The Wise Men and That Sacramental Life

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If you stick around the Episcopal Church long enough, you will eventually hear someone say that we are a creedal church, not a confessional church.  What that means is that the summation of our faith is found in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, whereas in some other faith traditions, like Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations, their core beliefs have been expanded upon in what are called Confessions.  The Rev. Dr. Justin Holcomb, Episcopal priest and professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary describes confessions as “color[ing] in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways.”[1]  Some would argue that our Book of Common Prayer is the Anglican version of a Confession, but within its practice, our theology can be widely interpreted, so the Book of Common Prayer can’t really be used to declare any sort of standard teaching on a subject.  What it does include, however, is a Catechism, or an Outline of the Faith, which is intended to be used as a commentary on the creeds without trying to offer any kind of complete statement of belief or practice.[2]  It is, for lack of a better term, a primer of the faith for Episcopalians.

In the Catechism, on page 857 of the Book of Common Prayer begins a section on the Sacraments.  There, the Sacraments are described as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ…”[3]  In the Episcopal Church, because of that little addendum about the Sacraments being given to us by Christ, we would say that there are only two Sacraments: Baptism and Holy Eucharist.  Our Prayer Book contains five other Sacramental Rites, which have evolved in the Church over time: confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (also called, Confession), and unction.[4]  All seven of these sacramental actions contain outward symbols: water and oil in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, and the laying on of hands in each sacramental rite, which convey an inward and spiritual grace given by God, including union with God through the forgiveness of sins, the nourishment of Christ’s Body and Blood, healing, forgiveness, and blessing.

Over the years, I’ve stirred up some trouble by suggesting a different way of looking at the Sacraments and sacramental acts of the Church.  My working definition is that these liturgical acts are formal signposts of the church catching up with what the Spirit is already doing.  In ordination, when the bishop lays hands on the ordinand, it is the Church making official what God has long-since been doing in that person’s life.  In the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine as Christ’s Body and Blood are meant to nourish those who are already actively working to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

As we prepare to celebrate the baptism of your Soren Erbach this morning, I am keenly aware that even for this almost one-year-old child, the Sacrament of Baptism is an outward and visible sign of what God is already doing in his life.  Yes, there is a specific inward and spiritual grace conferred by God in the ceremonial action of baptism, but grace doesn’t start here.  Through his grandmother, his mother, and even through this faith community, Soren is already learning what it means to follow Jesus.  He will, as he matures, gain a deeper understanding of how God is calling him to live out that faith through the promises of our Baptismal Covenant.  He will be nourished with bread and wine made Body and Blood through our prayers and the Holy Spirit, and grow, we pray, in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

The life of faith is full of sacramental actions that may or may not be called as such.  Many would say that the foot washing liturgy on Maundy Thursday is a sacramental rite.  Marking oneself with the sign of the cross is a sacramental action, denoting forgiveness, blessing, or the invocation of the Trinity.  Bowing at the cross, genuflecting to enter your pew, or raising your hands in praise are all outward and visible signs of some kind of inward and spiritual grace at work.  The whole premise of this season called Epiphany is that we should always be looking for ways in which God’s grace is revealed to us in and through the messiness of this world.  This season reminds us that as Christians, our entire existence can be looked at as one, ongoing sacramental action.

Even our Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany seems to be a story of a kind of sacramental action that is meant to catch up with what God has already put into motion.  When the Christ-child was born in Bethlehem, a new star appeared in the western sky, which the Wise Men thought to be a sign of the birth of a new King of the Jews.  They pulled together their gifts and began the long journey from Persia.  Matthew is really sketchy with the timeline of all of this, but it seems like this journey took several months, if not more than a year to complete.  The whole of their journey is one large sacramental act, as are the details along the way.  They came, according to their own words to pay homage to, literally to bow down and worship, the child, born king of the Jews.  Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh each carry an inward and spiritual value as well.  The gold was a symbol of Jesus’ earthly kingship as a descendent of the throne of David.  Frankincense is still a common incense used in worship, and symbolized the divinity of Christ, the Son of God.  Myrrh was used in the embalming process and served as a symbol of the suffering Jesus would one day endure.  None of these gifts were prescriptive in nature.  They did not make Jesus a king, the messiah, or a suffering servant, but rather, they were all given as a sort of catch up for what God was already doing in the birth of a Savior in the City of David.  As Mother Becca suggested in her sermon on John’s prologue last week, Jesus was King, Savior, and Lord from before the beginning, when the Word was with God, long before the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.[5]  In remembrance of the blessing the wise men brought to Jesus, and as our own sacramental sign of God’s blessing upon us, last year, we began the practice of blessing chalk on Epiphany.  This chalk is mean to be taken home and used to mark the main entrance with an outward and visible sign of God’s blessing upon your home and all who will pass through it during the year ahead.

As followers of Jesus, it is possible to make our whole lives to be one ongoing sacramental action.  Each outward and visible thing that we do can be a symbol of the inward and spiritual grace, love, and mercy of God.  Our lives are meant to be lived as though we are shining the light of Christ into what is so often the darkness of this world.  Every action is meant to convey the promises of our Baptismal Covenant, which we renew this morning.  As we embark on this season of Epiphany, may God be revealed to you in all kinds of ways.  May the world around you be a sacrament of God’s grace and mercy. May your lives be a sacrament of God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  And may we all be blessed with the task of catching up with God’s ongoing work of restoration, at home, at work, and at play.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-creeds-confessions-catechisms-and-councils/ Accessed 1/3/19

[2] BCP, 844.

[3] BCP, 857.

[4] BCP, 860.

[5] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2018/12/30/tell-me-the-story/?fbclid=IwAR0vc-kOroa9ecmWu7DtKRtwWkcqa3hVNJpK4CfPpS-s7nljc4zBsDTdtI8

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One thought on “The Wise Men and That Sacramental Life

  1. Steve,
    I agree with your understanding of sacraments of making formal what God is already doing. However, I’d include that there is the value of our commitment towards each other and God especially in confirmation, reaffirmation of baptism, marriage, and ordination which may be considered a similar action making official the relationship already in place.

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