
One of my favorite sacraments is one that is used, but not officially recognized, by most churches – music. Good music has a powerful way of communicating God’s grace to me. Actually, it does this in at least three ways.
First, good music reminds me of the beauty of God’s creation – and indeed, of the Creator as well. The creative nature of God comes through strongly in any artistic endeavor, and especially in music (for me, at least).
Music also connects me to God by reminding me of other times I have experienced God’s presence – whether in worship, fellowship with other people, or in nature. Through these memories, I can reconnect with the God I have experienced in my past.
Finally, music can connect me to God through other spirits that are in God’s company. Certain songs and styles of music remind me of my most recent girlfriend, my grandfather or grandmother, and other people I know who have passed away. This makes their presence more tangible to me, and I can then experience at least a little of their continued activity in my life.
It is important for me to say that this isn’t simply a matter of reliving past memories. I believe that our deceased loved ones really are present with us in spirit, and that we can connect with them in any time or place!
Through their presence they can comfort us, protect us, guide us, and even communicate messages to us. Sometimes the experience can be so vivid that it seems like they are present physically as well as spiritually! And this is true of God as well; but it usually takes some sort of outward sign (or sacrament) for us to notice the presence that has always been there.
This truth is demonstrated quite well in the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Here we are told that two of Jesus’ disciples, while walking to the village of Emmaus, encountered the risen Christ. At first they didn’t know who it was; the text says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).
These men had enough spiritual awareness to know that someone was walking with them. Indeed, the spiritual presence of Jesus was so striking that they could carry on a conversation with Him; but they didn’t know who it was they were talking to. When He blessed and broke bread with them, however, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him” (Luke 24:31).
And so it is with us. Through various sacramental means (food, water, art, music, etc), our spiritual eyes are “opened” to the reality that those who have passed away (including Jesus) are still present with us.
Why don’t we always see this? There are several possible reasons. But it seems to me that our Western culture, which values the flesh over the spirit, is a major factor.
We have been taught since birth that only those things which we can see and touch in a physical manner (or at least understand in a rational way) are real. The existence of spirits, which generally aren’t seen or heard in the same way as physical matter, is often dismissed – or at least relegated to some other realm than the one we “normally” live in.
Furthermore, we have been taught that death is final; that when people pass away, they don’t come back.
Though many Westerners (including the majority of Christians) theoretically believe in the resurrection of the dead, most see this as happening in some future time or place. The idea of the dead walking among us, while popular in mass media, isn’t generally acknowledged as something that happens in the “real world.”
Those who communicate with ghosts, angels, and so forth are often dismissed as “crazy,” as being out of touch with reality; and unfortunately, many Christians have added to this stigma by insisting that communication with the dead is always and everywhere a sign of the demonic!
In an environment like this, it’s easy to see why we often overlook those spirits that live among us – and why we are tempted, when we do perceive them, to explain it away as a hallucination, a fantasy, or a sign of mental imbalance.
But what if we have it backwards? What if the spirit world is just as genuine as the physical one?
Could it be that our obsession with the flesh is the real “imbalance”? Could it be that death is an illusion – that our mortal bodies are only a temporary form of something that lives forever? Could it be that the risen Christ walks among us – if only we have the eyes to see it?
(Coming Soon: “It Already Happened Ten Years From Now”: My Thoughts on Predestination, Free Will, and the Nature of Eternity)