Recognizing the Church – Part 5 – SACRAMENTS


"...vessels that hold the 'medicine of immortality'..."

Number 5 in a series of 5

In this final post Thomas Howard summarizes the fifth and final mark of the Church as being found in the continual celebration and reception of the Sacraments, or Mysteries of the Church.  The Sacraments are not mere historical  remembrances.  They are not just ‘symbols’ or ‘signs’ of things we ”must do” legalistically every once in a while.  But rather they are the very breath, life  and mercy of God given to us everyday.  One thing has been clear to me in my journey through time  and experience, traveling ever forward  to find the fullness of Christ, and in doing so, finding His Church is this:  

Don’t be afraid to look back, and open the door to the words, writings and actions of  the ancestors of the faith.  There is treasure there beyond belief, riches beyond your wildest imaginations, and Truth in all of is doctrinal purity.  Have courage and follow the trail back to the richness of work that the “Giants of our Family Tree” have provided for us – and allow that truth to inform the way you live every day.  Apostles, Apostolic Fathers, Bishops, Priests, Martyrs, Saints and Ecumenical Councils – its all there – all of it waiting for you to discover – if you will only have courage to jump in.  Go back and listen to the whispers of our roots, go back and read… for in going back to the wisdom of the ages, we will have the knowledge and strength to go forward with confident certainty, in an age of continual uncertainty.

For too long, we’ ve allowed our blind arrogance and pride, and “modern sensibilities” to assume that everything prior to the 16th Century Reformation was utterly and completely wrong – or at least tainted so much that it could not be restored, and thus had to be jettisoned so we could “create” a new and improved Christian ethos.   So in humility I challenge you, as I challenged myself, don’t be afraid.  Go back and study if for yourself, and you will find the “fullness of the faith“, the wholeness and complete substance of The Church… the faith ‘delivered once for all…’  

One of the great saints of the Church, St. Vincent of Lerins, who lived in the first centuries said it best like this:

“…we hold fast and believe that which has been confessed always, everywhere and by all…”

Fifth, and finally, the sacraments of the Church confronts 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 take up in 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.


(This series of writings from Thomas Howard are reprinted from Touchstone: A Journal of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, Summer 1993, Volume 6  Number 3.  Adapted from a lecture given in 1993 to the Fellowship of St. Barnabas in Oklahoma City.)


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