Friday, March 18, 2011

Mystery of Mysteries

When the earliest Fathers of the Church first considered the means that brought them closer to God – the mysteries of the Church – they did not find it necessary to enumerate or systematize them. They were committed to living, rather than simply explaining, the mystery of the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. Nonetheless, from the sixth century on, it became increasingly necessary to offer some kind of reflection on the nature of the mysteries of the Church. Various members of the Church began to propose lists of sacraments. These lists varied to a surprising degree in number and content. According to Kallistos Ware, in his book The Orthodox Church:
Before [the seventeenth century], Orthodox writers vary considerably as to the number of sacraments: John of Damascus speaks of two; Dionysius the Areopagite of six; Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus (fifteenth century), of ten; and those Byzantine theologians who in fact speak of seven sacraments differ as to the items which they include in their list (275).
Perhaps reflecting the fluidity of the prevalent understanding of sacrament, these lists were not at first intended as exhaustive, but only as informative and spiritually nourishing. Eventually, first in the West, many members of the Church came to believe that there are seven, and only seven, sacraments. Even among those who accepted this number, however, there was not always agreement on which sacraments were included in the list. There are a number of rites that were once frequently included among the mysteries of the Church that few now think of in those terms. There are both uses and limitations of dogmatically enumerating the sacraments.

As John Meyendorff writes in his work Byzantine Theology, “Byzantine theology… never formally committed itself to any strict limitation of the number of sacraments” (191). It occasionally became necessary to defend particular rites, when heretics denied their sacramentality - as, for example, when the Manicheans denied the mystery of marriage - but the motivation for limiting the number of sacraments is less clear. Perhaps it was out of the simple desire for clear understanding.

This does not appear to be the motivation of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), who is probably the first to discuss the sacramental mysteries in a systematic way. In his work, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (EH), he writes, “A manifold variety of sensible symbols… raise us hierarchically, in proportion to our capacity, to the oneness of deification, to God and divine virtue” (EH 1 373A-B). This “manifold variety” leading to “oneness” he then discusses at length, giving six specific examples of sacramental rites: the mysteries “of illumination,” “of synaxis,” “of the oil,” “of sacerdotal consecration,” “of monastic consecration,” and “over those who fell asleep.”

1) By “illumination,” Pseudo-Dionysius refers to baptism. He includes what many would later call chrismation under this heading. As baptism and chrismation are parts of one rite, he presents them as parts of one mystery. After he describes the rite of baptism, he writes that the newly baptized person is brought again before the bishop and the bishop “has sealed the man with the oil that produces divine effects.” If one considers “illumination” to contain two sacraments, one could make a case that there are seven sacraments in Pseudo-Dionysius, rather than six. At any rate, they are not the same seven sacraments currently widely accepted (EH 2).

2) By “synaxis,” he refers to the Eucharistic communion (EH 3) .

3) By the mystery “of the oil,” he does not refer to the unction of the sick, but rather to the consecration of oil for use in baptism, chrismation, consecrating altars, and anointing the dead (EH 4).

4) By “sacerdotal consecration,” he refers to the ordination of bishops, priests and deacons (EH 5).

5) “Monastic consecration” refers to monastic profession and tonsure (EH 6).

6) By the mystery “over those who fell asleep,” he refers to the funeral rites (EH 7).

He does not say that there are neither more nor less than these mysteries and his discussion is not an attempt at enumeration. Rather, he refers to the quantity of these “symbols” nonspecifically as “manifold” and does not actually give them a number. Consequently, his interesting omission of certain sacraments – such as unction of the sick, confession, and marriage – does not necessarily mean that he excludes these from among the mysteries. More interesting, perhaps, is his inclusion of certain rites – consecration of oil, monastic consecration, and funerals – that few now understand as sacraments, per se. Thus, this first of many historical sacramental syntheses presents a number of surprises to the modern reader.

Following Pseudo-Dionysius closely, right down to the order and names of the sacraments, Theodore the Studite in the ninth century presents the same list of six sacraments (cf. Meyendorff 191). Demonstrating clearly, however, that neither did he mean this as any kind of a denial of other mysteries, he himself received the unction of the sick before he died. Furthermore, he writes that the faithful of his time often went to confession. Once again, this second early example of a sacramental synthesis is not an attempt to limit or absolutely enumerate the sacraments.

At first, this was no different in the West than it was in the East. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) is one of the last members of the Latin Church to express an understanding of the sacraments that includes more than the well known seven. In his sermon In Coena Domini, he says that there are many sacraments and he appears to count among them the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. This opinion, while seemingly unique to Bernard, makes a certain amount of sense. The foot-washing is a liturgical action observed throughout the Church and directly instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper (cf. John 13:5-14).

There are different Western claimants to the original seven-fold enumeration of the sacraments. A certain Herbord, writing before 1168, claims that Otto, bishop of Bambery (c. 1127) first composed the list of seven sacraments. Gregory, bishop of Bergamo (1133-1146) and Pope Alexander (c. 1150) present the same list. Some hold that Peter Lombard (c.1100-1164), writing around 1150, popularized the list of seven sacraments now commonly accepted in the Latin Church. He writes in Quatuor Libri Sententiarum:
Let us come now to the sacraments of the new covenant; which are baptism, confirmation, the blessing of bread, that is the eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, marriage.
Whoever is most directly responsible, it is clear that from the middle of the twelfth century until the present day, the Latin Church accepts seven, and only seven, sacraments. It is just as clear that before the twelfth century, there was no such developed sacramental system in the West or the East.

Not for a century after this are there any records of this opinion in the Eastern Church, and its first appearance seems to be under direct influence of the West. The Emperor Michael Paleologus’ Profession of Faith to Pope Clement IV in 1267 contains the list of seven sacraments in use by the Latin Church. Meyendorff points out, “the Profession had been prepared… by Latin theologians” (Meyendorff 192). Consequently, this is still not an example of the enumeration of the sacraments in Byzantine theology. Under the same kind of influence, while the Council of Lyons was attempting to restore unity in the Church (1274-1279), Patriarch John Vecco of Constantinople made a similar statement to Pope John XXI (1277).

About this same time, the Byzantine Church began a centuries-long process of independently developing its own synthesis of the sacraments. It is hard to imagine that initial concurrent interactions with the West did not at least in part motivate this development, perhaps even as a counter to – rather than as an imitation of – the Latin sacramental system. However, Meyendorff writes that the Eastern acceptance of a strict numbering of the sacraments, “resulted not so much from the influence of Latin theology as from the peculiarly medieval and Byzantine fascination with symbolic numbers” (192). Casimir Kucharek states in The Sacramental Mysteries, “Orthodox writers reject any inference that the Byzantines borrowed the doctrine of seven sacraments from the Latins” (331). Given the plurality of Byzantine perspectives on the subject for a great while longer, it does not seem especially likely that they “borrowed” anything from the Latin Church, but it does seem possible that they were reacting to the doctrinal development in the Latin Church.

The monk Job provides a list of seven sacraments around 1270. Following Theodore the Studite, he continues to list monastic tonsure among the sacraments, but he combines penance and the unction of the sick. In the sacramental system of Symeon of Thessalonia, written before 1429, the seven sacraments also include monastic tonsure. He joins penance with monastic tonsure, rather than with unction of the sick. Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus, writing before 1437, also includes monastic tonsure in his sacramental enumeration, along with the well-known seven, the consecration of a church, and the funeral rites, thus listing ten sacraments.

Not until the seventeenth century does the list of sacraments commonly provided in the Eastern Churches begin to mirror consistently the list accepted since the twelfth century in the Latin Church. In the present age, somewhat at odds with the majority of Christian history, Kallistos Ware can write, “the Orthodox Church speaks customarily of seven sacraments, basically the same seven as in Roman Catholic theology” (275). While there is a contemporarily heightened awareness of the historical fluidity of the sacramental system, the Church in the present age nonetheless must deal with the current widespread acceptance of the list that the West introduced more than eight centuries ago. There are both benefits and challenges resulting from this reality.

Meyendorff identifies a primary reason for the Byzantine theologians’ frequent acceptance of seven sacraments. He writes that there was a “peculiarly medieval and Byzantine fascination with symbolic numbers: the number seven, in particular, evoked an association with the seven gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-4” (192). In fact, this symbolism is one of the strengths of the seven-fold enumeration of the sacraments. The biblical significance of the number does not end with gifts of the spirit in Isaiah, though these do fittingly refer to the sacraments, which are also, in a sense, gifts of the Spirit – significantly, each of them contains an epiclesis. Additionally, the number seven biblically represents fullness or totality. In Genesis, God completes His creation and rests on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). In the genealogy in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, the beloved Son of God, is the seventy-seventh generation from Adam (Luke 3:23-38). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven times” (Matt 18:21), in other words to forgive always and completely. These are just a few of the biblical examples of the significance of this number. Extra-biblically, as a Byzantine Catholic catechism, Light for Life, points out, “the seven mysteries represent a symbolic perfection, the union of God (the Holy Trinity) with the four elements,” that is, the sacramental union of the divine with creation (part 2, p. 90). If one were to choose a number to symbolize the totality of the one sacramental mystery that is the life of Christ, seven would be a suitable choice. The Byzantine theologians who accepted this number (e.g. the monk Job and Symeon of Thessalonica) had good symbolic reasons for doing so.

Ware identifies another reason the Eastern Church makes some use of the originally Western synthesis of the seven sacraments. He writes, “Even today the number seven has no absolute dogmatic significance for Orthodox theology, but is used primarily as a convenience in teaching” (275). In other words, the well-known list of seven sacraments serves as a catechetically useful and simplified introduction to the sacramental life of the Church. For just one among many examples of the catechetical use of the seven sacraments in the Orthodox Church, there is in the Sacred Catechism of the Orthodox Church written by Greek Orthodox lay theologian Demetrios Vernardakis in 1869 the following question and answer:
Ques. How many are the Divine Mysteria, and which are they?
Ans. Seven. (i) Holy Baptism, (ii) Holy Chrism, (iii) Divine Communion or Eucharist, (iv) Confession, (v) Holy Orders, (vi) Holy Matrimony, and (vii) Evchelaion (52).
The aforementioned more recent Byzantine Catholic catechism, Light for Life, also refers to this list (part 2, p.78) - though not without some qualifications. For example, it points out, “We no longer especially value numeric symbolism” (90).

In the everyday life of the Church, seeking to evangelize the world, proper understanding of the sacraments is most important catechetically. If presented by catechists as a dogmatically exhaustive list, the idea of there being seven and only seven sacraments may do a certain degree of harm to the life of the Church. Christians thus educated may become resistant to grace communicated by other means and may develop an unhealthy, even magical, understanding of the efficacy of the sacraments, as if by these means the Church could force God’s hand and by no other means would He communicate His uncreated energies to the Church. While recognizing the catechetical usefulness and symbolic significance of the seven sacraments, then, catechists must also bear in mind that sacramentality extends beyond this list.

Light for Life remembers, “The Church at various times in its history has recognized other offices…, though they may not be… one of the seven, nevertheless [as] ‘sacramental’ moments” (91) Ware says something similar: “When we talk of ‘seven sacraments,’ we must never isolate these seven from the many other actions in the Church which also possess a sacramental character” (276). These statements exemplify the challenge put forth by the widespread acceptance of the seven-fold sacramental system. Simplification for the sake of symbolism and catechetics is valuable, but can have the detrimental effect of limiting the understanding of God’s sacramental working in human lives. When one treats the list of seven sacraments as if it were exhaustive, it excludes sacramentality from all other things.

Alexander Schmemann seeks to recover the all-inclusive understanding of sacrament in For the Life of the World. He writes, “In a way, of course, the whole life of the Church can termed sacramental” (81) Later, he points out that there is a “‘sacramental’ potentiality of creation in its totality, as well as in each of its elements” (132). All of creation, in the life of the Church, has the potential to become a means of union with God, which is what a sacrament is.

Finally, there is one seven-fold sacramental mystery: the Church, the Body of Christ. There is one mystery, the life of Christ, expressed in innumerable ways. Meyendorff writes of this singular mystery as expressed by manifold mysteries. The “possibility of ‘being in Christ’ [is] essentially manifested in the sacraments, or mysteria, of the Church. These sacraments are… aspects of a unique mystery of the Church, in which God shares divine life with humanity” (191). The divine life is the mystery of mysteries – the mystery made possible by the mysteries. Ultimately, no one can ever absolutely systematize this mystery. Grace abounds within and without the widely accepted categories. The sacramental mysteries of the Church are an expression of God’s deification and recapitulation of the cosmos, the incarnational union of divinity with creation, which makes possible living in ever-increasing union with God. As Ware writes, “The whole Christian life must be seen as a unity, as a single mystery or one great sacrament” (276).


Catherine Alexander said...

Glad to see a new post from you! I had not seen St. Bernard's contributions to this field before. You didn't mention the concept of sacrament vs. sacramental which we often see today to try to neatly explain it. Fascinating topic!

I added your blog to the Eastern and Oriental Catholic Web Ring.

I hope many more find you and subsequently comment through it!

John R.P. Russell said...

Thank you for the comment and the link.

My pastor often says that the only difference between a sacrament and a sacramental is grammatical.

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