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Sacraments as Apocalyptic

It is almost universally agreed that the church’s sacraments are in some sense constitutive of the church’s being and identity. However, the sacraments are not merely immanent practices of the church, but are in some sense singular events that “happen” to the church in the act of gathering. Indeed, we could even say that the church’s act of gathering is an ecclesial practice designed to establish a posture of communal openness and fitting reception of the gift of God in the sacraments. The church gathers as an act of hospitality towards God’s dynamic act of gift-giving that occurs singularly in the sacraments.

What this yeids is an apocalyptic construal of the church’s sacraments. Clearly the sacraments are in some sense “internal” to the church’s life and definition, and yet they constitute a divine apocalyptic intrusion into the church’s life, an epiphanic manifestation of God’s invasive eschatological presence. Herein lies the paradox: the sacraments are intrusive and outside of our control as divine apocalyptic action, and yet they are not erratic but dependable and constant (i.e. faithful) within our common life as the ecclesia.

This points to what we might want to call a transcendental mark of the ecclesia of Christ in all its practices: hospitality. The church itself is a gathering of persons in utter poverty before God who, through the Spirit’s gift name themselves truthfully as the recipients of God’s unprecedented grace. Thus the church lives in and as a space of emptiness, openness, and receptivity towards God’s apocalyptic gifts which exceed, shatter, and transfigure ourselves and our conceptual idolatries.


  1. Hill wrote:

    What does the Church’s life look like before it is intruded upon by the divine in the sacraments? It seems odd to speak of the Church being intruded upon by that which constitutes it. I still maintain that when speaking metaphorically (and speaking of God as intruding or invading is metaphorical) it’s important to take in to account the literal meanings of the words which one is employing metaphorically, else they become ciphers. Likewise, what does it mean to be hospitable to invasion? Hospitality is a posture that renders the prospect of invasion impossible, by the very meaning of the words. This is ultimately clumsy language. If we were compelled by some sort of revelation to employ it, I would be somewhat more sympathetic, but we aren’t, at least not in any obvious way.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well if the literal meanings of words are to be strictly adhered to in this way then we can’t speak of the church as being constituted by the sacraments at all, since ecclesia simply means “gathering,” in an literal sense.

    The point is that what we experience in the sacraments are things of a radically event-oriented variety. What happens is epicletic, an encounter with God occurs therein, which, while dependable and faithful is not something we could control by some sort of ritual alchemy, dole out, or control.

    Since it is out of our control and management, we experience the sacraments as events that happen to us, and these events are eschatological, bringing new, unprecedented, unassimilable gifts into our life.

    The language of invasion is utterly appropriate to the language of eschatological gift precisely because all our encounters with the transforming presence of God involve a confrontation with our sinfullness and its purgation. We must strive for hospitality towards this sort of interruption, but that doesn’t make it any less of of an invasive presence that is unexpected, and often painful.

    This is seen very clearly in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor who always portrays the experience of grace as a radically alien presence that shatters and transfigures our very selves. Just to provide an example.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’ve been thinking about this while I’ve been at lunch. I first wanted to mention that I really appreciate talking about this stuff because it really helps me to probe more deeply in to the way I formulate these sorts of things. Also, I’m much more closely aligned with what you are saying that I may imply at times. I think we are looking at the same thing, through a glass darkly, and working earnestly to describe it, but always incompletely.

    I agree with the basic shape of what you are presenting here. My main comments just have to do with the aesthetic and conceptual adequacy of the concept of invasion. Perhaps that is even too strong of a way of phrasing it–it might be better to say the location and emphasis of the concept of invasion. A few brief reflections that came to me:

    I think mainly I’m concerned with characterizing our encounter with God as essentially invasive or intrusive, because I think that denies the contingency of sin. I’m not really suggesting you are doing this, but it seems like a persistent danger. The particular usefulness of the word invasion is it’s connotation of the undesirability of the act of the invader upon the invaded, or at least the act is perceived as undesirable by the invader. Now I think this in fact takes place. However, I don’t think it makes sense to say that invasion is what the church aspires towards, because that is essentially saying: “I want to not want to be encountered by God and then nonetheless encounter him.” In the beatific vision (aka “heaven”) it is precisely this resistance to God (sin) which has been finally purged from creation, so if anything, what the church wants is to not be invaded anymore, or for her encounter with God to be one of harmony and unpolluted desire (while nonetheless being ever new, ever exhilarating, ever drawing us forward from glory to glory, epektatically). If invasion is the “end” in some sense of our salvation, it seems like a pathological desire to not desire God and nonetheless receive him, because for me, desire is a crucial linguistic component of the concept of invasion. Another way of saying this, that I’ve said before, is that the invasion we experience is a contingent phenomenon, precisely because invasion is predicated on our ambivalent desire for God. Just to reiterate, however, we do in fact experience this invasion, because we are sinful.

    This brings me to a point in your reply that I found very fruitful. I am much more comfortable with the idea of purgation, because this idea has the contingency of sin built in to it, and is even employed scripturally. The idea of the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3) and our work being tested by fire and that which is imperfect being burned away (1 Cor 3). The reason I find this some what more compelling is that it allows God and his act to be perfectly what they are (metaphorically, fire, light) and it is our contingent sinfulness that determines whether we experience this light and fire as warmth and radiance or as fiery purgation. I’m gesturing vaguely here to far more eloquent and developed treatments of this imagery in the tradition.

    Hopefully that clarifies a bit my emphasis and my general agreement with you.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I want to weigh in on this later, but for now I just wanted to clarify one thing…”ekklesia” doesn’t “literaly” mean “gathering” — it means “the called out [ones],” whereas “synagogue” would be the Greek equivalent of “gathering,” or “the gathered” (the German equivalent of the latter being “Gemeinde,” not “Kirche,” as Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Barth have all noted). In other words, mission, sending, exile, dispersal, dispossession are constitutive of what it means to be church…the linguistic is concomitant with the theological in the NT.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Wow…I’ve rifled off a couple of comments in the past couple of days in haste, and they keep coming off as really snarky….sorry bout that Halden.

    I wasn’t trying to be too assertive there…I actually meant to include a question about where you were taking the meaning of ekklesia from. Again, sorry if that came off as a bit aggressive and I will add more to this later. Peace.


    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    No worries Dave, it doesn’t come off that way to me at all. Perhaps because I’m one of the more snarky commenters to ever invade the theoblogosphere!

    And of course you are right about the translation of ekkelsia. Although I don’t think it changes my point much. I was thinking of how the term had come to be understood on the basis of it being used ad the Greek translation of the Hebrew qohol in the Old Testament, which always referred to the gathering of the people of Israel.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  7. Mike Bull wrote:

    The Lord’s table can certainly contain contradictory facets because it is many Old Testament concepts rolled into one. It is at once a weekly submission to a highly invasive “jealous inspection” (Numbers 5; 1 Cor 11:27-29; Revelation 14:10), a death and resurrection through an identification with the Table of Showbread, and a communal celebration at the banqueting table of Greater Solomon. It is plain carbon compressed and cut by God into a diamond with many faces.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  8. Richard wrote:

    That is a great picture, where did you find it?

    Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 7:46 am | Permalink
  9. I want to highly recommend Praxis Obnoxia for all to get and read. It is very scholarly, scholastic, concise, and very revealing concerning the Invalid Vatican II Rite of Baptism. From the discussions I am having, certain Bishops and Priests re-baptize Protestants and Novus Ordo converts alike to join them to the communion of their churches because of the defective practices performed by the sectarian ministers who allegedly baptized them. While other clergy are Indifferent or do not have a precise praxis. I hear various stories that lack uniformity of ritual. So, I feel this book is something Catholics should consider. I even met certain Orthodox and Uniate Catholic clergy who consider this a very hot topic between Old Calendar/New Calendar and New Ritual/Old Ritual persuasions. Some groups re-baptize, some only use chrismation, some also are unsure. Baptism is necessary by a necessity of means, and the validity of the other sacraments rely on its valid reception, so this is a most important topic.

    Here’s a summary of the book and how you can get a copy:

    Praxis Obnoxia: A Moral-Theological Conclusion On The New Modernist Rite of Baptism.

    Praxis Obnoxia: A Moral-Theological Conclusion On The New Modernist Rite of Baptism, investigates the Novus Ordo “Praxis” of baptism as very questionable and positively doubtful for validity. The book provides ample documentation and a bibliography with sources from the Apostolic See, theologians, rubricians, and canonists, original liturgical texts in Latin and English, and lots of photographic illustrations. This book is strongly recommended for all who truly desire to be a good Catholic. For since the importance of receiving a doubtless valid baptism is so great, we felt it necessary to publish this work to be instrumental in the salvation of countless souls. We ask that after reading this book, to inform your neighbor, family, friends, and clergy about this book, lest all is lost.

    Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  10. PaulW wrote:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, halden… I’d want to extend it though to include the preaching of the Word, which shares the internal/intrusive dynamic you describe.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

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