Sacramental Theology Under the Sun
“How do you fit those two things together?” I paused before answering. I do this more as I age. She and I, along with another bright student (with her dog, Samson), were talking about theology, spiritual formation, and dogs—as we enjoyed craft beer at Living the Dream Brewery. The two things needing fitting together were sacramental theology and the Ecclesiastes kind of life, which is so much of my life.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes, 9:11; KJV).
Life is unfair and unpredictable for the most important matters. Understanding escapes us, even as we thirst for it.
Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it (Ecclesiastes 8:17-18; KJV).
Under the sun, we walk in the fear of God, committing much to mystery, trying to enjoy what God gives—and takes away.
Sacramental theology, as I tried to tease it out, affirms that the world is full of heaven; the natural speaks of the supernatural; life is rich with symbolic meaning; the finite mediates the infinite. God is with us, in us, and for us. We experience this most dramatically in the Eucharist and in the Spirit-led preaching of Holy Scripture. Consider Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion teaching on communion.
XXVIII. Of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ. . .
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.
Sacramental theology speaks of Christ’s “real presence” in the Eucharist, but also of God’s presence in and through all areas of life. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Or, as the hymn sings, “This is my Father’s world. He shines in all that’s fare.” So, then, how can a theology of Ecclesiastes faith amidst the ruins of a wrecked world be squared with a sacramental faith that claims God’s good presence everywhere, but especially in the two sacraments (Eucharist and baptism)?
God does vouchsafe his presence and direction through nature, friendship, reading, and much else. He is always there, always here within us. But God sometimes hides himself (Isaiah 45:15) and keeps his own counsel, leaving us dry and dusty—and even desperate. Hence the many sad reflections of Ecclesiastes and elsewhere in the Bible. We should try “read the signs of the times,” while knowing that much of it is indecipherable. This is our lot “under the sun,” our way in a fallen and groaning world that yet awaits its full redemption (Romans 8:16-23).
The sacraments, on the other hand, are not indecipherable. They ring out in sight, touch, and taste. Their meaning is biblically fixed (however much we wrangle about that) and durable. They are the substance of two thousand years of Christian practice. The elements of these practices—water, bread, wine—are common, not esoteric. We don’t need a French deconstructionist to interpret them for us (or anything else). These elements become symbols that mediate the sacred for us through the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth. They are God-ordained, not invented by mere mortals. Nor are they subject to revision. Their meaning is fixed, solid, and reliable—week after week, month after month, year after year. Of this, we can be certain. The sacraments of the church anchor us in the eternal. We may be tethered to eternity as we are blown around by a world that often makes little sense, the Ecclesiastes world “under the sun.”
The church’s sacraments remain true and holy, real no matter what assails us, even though,
the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all (Ecclesiastes 9:11; KJV).
And yet, the Gospel is true, no matter what. Christ is Lord, come what may. God has given us his symbols and practices to root us in him in a rootless world, to train us to remember what the world wants us to forget. The more forsaken I feel, the more I cling to the realities that the sacraments reveal to us. For now, that is how I combine Ecclesiastes and sacramental theology. Thank you for asking, my young student. Perhaps we will talk again.