When I was ordained as a pastor of a church with a strong sacramental theology, I spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between sacramental ritual and ritualistic magic. In my mind, the difference between magic and prayer was who was in control. If we were trying to compel God to act in some certain way through our ritual, it was magic. If we were celebrating and participating in God’s action through our ritual, it was prayer and worship, and thus okay.
Suddenly, I was looking at Baptism, Communion, Marriages and Funerals very differently. What happened if we refused to baptize someone? If we could not compel God to include someone in His family, could we, through our inaction, compel God to leave someone out? It made no sense. We could celebrate God’s inclusion of someone, and choose whether or not to participate in it, but we could not, through providing or denying the act of baptism, compel God to include or exclude anyone.
What about divorce? Did that prove that though the church celebrated the marriage, God did not marry these two people and thus they did not have the fruits of marriage? And on the other side, if two people lived together, loved each other, and raised a family, could we say for certain that God did not join these two together, though the church did not participate in the act? We could recognize the fruits of a good marriage in their relationship, after all. And what about loving, monogamous, homosexual couples? Were they married in God’s eyes, if not in church law?
When the current Pope was still a Cardinal, he wrote a letter explaining the requirements for the elements of the Eucharistic sacrament also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. This broke my brain. Is the Lord’s Supper a ritual spell we must get the ingredients correct for so as to compel God to give us gifts? We needed the right amount of gluten for the bread to be considered bread? One church I was a pastor at sometimes offered hotdog buns or soda crackers as the “bread” in the Holy Communion. It was a small church of a few families, and that’s what they had at hand. I believed that God honoured that.
Luckily the practise of refusing funerals or burial in sacred ground to some- notably suicides- had fallen out of common use, but I still heard of such things. I even had one woman crying to me that her father-in-law had insisted he be buried facing south, instead of east like every other grave in the graveyard. The sun (Son) rose in the east! Would this hinder his chance at eternal life?
I had no idea that all graves faced east, but I quickly introduced her to the concept of “liturgical east”. Churches, too, are supposed to face east, but not all do. So the direction the church faces is considered “liturgical east”, or “east, for the duration of the liturgy”. If it worked for churches, surely it worked for graves. I was happy that this seemed to comfort her.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if we could legitimately exclude anyone from any sacrament. If not, what could we really say we knew about who was excluded from salvation? I began to look at Jesus’ words “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:19, or 18:18 ) in the context of the popular story of the monkey trap. (The monkey reaches his hand into a jar and grabs a nut, making his hand too large to withdraw from the jar. So long as he refuses to let go of the nut, he is trapped.) When we included or excluded others in sacraments, were we really loosing or trapping ourselves? I preached on that more than once in my three years as a pastor.
What could we do but accept everyone, and look for good fruits to see where God’s blessings were being given? Of course, God “sends rain on the just and unjust alike”…
What, really, could we know about what God was doing in the lives of others? Or in our lives? Or how God wanted us to respond to others? These are questions I could not let go of.