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Volume 16, Issue 1: Liturgia

Sacraments are Rituals

Peter J. Leithart

So. If sacraments are not "means of grace," or "signs," or "symbols," what are they? In some respects, they are in a category all their own. In fact, it is not entirely helpful to talk about baptism and the Supper under the single category of "sacraments." Still, if I have to pick a general category that covers both, I would pick "ritual." I have several reasons.

First, many of the traditional descriptions of sacraments fail because they obscure the fact that sacraments are actions. By contrast, "rite" and "ritual" immediately imply action. Scripture highlights this by the terminology and descriptions of sacraments, particularly in the Old Testament. Exodus 12:26 uses the word "service" with reference to Passover (Exod. 12:26), and the Hebrew word, abodah, frequently means "labor" or "work." Further, the sacrificial "sacraments" of Leviticus consist of a carefully prescribed set of actions. Contrary to the impression given by Augustine's dictum, "add the word to the element and it becomes a sacrament," baptism is not merely the "element" of water plus the word. For a baptism to take place, water must be used in a particular way. The Supper is not merely bread + wine + the Word, but bread-and-wine-eaten-and-drunk-by-the-Church, plus the Word.
Further, by defining sacraments as "rites," we move away from a narrow focus on the physical elements or on the visibility of the elements. To speak of sacraments as rites emphasizes that they are performed by a community and are embedded in the life of that community. Baptism from this angle is seen as a "rite of entry" that expresses the character of the church—that it is a community where racial, economic, and sexual divisions are dissolved (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:27—29). When we all partake of one loaf, the church is publicly and ritually expressing that she is one body in Christ, her many members working together for the edification of the whole. The ritual becomes a standard against which we measure the quality of our life together.
Understanding sacraments as rites also helps us to understand the efficacy of sacraments. Certain Puritans (and Lady Macbeth) to the contrary, rites and ceremonies are not mere window-dressing added to an occasion that could take place without ritual and ceremony. Rites accomplish what they signify. As an "initiation" rite, baptism is analogous to other rites of entry into organizations or groups. When one is admitted to the bar, he has to go through certain formalities, and at the end of the ritual process he becomes an attorney. Going through a wedding ceremony creates a marriage, and transforms a single man into a husband and a single woman into a wife. Ordination turns the candidate into a minister, a swearing-in ceremony makes a person a judge, and an inauguration—presto!—makes a President. Rites do not recognize a status that already exists; they place a person in a new status.
Scripture teaches the reality of status-changing rites. A child circumcised on the eighth day becomes a child of the covenant, and an unclean person who undergoes the prescribed washings is made clean. In the ordination of priests, to take another example, the priest offers a bull for the sin offering (Lev. 8:14—17). Bulls are used for purifications only for priests or the whole congregation (Lev. 4:3, 13—14), so the fact that Aaron uses a bull in the ordination rite is fitting. Other elements of the purification in the ordination rite, however, are not consistent with the purification of priests. In Leviticus 4, the purification of a priest requires the blood to be sprinkled before the veil of the sanctuary and on the horns of the altar of incense (Lev. 4:5—7), but this is not what happens in the ordination rite. Instead, the blood is put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering and the rest is poured at the base of the altar. Thus, the purification rite is and is not like the purification for priests, and the reason is clearly that at the beginning of the rite Aaron was not yet a priest. During the rite, Aaron's sin offering was performed in one fashion; the next day, it would have to be performed in another fashion. His status changed because he went through the rite of filling.
Importantly, through this rite Aaron's status changed before God. To become a priest was not merely to enter a new social status or a new position in a religious organization. Once ordained, Aaron was allowed to approach the tabernacle without being killed, because Yahweh had accepted him as a temple servant. Similarly, when two people marry, their status changes from "single" to "married," and what happens through the rite of covenant-making is said to be something "joined together" by God. A week before the wedding, sex between the engaged couple is fornication and a sin; on the wedding night it is no longer a sin.
To call the sacraments "rites," therefore, is to emphasize that they actually accomplish and do things. God recognizes the baptized person as a baptized person and a member of the Body of Christ. God regards a church that celebrates the Supper as a church that has celebrated the Supper. Conceiving sacraments as "rites" underscores a strong view of the efficacy of sacraments, but there's no magic of mumbo-jumbo here. As rites, sacraments are effective in the same way that words are effective. There's "magic" in the sacraments in the same sense that there's magic in the words "I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit" or "I now pronounce you man and wife."

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