Modern humans have a tendency to want everything to be literal, clear and straightforward. As a result we risk losing touch with the symbolic if we fail to give signs and symbols the significance they deserve. One danger of this for Christians is that our sacraments can become empty rituals, lent significance only by the way we approach them. They lose the value that they have in their own right.
Our worship is full of symbols. There may be crosses, candles, robes and vestments, actions, movement, colour, music, incense, holy oil, water, bread and wine, an open bible, a book of gospels carried in procession, icons and the titles and names that we give to God. Religion makes no sense without symbols. Jesus, I’m sure, understood this very well. At the very moment when he achieved the most significant act of his life he took bread and wine, blessed God and shared it with his disciples with the words that all Christians know so well, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” “Do this in remembrance of me.” Here was a deeply symbolic action immediately before he went to his trial and death. The symbol of bread and wine taken, blessed and broken makes sense of the reality that follows it; and the reality of Jesus’s death makes sense of the symbol which precedes it.
I don’t remember very much detail of what I was taught in my confirmation classes (it’s partly time dimming the memory, and partly lack of full attention at the time). But I do remember what I was told about sacraments. As well as being taught, in the words of the catechism, that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, (not something I could make much sense of at the time) I was told that sacraments revealed what the whole Christian life should be like. The meal that Christians share in the eucharist teaches us what all meals should be like; the washing away of sin at baptism shows us what all washing should achieve. Meals should be occasions of nourishment, fellowship and sharing. Washing should be cleansing, renewing and invigorating.
Seeing the sacraments in this way helped me to realise that all life is sacramental. The way we express our relationship with God and with Jesus - the things we do, the things we say - shows us how all of our relationships should be shaped. There is a formality about the way we pray, whether that prayer is through the Church’s liturgy or in the relative informality of a prayer group, or even the prayer expressed to God in a moment of need, anxiety, fear or stress. The way we address God, “Almighty God...,” “Heavenly Father...,” “Blessed God...,”, “Loving Father...,” “Holy Lord...,” “Abba, Father...,” both express our relationship with God and shape it. The same thing happens when we speak to our children and grandchildren, or our wife or husband, “Darling...,” “My love...,” - we are saying what we feel, and, perhaps checking and reassuring ourselves that this is really how we feel. The words we use are of crucial importance, not only in making ourselves understood but also in creating right relationships (or bad ones). For this reason it is important to use words that we mean. If we address the person we love in a tender way but the way we treat them fails to live up to that standard our words are empty and meaningless. Our words though, as well as revealing our true feelings, can help shape our feelings. It becomes difficult not to love someone that we constantly call our love. Similarly when we address God as Father it shapes our relationship with him.
Similarly, the way we act and think and behave reveals our true beliefs. We cannot keep receiving the bread and wine of holy communion without receiving Jesus into our lives. To do so would be to live a lie. This is the way in which holy communion can transform us. We cannot affirm our faith at baptism and receive the washing of Christ, and renew that affirmation when we say the creed or proclaim Jesus as Lord day by day in our prayers and in our witness without that faith being real. This surely is what Paul meant when he said, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12.3). We cannot call God Father without that becoming true for us; we cannot claim to be a servant of Christ without being the servant of all; we cannot claim to love our neighbour without actually doing it. The burden of being untrue to ourselves and what we say becomes too great.
This what the sacramental life means: that what we say and do forms and reflects our deepest beliefs.