Are Catholic Sacraments Magical Operations? part 2


One of the most important and readily noticeable difference between catholic sacraments and pagan rites is that the sacraments are supernatural in origin and also in their scope, while pagan rites, and magic in particular, are confined to this world. Magic is nothing more than an attempt to use given cosmic laws and sympathies (connections between objects, persons or various realities) to achieve something. Magic can never contradict the very cosmic order that its rules and rituals presuppose. On the contrary, catholic sacraments represent an intervention on the part of God, from outside the cosmic order. Therefore, the sacraments do not depend on any cosmic order or cosmic law and no cosmology, be it late antiquity neoplatonic or modern scientific, can contradict their theology. They depend on the will of God and on the will of God only. For Catholics God is prior to any cosmic order and is not bound by anything He created or established – not even the sacraments themselves.

It is already evident, from what has been said here, that pagan rites, and magic in particular, has nothing to do with the catholic sacraments. In pre-Christian paganism the ultimate law is the order of the Universe, and nothing can contradict that. In the case of paganism even the gods themselves are subject to Fate – the cosmic order applied to this or that individual, divine, or human – that rules supreme over everything and everyone. For Catholics, following the self-revelation of IHWH to Abraham and his descendents and ultimately through Jesus Christ, the ultimate reality is the will of a God that is well above any cosmic law or fate. In this context pagan rites, and magic in particular, does not make sense. This brings us to the next important difference between the sacraments and magic rites: their goal.

As much as they differ in their origin ultimate foundation, the sacraments (and catholic rituals in general) differ from pagan rites (and magic in particular) in respect to their goal. In the case of pagan rites the goal is generally the maintenance of a given cosmic order, as it can be seen in the rituals of various peoples. Pagan sacrifices and rituals aim to contribute to the harmony of the cosmos, and to the good ordering of it, preventing the forces of chaos and disorder to upset the balance of nature and produce natural and social calamities. This kind of preoccupations can be observed again and again in the mythologies of the most diverse peoples. As far as magic is concerned, that is nothing more than an attempt to take advantage for a particular worldly goal of the laws that govern the cosmic order. This is the reason why even in pagan cultures those practicing magic were not very well thought of. On the one hand, meddling with the cosmic laws can have unforeseen consequences and not only for those involved in the magical ritual. Also, magic is concerned with individual gains, and that can easily mean something bad for another. Magical practices go hand in hand with suspicion and enmity, and not only on the part of those opposed to it, but also (as a matter of fact, mainly) from those using it. In pre-modern cultures nothing is so terrifying and nothing elicits so much paranoia then magic, and this terror often grows proportionally with the level of familiarity with these practices.

Nothing could be further from this than the catholic sacraments: these are not only supernatural in their origin (in the sense that they come from God, Who is above created nature), but in their goals also. The premise of the catholic sacramental system is that the ultimate goal for humans is salvations: the abandoning of the first Creation, that is under curse and will be destroyed at the end of time, and the partaking of the second Creation, that is already with us in the Church, but will be fully manifest at the Second Coming of Our Lord. The sacraments, therefore, are not concerned in the least with bettering or conserving our present condition, as pagan rites do, but aim to make us overcome it. Baptism, in particular, is the gateway out of this Creation to the “new Heaven and Earth” and “New Jerusalem”. This participation to the new Creation presupposes a dying and rebirth, and that is precisely what Baptism is, by which we die with Christ for this world and are raised with Him for the next.

In conclusion, there is absolutely nothing in the doctrine or practice of the catholic sacraments that has anything to do with magic, or pre-Christian rites. This goes for the theoretical basis of the sacraments, for their aim and the shape of their specific rites. In fact, the only thing that may induce an Evangelical Christian to associate catholic sacraments with pagan rituals is the fact that Catholics use rituals as well, while Evangelicals are opposed to liturgical worship. Therefore, it is time to say a few words on the legitimacy and, indeed, necessity of liturgical worship.

Why Catholics use rituals, anyway? The short answer is that because that is the correct and prescribed way to worship. Prescribed, that is, by God Himself. The long answer would be an elaboration of this short answer. Let’s see it.

Protestants in general and Evangelicals in particular are puzzled by the great emphasis on rituals in the catholic worship services. They feel that this can only be a pagan corruption of the simple and pure worship of the primitive practice in the New Testament Church as we see it in the Bible. I was convinced for a long time, myself that in this respect Protestants (in my case, Baptists) were following the biblical example, while Catholics added many unnecessary, if not harmful, practices. Even years after my return to the Catholic Church I still felt uneasy with liturgical worship. In the start I accepted it because in other fields the Catholic position proved to be the correct one over my former beliefs. So, I was thinking, this has to have some legitimacy after all. After studying this problem closer I realized that it cannot be in any other way, as far as correct and proper worship is concerned.

But isn’t the elaborate liturgical worship of Catholic Church at odds with the simple and pure worship of the first Christians. This is a false question. It is more correct to ask what kind of worship is requested from us by God. It is quite evident from the Bible that the correct worship is liturgical in nature, according to specific patterns and rituals requested by God. Reading the Pentateuch is surprising to see just how explicitly liturgical is the worship of the ancient Israelites. God is very careful in describing the way He desires to be worshiped, the Tabernacle and its furniture, as well as the various sacrifices. Of course, these rituals and ways of worship have passed away, because they were foreshadowing of the work of redemption of Our Lord.

Does that mean that worship has ceased to become liturgical in the case of the Church? Not at all. The rituals of the Old Dispensation have passed away, but that does not mean that liturgical worship, per se, have been abandoned. Why would have bothered God to give indications so explicit and so detailed for the Old Dispensation, if He despises rituals, as modern Evangelicals do? It never made any sense to me, as an Evangelical, the insistence of God on rituals in certain parts of the Old Testament. Why didn’t God give to the Israelites a simple and pure religion that would make sense along with the simple and pure religion of the New Testament? The difference was too spectacular between the elaborate liturgical worship requested from the Israelites and the pure ritual-free worship of what I believed to have existed in the New Testament Church. One day it dawned on me: for the people of the Old Dispensation there was no precedent for anything. They had to be taught by God starting almost from scratch. This is why the Old Testament is very explicit when it comes to the “how” of worship. The Old Testament religion was not only a foreshadowing of the work of salvation accomplished by Our Lord, but also had the important role of preparing it. Therefore, the books of the New Testament did not have to be so explicit about worship. They are more concerned with doctrinal aspects of the nascent Christian religion. However, a couple of thousand years later, people who have no way of knowing just how the first Christians worshiped, because the data given in the New Testament is scanty, are convinced that there is no place for liturgical worship in the New Testament Church.

But what about John 4:24? Let’s see the text in question:

19 The woman said to him, „Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, „Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Emphasis added)

This prophecy is fulfilled by the worship offered to God by the Catholic Church that is not centered in Jerusalem, but is the same all over the world. A Mass in Jerusalem or in Rome or in a village of the Andes are equal as to their worth. But Jesus says clearly that worship has to be “in spirit and truth”, not with elaborate liturgies, isn’t he? The association between “spiritual” and non-liturgical is as common as it is mistaken. It is a prejudice shared by both Protestants and liberal Catholics. The root cause of this mistake, I think, is a misunderstanding regarding the “spiritual”.

In another post I have already talked about the confusion between the “spiritual” and the “inwardly”. More then anyone else we Christians should not make this mistake. God the Son became a flesh and blood man, and was as physical and outwardly in His appearance as you and me. He did this in order to save not only the soul from the body, but the entire human person: both body and soul together. Since salvation is of the interior (the soul) and of the exterior (the body) the proper worship should not be only an interior one. To put it in another way: we should worship God with both our interior and exterior being, according to the salvation that He offered to us.

So the expression “spirit and truth” cannot be taken to mean an exclusively inward worship as opposed to exterior liturgical worship. Then what does it mean? It is not hard to realize what Jesus is talking about in this verse, if we abandon the anti-liturgical prejudice that I talked about. We are to worship God (the Father) in the spirit (the Holy Spirit) and Truth (Jesus Christ – see John 14:6). We cannot interpret verse 24 as meaning that since God is spirit we can only worship Him inwardly and non-liturgically, because that would mean that because God is spirit only our spiritual part (the soul) is worthy to worship Him, which makes our body unimportant for salvation. This, of course, makes no sense in the light of the incarnation of Our Lord. By this logic it would make more sense to have a non-liturgical worship in the Old Dispensation, when God was exclusively spiritual.

But what is, ultimately, liturgical worship, if is not vain repetition? To understand properly the “why” of liturgical worship we have to consider this simple fact: human communication is only partly verbal. Actually, only a small part of our communication is done by words, the greatest part is so called non-verbal communication: gestures, facial expression, shape and color of clothes, positioning in space of the persons communicating and many other details like this. In everyday life you can make a pretty good idea about someone, not by what he or she is saying, but other non-verbal aspects. Actually, if you want to know a person it is not very wise to rely mostly on what he or she says. Eyes are said to be the windows to the soul. There is much truth to this. But another important window to the soul is behavior in various situations.

From all this it is evident that if prayer is a communication between the believer and God, the non-verbal aspect of prayer will have its part to play. There is something more, however. Public worship is not only about the believer and God. That requires mostly inward communication, indeed. But public worship of and kind involves not only Jesus and me, but the Christian community, and this changes everything. This kind of worship is not only a communication between the believer and God but also a communication of the believers between themselves. The liturgy is the ordering of the Christian community in a diversified unity that worships on many voices but sings one tune. That is why the angels are generally presented as ordered in choirs, because they worship liturgically, according to their various ranks, as a diversified unity. The liturgy, that is public worships by definition, is primarily a prayer service in the honor of God. But secondly is an ordering of the Christian Church into a diversified unity by one common worship to the One who is not only the God of each one, but of all, as well. Liturgical worship is what makes the community that is made up of individual believers, into the one body of Christ that is the Church.

From the beginning God created the world so that the entire Creation (invisible and visible), oriented toward Him, would worship Him in its diversity of roles and unity of origin and goal. Creation itself is, essentially, a liturgical reality. Therefore it is incredibly diverse and multiform, witnessing the abundance of the infinite goodness of God, and oriented towards one and only goal, witnessing to the oneness of its Creator. God did not create a multitude of one kind of creature, but brought forth by His creative Word (the second person of the Blessed Trinity) an infinite variety of creatures, since He Himself is infinite in His creative power. But this multiplicity falls apart and brakes into peaces without the common orientation toward the one God in a common worship. Thus the extreme gravity of the Fall, that broke the cosmic liturgy and brought a curse on the entire Creation that saw its unity shattered and became the victim of its own multiplicity. The Old Testament liturgical worship, with the Temple rituals, was a desperate attempt to regain something of the cosmic order of the cursed first Creation. With the advent of the Lord, however, the old Creation has to pass away and make room for the new Creation, and to a worship that is equally liturgical, but that is orienting towards God not the first Creation, but the new one. The catholic liturgical worship is, literally, out of this world.

In conclusion, liturgical worship is not only proper, but it is the only correct one, because it is the response to the Word with which God created the world and after its fall, creates it anew.

Often the accusation is leveled towards the catholic liturgical worship and the sacraments that they are independent of a personal experience. This is correct. Catholic worship is oriented (when properly conducted and participated in) completely towards the next world, the new Jerusalem. It has no other goal. Its effects will be seen and experienced fully only after the passing of the present world. Till then we only rely on our faith, though we may experience various graces that come from it already in this world. What we have in this fallen world is only faith and it is irrelevant what our present faculties (emotions, affects, instincts, intellect) communicate to us. What is important is the new Creation in Jesus Christ, and to that we can participate – and I don’t intend to be ironical towards my Evangelical brothers and sisters, that I deeply love in the Lord – by faith alone for now.

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Published in: on Aprilie 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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