For those pastors and congregations using the Three-Year Lectionary, the Holy Gospel appointed for this Sunday (Lent 5, Series B) is from the 10th chapter of St. Mark. It is a pivotal point in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The immediate context includes His Word concerning marriage and divorce; His encounter with the rich young man (John Mark); and His healing of blind Bartimaeus at Jericho. And at the center of this significant chapter, in this Sunday's Holy Gospel, is the Lord's clear forthtelling of His Cross and Passion, His response to the bold request of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and His preaching of His sacrificial servanthood as the ransom for us all.
It is profoundly significant that our Lord describes His forthcoming Cross and Passion, the culmination of His earthly life, in terms of the Holy Sacraments: It is the Baptism with which He is baptized, and the Chalice which He drinks. Not only that, but the faith and life of His disciples is a matter of being baptized with His Baptism and of drinking His Chalice. It is by the sharing of these Sacraments of His Cross and Passion that His disciples live with Him in the glory of His Kingdom. Only, what is death for Him, and judgment and the wrath of God, is forgiveness and life and salvation for His disciples. Everything crescendos, for Him and for us, in Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion. St. Paul also says as much in his discussion of Holy Baptism in Romans 6, and in his discussion of the Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.
Such sacramental emphases have served as an important key to my reading and preaching of the Gospel. Indeed, it has seemed obvious to me that the Church's faith and life are founded on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and centered in the Sacrament of the Altar. For these are the very things that define our Lord's own life and ministry, even unto His death upon the Cross. Of course, the Sacraments would be nothing apart from His Cross and Resurrection, but, the fact is, they could not be more intimately united than they are with that great Victory of Christ, our Paschal Lamb who sets us free. We are baptized into His death, and we eat the Feast of His sacrifice — His body given, His blood poured out — proclaiming His death until He comes.
From time to time, I have wondered and worried whether this sacramental understanding of the Scriptures, and of the Christian faith and life, were simply my own perspective or idiosyncrasy. If so, that would not be a good thing; for true theology is not overly clever, unique or peculiar, but consistent with the teaching and confession of the Church catholic. There is always the danger that what seems very clear to one or another of us, may have more to do with our own imperfect perceptions than with the sure and certain Word of Christ. Thus, we do not stand alone in our reading and preaching of the Scriptures, but we abide within the House that our wise Lord Jesus Christ has built upon the Rock. Attempting to stand upon the Rock outside of that House will only get us swept away by the storms of life that rage against us.
With those concerns in mind, I have been encouraged, as well as edified, by my reading of the early church fathers. For there, too, I have found (or, rather, received) a beautifully consistent sacramental emphasis, over and over again, in one father after another, from the "Apostolic Fathers" to the great champions of the first three ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus). Not systematic treatises on the doctrine of the Sacraments, but a decisively and distinctively sacramental view of faith and life. For the fathers, it is clear, Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion are not simply practiced as a given in the life of the Church; but, as such, they actually serve to shape and define the Christian's life in the world. Perhaps the following examples and broad summaries will illustrate what I mean.
For St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna (early second century), participation in the Sacrament of the Altar is a real participation in the fruits of Christ's Passion; which means the theology of the Cross. Eating and drinking the crucified body and shed blood of Christ, the Lord, conforms one's own body to bear the cross and to suffer for the sake of holy love. The culmination of the Christian life and discipleship, therefore, is expressed and experienced especially in martyrdom, as Ignatius anticipates for himself in writing his seven letters, and as Polycarp demonstrates in his own heroic martyrdom. And for those who are not put to death in this way, even so, their bodies are offered as a living sacrifice of love within their own proper vocations. Either way, the Christian who lives and dies by faith in Christ becomes a kind of holy wheat, ground into eucharistic bread, and fills up the chalice of suffering.
For St. Irenaeus of Lyons (late second century), the Sacrament of the Altar demonstrates and testifies to the goodness of God's Creation, since He gives to us the very Body and Blood of His incarnate Son by way of the created gifts of bread and wine. As such, participation in the Holy Communion is a sharing in the bodily reality of the Incarnation. This Sacrament transforms the Christian's mortal flesh and blood into the image and likeness of Christ, in preparation for and anticipation of the Resurrection of the body to the life everlasting. In the meantime, along with giving thanks (eucharistia) for God's good gifts of Creation, the Christian already lives by faith and love precisely in and with his body, within his vocations in the world, serving his neighbors according to their own bodily needs. This charity of the body is one of the key things that sets the orthodox Christians apart from the various gnostic sects.
Likewise, for St. Justin Martyr (mid-second century) and Tertullian of Carthage (early third century), the remarkable love of the Christians for one another and for their neighbors — the community and charity of the Church — is rooted in and inseparable from the gathering of the Christians for the Divine Service of the Word and Sacrament. It is in that liturgical context that alms are gathered; and as the deacons distribute the body and blood of Christ to the faithful in the congregation, so do they distribute the Church's charity to the poor and needy in the world.
Tertullian eloquently emphasizes that the soul is neither cleansed nor redeemed apart from the body. For the body is washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, and it is fed with the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. Thus, the life of the Christian in the body is significant; it is in and with the body that faith and love are exercised.
For both Tertullian and Origen of Alexandria (also third century), the sacramental oath of Baptism defines the Christian life in contrast to the idolatry of the world and its temptations. For the renunciation of the devil, all his works and all his ways, and the confession of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, completely redefine the Christian's relationship to the entire world in which he lives. These rites and ceremonies of Holy Baptism testify to a clear distinction between faith and unbelief, between life and death. There simply is no middle ground between darkness and light, no place for any compromise on the part of a Christian. His participation in the Baptism and Cup of Christ necessarily rule out a participation in the demonic rites and ceremonies of the pagans.
By the same token, St. Cyprian of Carthage (mid-third century) warns that, for those who have renounced the faith by sacrificing to idols and participating in the altars of demons, it is not only wrong but dangerous and deadly to participate in the Holy Communion apart from repentance. There is a very tangible and practical seriousness about all of this, and therefore an equally serious practice of pastoral care for those who have fallen, that they may be healed and restored. And restoration to the Church means, specifically, restoration to the Holy Communion.
Cyprian understands that a common sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ constitutes the unity of His Church. It is, indeed, the Holy Communion of all His saints in His one Body, by their participation in these holy things of His Body and His Blood. Even the elements of the Sacrament signify this: As the bread is made from many grains of wheat, and the wine produced from many grapes, and these are gathered from hither and yon into one Meal of Christ, so are His disciples called and gathered from all nations into His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
For St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cappadocian Fathers, and St. Cyril of Alexandria (in the fourth and fifth centuries), the Incarnation of the Son of God by the Word and Spirit of God — and especially His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary — is foundational for the parallel mystery of His Holy Communion. Therein bread and wine, again by the Word and Spirit of God, become the selfsame body and blood of Christ that were conceived and born of St. Mary, in which He also suffered and died under Pontious Pilate. Likewise, the reception of this Body and Blood of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us men and our salvation, tranforms our mortal flesh and blood through communion with Him, and so also vivifies our bodies for life with Him, both here in time and hereafter in the Resurrection.
One of the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (mid-fourth century), beautifully explains that the Church's theology is confessed and practiced and manifested in her doxology. That very point is particularly obvious in Basil's eucharistic rite, which celebrates by way of thanksgiving his confession of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Specifically, the saving work of the Holy Trinity continuously culminates for us Christians in the Sacrament of the Altar, wherein the Holy Spirit reveals the incarnate Son of the Father to us, and whereby we are brought to the Father through Christ in the Spirit. Thus, where others theorize and speculate, Basil prays and praises and gives thanks, and he receives the Holy Communion.
It is not only implicit in Basil's eucharistic rite, but explicit in his great treatise On the Holy Spirit. There he persistently maintains that the foundation for all Christian prayer and doxology is the form and confession of Holy Baptism, as taught and given to us by Christ. That is to say, we are to pray in accordance with that great confession of the faith into which we have been baptized: in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having brought us through the water by His Name, the Lord is our strength and our song, for He has become our salvation.