Friday, June 09, 2006

Sacraments and Ritual

Traditionally, theologians have disliked the idea of calling the sacraments rituals, at least in the sense that the sacraments have something important in common with rituals in other religions. Since the seventies, however, rituals have become a subject much studied, and because of the increased understanding of what rituals are, it is today nothing radical about calling the Christian sacraments rituals.

One must always be careful when talking about the sacraments, for they are mysteries, and to explain them would be to profane them. What systematic theology can do, beside exploring the historical background and formation of the sacraments, is to offer ways to approach them, what Rahner called "mystagogy", ways to open up the mystery. It is naive to believe that the truth contained in the sacraments is easy or immediate, just because it is not founded on language. Further, systematic theology has to have an understanding of the connection between the sacraments and the Christian doctrine.

I think that an understanding of what a ritual is can be very helpful in a discussion on the sacraments of the Christian Church. A ritual is a formal act that communicates something significant, that is not easily said in words, to the community and to the individual participating in the ritual. A ritual derives its power from repetition, tradition and from esthetic considerations, although to overemphasis the esthetics aspect may also threaten the meaningfulness of the ritual.

In the Christian rituals of Baptism and Eucharist, primarily, as well as other rituals, something very central is communicated to the Church and to the Believer. In a way one could say that these rituals aims at internalizing the Christian faith, to make the faith of the church a part of the personality of the believer. Because rituals always involve the body, they affect very deep parts of our selves, parts that is not reached by reflection or discussion.

This means, however, that there is not really a theology about the sacraments, rather theology as a whole is about reflection on the mystery communicated in the sacraments. It is incorrect to try to establish a praxis of practicing the sacraments based on the intellectual understanding of the dogma, rather, the relationship is primarily the opposite, i.e. the intellectual understanding of the dogma is based on the practice of the sacraments.

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