The Sacraments

From a 1993 article by Thomas Howard, Recognizing the Church:

Fifth and finally, the sacraments of the Church confront me. The word sacrament is the Latin word for the Greek mysterion, mystery. Indeed, we are in the presence of mystery here, for the sacraments, like the Incarnation itself, constitute physical points at which the eternal touches time, or the unseen touches the seen, or grace touches nature. It is the Gnostics and Manichaeans who want a purely disembodied religion.

Judaism, and its fulfillment, Christianity, are heavy with matter. First, at creation itself, where solid matter was spoken into existence by the Word of God. Then redemption, beginning not with the wave of a spiritual wand, nor with mere edicts pronounced from the sky, but rather with skins and blood—the pelts of animals slaughtered by the Lord God to cover our guilty nakedness. Stone altars, blood, fat, scapegoats, incense, gold, acacia wood—the Old Covenant is heavily physical.

Then the New Covenant: We now escape into the purely spiritual and leave the physical behind, right? Wrong. First a pregnancy, then a birth. Obstetrics and gynecology, right at the center of redemption. Fasting in the wilderness, water to wine, a crown of thorns, splinters and nails and blood—our eternal salvation carried out in grotesquely physical terms. Then pure spirituality, right? Wrong. A corpse resuscitated. And not only that—a human body taken up into the midmost mysteries of the eternal Trinity. And Bread and Wine, Body and Blood, pledged and given to the Church, for as long as history lasts. Who has relegated this great gift to the margins of Christian worship and consciousness? By what warrant did men, 1,500 years after the Lord’s gift of his Body and Blood, decide that this was a mere detail, somewhat embarrassing, and certainly nothing central or crucial—a show-and-tell device at best? O tragedy! O sacrilege! What impoverishment for the faithful!

May God grant, in these latter days, a gigantic ingathering, as it were, when Christians who have loved and served him according to patterns and disciplines and notions quite remote from those of the ancient Church find themselves taking their places once again in the great Eucharistic mystery of his one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

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