Ritual or Sacrament … or Both?

Hey, folks! I’ve been “on the job” at Christ Lutheran in Cape Coral for just a hair over five months now, and I think I’m sufficiently settled in to start writing here again, at least occasionally.

On THIS occasion, let’s reflect on the sacraments. It shouldn’t take long, since we Lutherans only have two of them: Baptism and the Eucharist.

Before diving in, here’s what prompted this reflection. A saint of the congregation I serve listened to me preach this past Sunday, which happened to be the occasion of an adult baptism. (Yaaaaaaay!) The exact context in which I used the word “ritual” escapes me right now, but this person – a friend – was put off by the word. “You referred to Baptism as a ritual. I disagree. Isn’t it a sacrament?”

Now, that’s a really great question. Based on the rest of the conversation, to refer to Baptism and the Eucharist as “rituals” kind of degrades the “sacredness” for him. When I pointed out that the sacraments include ritual elements, he responded, “It is a ritual but Baptism and the Eucharist are special. There are a lot of organizations (even families) that have rituals, but the Lord gave us sacraments.”

Yes! The Lord DID give us sacraments, but here’s the kicker: anthropologically speaking, humans NEED rituals. It’s part of our story-telling nature. The Eucharist is a great example.

John’s Gospel tells us over and over that Jesus knew what humankind was like, and laid it out like this: “The judgment of the world is this: that the light has come into the world, and humans love darkness more than the light, because their deeds were evil.” Jesus was never naive about the way of human beings. At the same time, the REASON he came into the world was “so that the world,” which “God so loved,” “might not be condemned, but might be saved.”

As part of his world-saving plan, using what we ALREADY do, but subverting it from within, he gave us a table ritual. Jesus himself first TAKES the bread, then he GIVES THANKS, then he BREAKS the bread, then he GIVES it away. He does this with the words that we call “the words of institution:” “Take and eat; this is my body. Take and drink, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

A command from Jesus, an ordinary element, and a ritual. Of course, it’s MORE than a ritual, but it IS a ritual nonetheless. What happens in the course of this ritual is the remembrance that Jesus, knowing full well about our love for the darkness rather than the light, gives us himself as the sacrifice in the ritual – a sacrifice that substitutes his own body for the bodies of the many people we beat and humiliate and murder and devour on a daily basis, and he says, “Do that to me instead. I’m the one who can withstand your worst, and rather than ramp up the violence as revenge against you, I offer you forgiveness. Eat MY flesh instead of one another’s. Spill MY blood and drink it instead of drinking one another’s blood.” It’s a RITUAL because we need ritual, but the power is shifted from unwilling victims to a willing one. Therein lies the sacrament, or the sacredness, of this particular ritual. “Do this, whenever you do it, in remembrance of me.”

Baptism isn’t that different. It’s also based in murder: murder of the old self, the “worldly” self, the self that loves darkness more than the light. In that water, God meets us again with forgiveness rather than retribution, and this is what gives us new life. We perform this murder and raising from the dead ritually.

If we didn’t NEED ritual, Jesus would have just said, “This is my body and blood. Remember that, and we’ll be good.” If we didn’t NEED ritual, we could just understand that we die with Christ and are raised with him again and we wouldn’t need all of that messy water and anointing oil. Yes, these things are ALSO sacraments, but we can’t discount that they are also rituals, and they are given to us as “a means of grace.”

Philip Melancthon (Luther’s “right hand man”), in Article 13 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession defined the sacraments as “rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added […].” He went on to clarify that “humanly instituted rites are not sacraments, properly speaking, because human beings do not have the authority to promise grace.”

In the same paragraph, Melancthon explains:

God moves our hearts through the word and the rite at the same time so that they believe and receive faith just as Paul says [in Romans 10:17], ‘So faith comes from what is heard.’ For just as the Word enters through the ear in order to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart. The word and the rite have the same effect. Augustine put it well when he said that the sacrament is a ‘visible word,’ because the rite is received by the eyes and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect.

All of this is merely to say that a sacrament contains ritual as a central component. At the same time, not all rituals are sacraments, as our mutual friend points out. While I used the term “ritual” intentionally last Sunday – to make the point of the visible aspect of God’s gift to us – maybe it would have been just as good, if not better, to stick with the term “sacrament” in this case. But I said what I said, and a good thing that has come from it is that it gave us an opportunity to clarify (at least to ourselves) the similarities and differences of those two words, and to be able to articulate to one another where we’re coming from. Did it bring agreement? Not necessarily. But neither did it bring distress or a cause for stumbling. And it brought about conversation, so I’m counting that all as good.