Monday, October 02, 2006

Reception of Divinity in Tears: Baptism, Eucharist, and Sex

Tbis was first on my new MySpace blog, which is none other than this blog copy/pasted. So, no need to switch, but for those of you who desire some MySpace contact, no problem, just go here.

Today I'd like to comment on the nature of Sacraments - ritual acts performed by religious groups (in this case the Church) in order to actualize some kind of spiritual reality.

Christians are always walking a very odd line on ritual acts. On the one hand they've always been celebrating what are called the Mysteries of Faith (Gk: Mysterion), most especially Eucharist (ie: communion, Lord's supper) and Baptism. On the other, it cannot be that our ritual actions are magic. They're not passive acts where God 'does something' unrejectable and obvious to the recipient.

The basic idea of a Sacrament presumes that the individual understands both the visible and invisible realities to be A. Truly existant and B. Existant on their own terms - ie. the 'invisible' doesn't have to become visible in order to become 'Real', nor does the visible have to be supernatural imbued for all to see in order to participate in the divine - the bread and wine of the Eucharist would appear as exactly that under a microscope at any point in the consecration.

In this post I'm only going to be talking about a proposition by Symeon the New Theologian and Mark the Monk, who have parallel ideas, on the nature of Baptism.

As most Church Fathers of their day, both simply presume infant Baptism in the Byzantine tradition. Yet, both are also charismatic and ascetic teachers who believe strongly that a person has to manifest the grace imparted to them in Baptism by taking on the Holy Spirit, which is only shown by a certain virtue in their lives. This is the Baptism "in the spirit of power" if you will, without which the clerical act appears not to work.

But that isn't entirely true. In fact the cultic ritual of Baptism does work according to both authors. The person is initiated into the Death of Christ, and the Grace of God is fully present. But, and both authors add this qualification, the grace only becomes effecacious when the person attempts to live into it; i.e. it is only when the spirit enlivens that grace to the person's consciousness that the gifts are what they are. It's a strange concept when put so abstractly, but perhaps it's not so complex if we adopt the correct stance.

As with anything 'theology' has a view of what it intends to do. Just as history proposes to tell us what occurred in the past and Physics attempts to quantify the natural laws of the universe. Too many of us presume that theology is fundamentally no different than History: the record of God's miracles that we're supposed to assent and orient ourselves towards.

But that's not really true. Simple fact is that most of us have no grand vision of light... we have no single experience that another person of a secular disposition couldn't shrug off as delusional, emotional, or self-serving. And it's true, we Christians (and other faithful people) look at the same darkness that everyone else sees... but we see something else beyond it.

This, then, is the proper goal of Theology: To see the divine realities behind the mundane material world and to attempt to manifest the knowledge of them in our lives.

So it's not really an attempt to convince someone that what's not there is there, in some materially true sense. Rather, it's changing the eyes with which we see the same thing. So, speaking of taking the Bread and Wine in the Eucharistic celebration as Christ's body and blood of salvation St. Symeon writes "If those who eat of His Flesh and drink of His Blood have eternal life, according to divine Word, but when we eat of it and have in ourselves no more sense than from eating corporeal food, without gaining an awareness of the other life, we have received mere bread, and not God as well."

So for Symeon it's perception - the eyes we see with - which really makes the divine reality capable of being received.

What we see then is that the seemingly magical formulas of Christian ritual life are only valid once they're received properly. We only really know of their effects by reference to an outside event, usually something that takes place after the ritual act itself. For example, speaking of Baptism, St. John Climacus writes:

"The tears that come after Baptism are greater than Baptism itself, even though it may seem rash to say so. Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after Baptism are washed away by tears. The Baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew by tears. If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find."

The poetic image of tears is both beautiful and effective. On the one hand we cannot miss the literary parallel between watery liquids involved in the two Baptisms. Secondly, we cannot miss the metaphorical connection between tears and struggling; pain.

And so it is for Climacus that it is only when we've struggled to the point of tears that we begin to realize the truth of our Baptisms. Put another way, Paul says unambiguously that all of those who are Baptized into Christ have been Baptized "into his death... so that in sharing in a death like his, they may also share in a life like his." The Epistle connection is very straight forward - you die to this world as Christ died to this world, denying yourself to do the will of God, and so you will share in his resurrection.

The rub is, of course, that not all who are Baptized do this, and we're still very much alive in this world. So, in this case, the only resolution is that those who are Baptized into the death of Christ are not necessarily all who were physically Baptized, but rather those who are Baptized into the death of Christ are the Baptized ones who fulfilled the demands of their Baptism. It is, therefore, only at death that the person's life can be reflected upon as having been among the Truly Baptized or those who have denied their Baptism.

The rituals, in short, are a vow - a promise.

Likewise one could view the marital act, or even the sexual act. Scripturally sex is treated as the union of flesh between two individuals. Ironically, Marriage is the same treatment. Literally, it's exactly the same Scriptural language. Allow me to quote:

[Gen 2.21-24] And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

[Matt. 19:3-6] And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

[1 Cor 6.15-17] Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two shall become one flesh." But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

We see represented here three major divisions of Scripture - Torah, Gospel, and Epistle, all echoing the same language. The message could not be clearer - sex and marriage both unite the two into one indivisible flesh.

Yet this raises an issue. Certainly people do get divorces, and certainly not everyone whom fornicates with someone becomes a committed, life-long spouse of that person - especially if it's a hired prostitute!

So it would seem to me to fall under the same general rubric as Baptism: Sex is the consummation - the physical act meant to manifest the spiritual truth of two completely and divinely united persons into a bond so close that they are, in the unseen realm, one. But, whether that is truly the case can only be seen at death. The sex is, if you will, the vow... the vow to unite with someone totally as we seek to unite even with God. But, inasmuch as that vow is broken through infidelity, fornication, or divorce, then it's unfulfilled.

The sex itself doesn't make the two persons one flesh, but rather the life-long committment of the two persons, at the end, will validate the truthfulness or falsity of the sexual promise - just as the life in Christ will validate or invalidate the promises of Baptism and Eucharist.

So again, the imagery is effective if and only if the recipient can see the divine purpose and act upon it. The power of God is always there; it's a promise of the way things are. At the final judgement Eucharist will be understood as the true Body and Blood of Christ, Baptism will be understood as initiation into the Kingdom of God, and yes, even Sex will be judged as the unity of flesh between two persons.

I think that the point is that only if we live into the responsibilities of the Sacrament do we derive the benefits. God will not condemn us per se, but we can most certainly condemn ourselves. The Sacraments always link promises to responsibilities: If you share in the death, you share in the life; if you take the body and blood worthily then it is unto forgiveness of sin/soul and body, and if you unite truly then your unity will be co-salvific, accounted worthy under God. The penalty for not living into those "if's" is simple, the blessing which accompanies them will not be effacacious towards salvation.

Not that any of this is dogma, or above forgiveness (thank the lord!). In fact, we can never forget the cleansing power of the Baptism by Tears. In that Baptism all things are made anew before God. :)


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