Promptings towards a Sacramental Worldview
Thank you very much, Dr. King, for your efforts to bring some order of understanding to what seems to be the very complicated and divided landscape of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in America. Your providing the link to the 24-point statement of belief given in the 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith was very helpful.
I’m especially interested in its fifth point:
We believe that God has created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that God preserves and renews what has been made. All creation has its source outside itself and belongs to the Creator. The world has been created good because God is good and provides all that is needed for life.
In my opinion, it would seem that this tremendously positive, Creation-affirming statement could well be the basis upon which Anabaptists and Mennonites might develop a sacramental understanding of the material world and all of Creation—a view that would be in accord with the sacramental understanding of all of the material realm that the Orthodox Church has always held from the very beginning. This is the foundational understanding that because the material realm was created by the Good God Who Loves Mankind, and because He Himself repeatedly called it “good” according to the Genesis account, it thereby has the capacity to convey spiritual reality and power.
The Orthodox understanding is that all of Creation is somehow undergirded by, and even penetrated, to some extent, with divine grace. The renowned Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his seminal work, For the Life of the World, uses the phrase “the natural sacramentality of the world” to convey this understanding.
This view is reflected in the Old Testament understanding of holy places—such as when the Lord says to Moses as he stands near the Burning Bush, “Take the sandals off your feet, for the ground you are standing on is holy” (Ex. 3:5). This understanding of holy places is later extended and expanded when the Lord commands Moses to construct the Tabernacle as a special place for the Lord to dwell in and to meet with His people—and later still, with David and Solomon building the Temple—and with the Shekinah Glory (the Holy Spirit) filling these holy spaces, and with the most sacred, inner part of the Tabernacle and the Temple being called the “Holy of Holies.”
Perhaps the most dramatic instance in the Old Testament of a portion of the material realm conveying spiritual power is when the bones of the Prophet Elijah bring a dead man back to life (2 Kings 13:21). We see such power again in the New Testament, when Christ uses spittle and dirt to make mud to heal the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6); and when Peter’s shadow, and handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin, accomplish physical healings, as reported in the Book of Acts (5:15 and 19:12).
The sacramental worldview also is very much reflected in Christ’s words about the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, as He declares these material elements to be indeed His body and blood, which the Orthodox understand to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in some very mysterious way (far beyond all possible human description or understanding; hence Orthodoxy does not accept the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which attempts to explain this mystery using philosophical categories).
With Christians having this sacramental worldview from the very beginning, it’s no wonder that Baptism has always been understood as a powerful bestowal and conveyance of divine grace into the one being baptized. For we understand that the water and oil that are used in Baptism and Chrismation, being already penetrated with grace and therefore being latently holy, become further suffused with grace/spiritual power when they are prayed over and the Holy Spirit is besought to sanctify them.
And with this understanding of the very real sanctifying and vivifying power of the water and oil used in Baptism and Chrismation, it’s no wonder that we would not want to deny our children, and even our infants, the benefits of receiving this spiritual power from their earliest days. This also explains why the Orthodox (and Eastern Rite Catholics) commune baptized/chrismated infants and very young children at the Eucharistic chalice (that the Roman Church, except for those celebrating an Eastern rite, have not maintained this ancient traditional practice would seem to be a significant loss, from the Orthodox vantage point).
And if it’s remarked that the babies and young children don’t have any understanding of what’s happening to them as they receive these sacramental ministrations, we would reply, “Does anyone really fully understand what’s happening? And what about mentally challenged persons—would we deny them the sacraments because they don’t have the rational capacity to understand them?”
Of course, the full expectation undergirding the practice of infant Baptism is that as they are brought up and nurtured and instructed in the communal life of the Church, these baptized, chrismated, and Eucharistically-communing children will gradually, more and more, personally appropriate this grace conscientiously, and will increasingly exert their own will in conjunction with the grace that they’ve been receiving sacramentally all along—grace which has been giving them such a wonderful “head start” in the Christian life.
Thank you again, Dr. King, for your words. May mine be helpful to you.
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