The Risen Sacrament

‘Sacrament’ is what you call it when you try to see something invisible. Or, more precisely, it’s what the Christian church calls ‘an outward sign of an inward grace’ — something tangible, audible, sensory, that we use to communicate an otherwise ineffable truth (see Augustine, City of God 10.5). You can’t see the loyalty a man feels towards his wife, but you can see him put a ring on her finger. You can’t hear the devotion in her heart, but you can hear her say ‘I do.’ That’s the sacrament of marriage: it conveys visually and audibly what passes silently and invisibly between two souls.

Language can do that too, which is why so many sacraments have words at their centre: ‘with this ring, I thee wed.’ ‘This is the body of Christ.’ A sentence like ‘you are forgiven’ can be heard when spoken or seen when read, but it conveys something that takes place beyond reach of the senses, an internal act of the will. So we use the word to indicate the act, both in everyday speech and in formal ritual. 

Now there are seven such rituals which qualify as official sacraments in many churches, but that hardly does the concept justice. Because the whole universe is itself a sacrament, a kind of speech: ‘God said, let there be light,’ and the sun and the stars shone forth like words. ‘The skies are a book,’ says Psalm 19, ‘God’s glory is written on it.’ Incidentally, when you look at it this way, the so-called ‘conflict’ between faith and science vanishes like the canard it always was: you come to know God by, not despite, examining his works in time and space. The creator transcends perception; ‘no one has ever seen him’ (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12). But his perceptible creation is the sacramental language he speaks to us about himself.

More than that: the body is the sacrament of the soul. Obviously the details of this are subject to arguments more constant than death and more convoluted than taxes. But for my money this pretty much gets at the gist of it — your body is a physical language for expressing the realities of your spirit. 

There are many fashionable and quite emphatic objections to the notion that such things as spirits even exist, but they are not even slightly persuasive to me. I will say why over-hastily by citing an example I hope will be illustrative. Perhaps euphoria is accompanied in the body by a flood of the chemicals called endorphins. But euphoria is not the same thing as endorphins; if I tell you what endorphins are made out of I have told you exactly nothing about what it feels like to be euphoric. Better, I think, and more true to say that endorphins are physical things in which the spiritual reality of being euphoric is contained. They are like words containing meanings, and the meanings are the experiences of the soul.

The thing is, none of this works like it should. Our bodies are imperfect expressions of our inner lives: we feel heroic passion but break out into an absurd sweat, or want sincerely to exercise but never get off the couch. Language too, for that matter, is only a blunt instrument — Flaubert called it ‘a cracked kettle, on which we beat out melodies to make bears dance, when we wish we could melt the hearts of the stars.’ Our words, our bodies, our sacraments: they all falter and fail. Our brutish grunts and gestures never quite convey with full force and clarity what we think we glimpse with our hearts. 

Hence the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, and that is why St Paul thought that the two of them are at war. We call that war sin: not some naughty thing you did once, but the slippage between who your soul longs to be and what your body sometimes does, between God and the humans who were made to resemble him. Paul also said that we see ‘through a glass darkly,’ and maybe this is what he had in mind — that we who were meant to know God can now only catch partial sight of him in imperfect physical reflections (Galatians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 13:12). 

Except, John’s Gospel tells us, there was once a man in whom God was perfectly expressed. John calls Jesus the ‘word.’ That is a much-maligned English translation of the untranslatable Greek logos — other equally ineffective ones include ‘reason,’ ‘language,’ and ‘speech.’ I actually think ‘word’ gets the idea across alright: Christ comes to be a perfectly embodied language, a sacramental man whose physical life at last expresses rightly who God is, and what sort of souls he made in his image.

When the disciples met Jesus after his resurrection, they were meeting someone who had fulfilled that purpose. Our felt conviction that the soul does not die is now made physical in a body come back from the dead. We can defy spatial and temporal limitations only in our daydreams and memories; the risen Christ can literally walk through walls. Jesus’ resurrected body really does all the things that our souls feel sure they can do, but our own bodies clearly cannot. These strange accounts which read so much like science fiction, these reports of a man who can disguise himself in plain sight or appear out of nowhere at will, are in fact the truth towards which science fiction and mythology point. Our minds are haunted by things like demigods and superheroes because they represent our destiny: a physical life that finally does reflect the astonishing potential of our immortal souls.

Fine, then, it’s our destiny, but it is not our present. Maybe better Christians than I can already walk on water through faith; personally I have never tried without getting very very wet. But from time to time I do find that the things around me speak of God in purer tones than my rationalist convictions would lead me to think possible. In some magnificent thunderstorm or some offhand remark by a friend, in something as perfect as Bach’s counterpoint or as frivolous as a passing stranger whose T-shirt answers the question I had yet to speak aloud: there are moments when the world is like a prism turned at just the right angle so that light which seemed monochrome reveals itself in dazzling technicolor. 

And again in spite of myself I do believe that this is because the logos which was laced through all creation from the beginning is now risen and speaking newly human language in this fallen, sacramental world. The disciples recognised him for an instant: he broke bread with them and then vanished. We catch him out of the corner of one eye before we go back to doubting he ever existed. Our own sight is only halfway healed; our own bodies, still in sin, are not yet fluent in the fresh vocabulary of this redeemed creation. But we can understand enough to make out the promise that one day, when our eyes and ears will be remade, we who now see through a glass darkly will see face to face.

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Here's my translation of Psalm 19 which (fight me) is the best psalm:

Psalm 19

The skies are a book; God’s glory is written on it. Heaven’s dome is a declaration of what his hands can do.

Day gushes forth in speech to day, and night reveals knowledge to night.

No, they have no speech, no utterance — but still! Their voice is heard.

Their wavelength radiates across the whole earth; their words go out to the ends of the world. 
He has placed a temple for them in the sun —

And the sun himself is like a groom emerging from his dressing chamber, like a champion who relishes the race he runs,

From one end of the skies, his starting point, to the other end, towards which he spins on his circuit: not a thing is hidden from his blaze.

God’s teaching is complete in its integrity; it makes the soul correct its course.
God’s testimony is secure; it makes fools wise.

God’s reckonings are upright and direct; they make the heart rejoice.
God’s directives are pure and clear; they make the eyes enlightened.

The fear of God is clean, and it endures forever;
God’s verdicts are honest and his judgments righteous in entirety.

More desirable than gold, than masses of pure ore; sweeter than honey dripping from the comb.

In them even your servant is equipped with circumspection; in keeping them he finds immense reward.

Who can discern his own missteps? Oh cleanse me from hidden things,

Even from my own presumption — shroud your servant in protection, don’t let them rule over me.
Then I will be complete in my integrity; I’ll be cleansed from immense defiance:

May the things my mouth says and my heart contemplates find gracious welcome in your eyes, oh God, my rock and my redeemer.