When I hear the word sacramental, the image (and voice) that pops into my mind is that of Mel Brooks, satirically clad in the attire of a Jewish Rabbi, leading a mule-drawn cart full of Sacramental Wine. He stops to chat with Robin Hood and his Merry Men clad in tight (tight) tights, and then proceeds to bless the rocks and trees and squirrels so that they can drink the sacramental wine. When I first saw this movie, I didn’t understand sacramental. (I may have thought he said Sacramento.) In my young life as a congregant in non-denominational Protestant churches, it wasn’t a word that was thrown around, even as it was practiced. This scene though, has lasted the test of my better understanding of sacrament, and is perhaps even more comical and more poignant as age and understanding align.
A sacrament, according to the “Online Etymology Dictionary,” can be defined specifically as the elements of the Eucharist (also called Communion or Mass)—the bread and wine themselves—and more broadly as any “one of the religious ceremonies enjoined by Christ or the Church.” Prior to the Reformation, the Church recognized 7 specific sacraments: baptism, penance, confirmation, holy orders, eucharist, matrimony, and anointing of the sick. While the post-reformation church may recognize some or all of these, depending on which church, all still agree upon at least Baptism and the Eucharist as being sacramental.
Reading through the full etymology of the word “sacrament” is a fun and nerdy way to better describe what it is I am trying to define in my own life (and where I get those ideas) when I talk or write about sacramental living, and while there are pages more of definition for sacrament, the ones that ring most true to my understanding are these:
- From 3rd Century: “a solemn religious ceremony enjoined by Christ, or by the church for the spiritual benefit of the church or individual Christians, by which their special relation to (God) is created or recognized, or their obligations to Him are renewed or ratified.”
- From 14th Century: “arcane knowledge; a secret, a divine mystery”
A divine mystery, that creates and recognizes a relationship to the God of all creation, that is based in arcane knowledge which, like a secret, a mystery, renews and ratifies connections and obligations (ways of living). Sacramental living then is being reminded constantly of God’s love and grace through arcane knowledge and God-defined mystery.
In my own church now, we take communion every week. It isn’t an afterthought that happens once a month, or once a quarter, but instead is one of the central elements of the weekly service that stands as a renewal and reminder of the grace of God. This weekly communion is not common to our local area churches, or even to the Christian Reformed denomination of which we find ourselves a part; however, this purposeful partaking in sacraments of bread and wine (or grape juice) every week has been transformative in laying foundations for living out of sacrament, and has changed my relationship to the church, and to my understanding of what it looks like to be sent out to live each week. Living out of mystery and renewal of mysterious promises—promises that I’m reminded of every time I eat the bread and drink the wine. Bringing our congregation together to metaphorically and literally be fed each week together reminds us that we are not alone on this journey, reminds us we are beloved so that as we go out into the week, we remember the love and the grace, and that we are part of the story of God. Whether or not you have this weekly reminder in your life, the creation, renewal, and reminder of these promises is how to live a sacramental life. Our sacramental living then is the living out of our daily life because of and continually through those promises. That we can extend grace, because it was given to us, and that we love because he loved us first.
Mel Brooks’ willingness to bless the rocks and trees in order to partake of sacramental wine with a band of vagabonds who were more interested in the drink than the blessing, isn’t that dissimilar to our own need for regular reminders of the ways we are created, connected, renewed and ratified to Christ. While I recognize that the comedic blessing is meant for the comedic response, I also recognize my own need for that same sort of blessing in my daily, average, sometimes vagabond-like life. I would argue that this blessing of the average in order to impart a divine mystery of grace to a people who could never deserve it—to provide renewal, reminder, and strength for the journey—is just what Jesus had in mind at the last supper. Taking average elements of bread and wine and making them sacred so that the living to be done after their consumption would be living that remembered the love and grace given to our undeserving lives. Only to need that reminder again and again. Sacramental living is living in a way that recognizes these promises continually.