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The Sacrament

Liturgy and Spirituality

Prayer Liturgy, and Renewal

The Byzantine Rite Becomes Imperial

The Icon: Sacrament of the Kingdom

The Evolution of the Byzantine "Divine Liturgy"

The Sacrament

Philip Sherrard , The Orthodox Ethos, Studies in Orthodoxy vol. I,
ed A.J . Philippou , Holywell Press, Oxford 1964, p. 133- 139

THE "sacrament" (sacramentum) is, etymologically, either a result of consecration or a means of consecrating by religious sanction (1). The word began to be used in the Latin West in the third century as the equivalent of the Greek"mysterium", which had the meaning of a reality that was hidden, or veiled, or kept secret, but was discovered or revealed or known through initiation ( μυέω , I initiate)." Sacramentum" was a juridical term, belonging to the terminology of Roman jurisprudence, and is in a sense less adequate to convey the significance it is meant to indicate than the Greek"mysterium". In early Christian language,"sacramentum" or"mysterium" was applied to any sacred action or object, in fact to anything which as"mirror" or"form" of the Divine was regarded as revealing the Divine. The number of"mysteries" is therefore potentially limitless, for everything in the cosmos in some manner mirrors or enforms the Divine, and is thus a"mysterium". At the same time, there are particular"mysteria" of special significance in the mystagogic or liturgical life of the Church, the two main ones being the two evangelic"mysteries" of baptism and the Eucharist directly established by Christ. These particular"mysteria", which include the whole liturgical life of the Church, came, by virtue of their special role in the Christian initiation, to enjoy the status of what one might call the Greater Mysteries of the Church. From the historical point of view, it was only in the late thirteenth century and as a direct result of Latin influence that the Orthodox began to reckon as the main"mysteries" of the Church the seven sacraments which nowadays people have in mind when they speak of the"sacraments". But from a strictly doctrinal point of view the number of sacraments cannot be fixed at either two or seven or indeed at any number at all, for the simple reason that, as is explained more fully below, the sacrament is not, and cannot be, a part of, or included in, any quantity or quantitative reckoning: everything is capable of serving as the object of the sacrament, for everything is intrinsically consecrated and divine; is, in fact, intrinsically a"mysterium".

This last remark, however, does not imply that it is meaningless to speak of"particular mysteries", or of the"Greater Mysteries", for the doctrinal (or spiritual) point of view embraces and does not exclude the individual point of view; and what is in question in speaking of particular or greater mysteries is not the intrinsic and essentially sacramental nature of everything per se, but a sacred hierarchy of mysteries established in view of the particular conditions of individual existence in the world. If one is to grasp the sacramental principle, one must understand that these two ideas-first, that of the essentially (and thus equal) sacramental nature of everything and, second, that of a particular hierarchy of mysteries-do not contradict but, rather, complement one another. One must remember, too, that this is not an arbitrary distinction, but one imposed by the very nature of things, the whole created order being built up hierarchically, and yet all states in that order, whether individual or supra-individual, sensible or intelligible, being of equal significance, or insignificance, in relation to the uncreated divine Essence. A failure to connect the doctrinal (or spiritual) with the individual point of view, which is essential if relative distinctions of this kind are to be synthesized and not taken as absolute, is always a sign that the full sacramental consciousness is being obscured by a too rational approach to things.

Let us first consider the sacramental principle itself. It must once again be emphasized that the sacrament is not something set over against, or existing outside, the rest of life, so that it is sacred while the rest of life and all other things are non-sacred or profane or non-sacramental; it is not something extrinsic and fixed in its extrinsically, as if by some sort of magical operation or Deus ex machina the sacramental object is suddenly turned into something other than itself and different from all other created objects. On the contrary, what is indicated or revealed in the sacrament is something universal, the intrinsic sanctity and spirituality of all things, what one might call their real nature. A recognition of the sacramental principle requires the recognition that nothing in life, in the created order, is, or can be, entirely profane or non-sacred; it requires the recognition of an essential"likeness", a congeneracy or"identity in difference", between the sanctifying power and what is sanctified, between the uncreated and the created; it requires, finally, the recognition that the sacrament has a cosmic significance and is intimately related to every single aspect of created existence, and that therefore, while the way of looking at, or using, things may well be profane and non-sacred, the things themselves can never be.

This essential likeness or congeneracy of all things does not, however, mean that the object and action of the sacrament are a matter of indifference or that they can be indiscriminately exchanged. Every sacrament is absolutely unique in its significance; is something which in spite of, or, rather, because of its universal nature, is singled out and set apart, inexchangeable and unrepeatable. How this is so can, perhaps, be explained as follows: while it is true that all created things are intrinsically sacramental and divine, it is also true that all creation is in a state of relative division, of relative separation and estrangement, from its intrinsic nature. It makes little difference whether one explains this in terms of a"fall" or of"illusion" or of a"separation of the waters"; what is important is to recognize the fact (which is also in a sense illusory) of the relative division itself. All creation groans and travails for the revelation of the sons of light, all creation seeks deliverance, the world of sentient conditioned beings seeks deliverance. This"antinomical" character of creation (that while on the one hand it is intrinsically divine, on the other it is"false", is rent apart from the divine, groans for deliverance) must be accepted if one is not to be led, or misled, into an over-simplified or artificial solution which ignores the real suffering of all creatures. From our point of view here, it is this antinomical character of creation that explains the significance of the sacramental object and act, and in what sense the sacrament, as well as being universal, is also unique and set apart. What distinguishes the sacrament, makes it unique and set apart, is not that all creation is not intrinsically sacramental and divine (for unless all creation were intrinsically sacramental and divine there could be no sacrament at all): what, therefore, distinguishes and makes necessary the sacrament is not this, not creation's impotence or non-sacredness, but its divided state, its state of"duality", its estrangement and alienation from its intrinsic nature. For in the sacrament this divided, estranged and alienated state of creation is transcended, and its essential and intrinsic nature is revealed. To use familiar terms, the Divinity lies in all creatures in potentiality, ἐν δυνάμει ; if this Divinity were not"immanent" in all creatures, there could be no sacrament; could, indeed, be no creatures; at the same time, this intrinsically divine nature of creatures does not itself create a sacrament, for a sacrament implies a transfiguration of its object: in the sacrament, that is, the divine, immanent and potential in the creature, becomes active, ἐν ἐνεργείᾳ ; is realized and revealed. The sacrament is the anticipatory realization of the transfiguration, or the regeneration, of all creation. In it creation is delivered from its divided and alienated state, and is established in its trans- or post-fallen state in the kingdom of God . That is why the sacrament is a matter of faith; of, that is, the"eye of discrimination" or"eye of the heart" which sees with a spiritual insight and is"the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen".

It is the antinomical character of creation which explains, then, why the single sacramental act, each single realization of the essential and intrinsic nature of the creature, of the placing of the creature in God (where it is really what it is), is both set apart and unique, and at the same time of a cosmic and universal significance. It is set apart and unique because it must always"happen" in a particular time and place (in the tabernacle), in which a single fragment of creaturely existence is brought into the fulness of life and transcends its merely temporal and spatial limitations (though this transcending must not be confused with so-called"other-worldliness", an attitude which is entirely non-sacramental). It is cosmic and universal because"all life is one", and thus all creation is implicated in the realization of each single fragment of creaturely existence:"Consider, O discerning man, that you are an image of God and the bond of all creation, both of the heavenly and of the terrestrial beings, and whenever you bend your head to worship and glorify God, all the creations, both heavenly and terrestrial, bow their heads with you and in you, to worship God; and whenever you do not worship and glorify Him, all the creations grieve over you and turn against you, and you fall from grace". The sacrament is God's revelation of Himself to Himself in His creatures. Thus, in the sacrament it is always God who acts: the individual (the"I" or"ego")"does nothing", is"empty" in kenotic self-sacrifice. In this sense the sacrament is the only true theurgy , a free 'breaking in' of divine energy into cosmic life. As such, nothing can be equal to it and nothing can make it superfluous or replace it, for, simply, nothing can equal, make superfluous, or replace the Divinity. It is because of this that no one can dispense with the sacrament (except in so far as he or she can dispense with God-i.e. cease to exist). The sacrament is God's supreme and original gift to man, to all creation, unique and universal. It is the original Fiat Lux. That is why man, or any other creature, cannot possess or create the sacrament, whatever state of being he or it may occupy, for no man or any other creature, of however exalted a state, can possess or create God. Man, or any other creature, can only receive the sacrament, just as he or it can only receive God; though fully to understand what this sacramental giving and receiving implies is impossible for him who does not first realize that no one can give or receive anything, not even the most supreme gift of God, which he does not give to, or receive from, himself.

Here it may be as well to point out something implicit in all that has been said above. Just as the full significance of the sacramental principle can only be grasped in the light of an understanding of the antinomical character of creation, so this latter understanding itself derives from an understanding of how God is both immanent in, and totally transcends, creation. Insistence on the total transcendence of the divine, implying the"illusory" nature of created things, is obviously a denial of the whole sacramental principle (since there can be no sacrament unless the divine is immanent in the creature); insistence on the immanence of the divine in such a way that created things are regarded as possessing"reality" in their own right, and not simply by derivation and participation, and that the absolute nullity of created things vis a vis the uncreated and transcendent nature of God is lost sight of, is again a denial of the whole sacramental principle (for if the divine were immanent in this way creation would have no need of the sacrament and it would be superfluous). The sacramental consciousness requires the simultaneous recognition of both the total transcendence and the total immanence of the divine, the affirmation of the one at the expense of the other being the negation of this consciousness and the supreme doctrinal error. That is why also the sacramental consciousness implies a recognition of the incarnation (in its cosmic as well as its historical sense), for each sacramental action and object is the incarnation, the unique giving of God in His totality to the creature, and the unique 'taking up' of creaturely existence in its totality into the pre-existential uncreated divine Presence; is the revelation to the creature, whatever its rank in the order of creation, of its permanent and uncreated state in the depths of divine life. Each sacrament in the full sense is thus the ending of duality and the entry into non-duality: the overcoming in the creature of that condition of estrangement and alienation from its true and intrinsic nature which marks its existence in the fallen world.

Having spoken in this way of the sacramental principle, it may seem unnecessary to consider its application to the human individual. Nevertheless, the following may be said. First, whether the sacramental nature of a particular object or action is recognized depends not only on the object or action itself, but also on the attitude and approach, the state of consciousness, of the individual concerned in the recognition. As has been said, everything is intrinsically and potentially sacramental, and thus whether a particular individual realizes the sacramental nature of a particular object or action will depend on his own degree of realization. The sacrament involves, or, rather, presupposes, a reciprocity of relationship, a congeneracy or likeness, both between the divine and the human and between the human and other created states-a reciprocity, congeneracy and likeness concealed and unfathomable to the"profane" mind. In a sense, how a human individual acts necessarily affects the whole of creation, simply because the human individual is part of creation. Thus, there is no escape for the human individual from a position responsibility vis à vis the rest of creation. A failure to"act sacramentally", or to recognize the sacrament, implies therefore first of all failure to realize the presence, if only in a potential state, of the divine in oneself, and, second, and as a consequence, a failure to realize the presence, again even if only in a potential state, of the divine in other created things. Both the sacrament, and the bond uniting God and man, God and creation, are necessarily hidden and invisible to the"unregenerate" man, and such a man necessarily acts"unsacramentally". Regenerate man, on the other hand necessarily acts sacramentally , and his presence, and whatever he does is a blessing to all creation. The saint is himself a sacrament, a living holocaust of divine energy.

Second, the question of the need for a particular hierarchy of sacraments, divinely established in view of individual salvation, and through which the individual may come to share actively in God's theurgic power, has been implicitly answered in what has already been said, especially in what has been said about the antinomical character of creation. All that might be added is, first, that the purpose of the sacrament in this respect is to actualize or energize certain potentialities in the individual, which otherwise are in danger of atrophy. It is to actualize and ultimately energize the divine image in the individual, which otherwise lies dormant and passive and unrevealed. And the second thing that might be added is that when man receives the gift of divine powers in the sacrament-a gift which makes it possible for him to transcend his fallen state and realize his divine potentialities-it is not only the particular individual who receives, but the whole of creation. Hence the sacrament is the most - supreme act of compassion in which man can share. Third, it may be asked whether, or to what extent, the Church's hierarchy of sacraments, divinely established in view of individual (human and other) salvation, may be affected by the loss of a true understanding of the nature of the sacrament on the part both of priests and people, a loss which, with the confusion of liturgical practice that often goes with it, might well be thought to prevent the transmission of divine powers through such sacraments. This is a question with many aspects, but in the context of this paper the following only need be said. To begin with, how one considers the question (and even whether it has any sense) will depend almost entirely upon whether one accepts or rejects the sacramental principle itself. It must be repeated that the sacrament is not a piece of static ritual or sacred symbolism, still less is it a piece of machinery or magic or occultism: to regard it as any of these things is tantamount to regarding the Fiat Lux or the incarnation in the same way. The sacrament is the thing itself, reality itself, as it is in its naked essence and without anything being changed or symbolized or substituted (that is why such terms as, for instance,"transubstantiation" or"transformation" tend to lead to confusion when applied to the sacrament, and generally indicate a certain failure to understand the sacramental principle: nothing is transubstantiated or transformed in the sacrament, for the simple reason that there is nothing to transubstantiate or to transform). The sacrament is a transcensus of the limitations of the fallen world, a re-creation of the world"as it was in the beginning". Through it, its object is restored to its pre-or post-historical state of non-duality, to that state in which it is really what it is and always has been, but which has been concealed beneath a veil of opacity and falsehood. Therefore, for one who has grasped the sacramental principle itself, there is in fact no question of whether the sacraments can be corrupted by the defamations of history, human aberration, the general confusion of forms, and so on, for the simple reason that the validity of the sacrament does not depend upon, and cannot be affected by, conditions of the merely historical, human, or created order. Neither history nor anything else can prevent things from being what they are, and nor can it create or deform the sacrament, the very nature of which is uncreated and preformal . The sacrament is rooted in divine theurgic life, the life of the Word or Logos in Whom all things are made, and Who is in the world though the world knows Him not. Nothing of the world or of history can affect this. On the contrary, it is because the world, and history, and man in the world and history, are divorced from and no longer share in the sacrament that they are"overcome" by the sin of secularization and profanation, by the disintegration and evacuation of life. And they become divorced in this way when man himself loses his sacramental consciousness. The supreme sacrament is God. God and His name are linked. Whoever forgets the name of God, does not recollect it and live in this sacred anamnesis, forgets God. This loss of memory is the loss of a sacramental consciousness. It is man's loss of himself. Whoever remembers the name of God and lives and acts in continual anamnesis of it, lives and acts in God, and God lives and acts in him; and he too, and in him all creation, is the supreme sacrament, one with himself, in supreme Union .


1. See: E. Lampert, Divine Realm. London , 1944, a book to which this essay is greatly indebted and to which I would wish it to form an introduction.

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