…the mysterious character of all created reality lies in its sacramental nature.
• Hans Boersma
• • •
Many of us have grounded our theology concerning the sacramental nature of life in this world in the Incarnation, when God took on flesh and walked among us in Jesus Christ. The Infinite clothed himself in the finite, and gave human beings access to God by means of their senses.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed at, and our hands have handled [emphasis mine] — concerning the Word of Life! That life was displayed, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and we announce to you the life of God’s coming age, which was with the father and was displayed to us. That which we have seen and heard we announce to you too, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the father, and with his son Jesus the Messiah.
• 1John 1:1-3, The Kingdom NT
Although the Incarnation is the ultimate act of God identifying himself with material creation, this concept is present and active from the beginning of the scriptural testimony.
In God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Terence Fretheim observes that the “God who gets his hands dirty” is present at the outset of the biblical story, especially in Genesis, chapter 2. In this text,
God is tangibly involved with this earth and its creatures. More generally, God, by creating in such a way, has made room in the divine life for the very earthy creatures that God has brought into being…
Fretheim notes how Genesis 2 portrays God as one who breathes, forms, plants, and constructs. God is the Gardener who designs and plants a royal park, the Potter who forms humans from the clay, the Surgeon who touches and heals human bodies, the Builder who constructs physical forms. As the text proceeds, God walks in the garden, God’s voice is heard, God enters into conversation with the humans, and God designs and makes garments for them. “In these texts God comes into the closest possible contact with material reality, with the stuff of earthly life.”
Terence Fretheim warns us against allegorizing, spiritualizing, or otherwise discounting these images. Even if this is a “mythic” portrayal of God, it is communicating something about the nature of God as understood by the Hebrew people. God gets his hands dirty. God interacts intimately with the material creation. God “walks among us.” God speaks, acts, and relates to and within the “stuff” of this material world.
The testimony of Genesis 1 to the goodness of all forms of material reality undergirds God’s tangible and tactile engagement with the creatures in Genesis 2. Not only are finite, material realities capable of being “handled” by God (see Ps 95:5, “and the dry land, which his hands have formed”) without compromising God’s Godness, they are capable of actually bearing God bodily in the life of the world [emphasis mine]. And, in some sense, the reverse is also true; as God breathes God’s own breath of life into the nostrils of a human being (2:7), something of the divine self comes to reside in the human—and in an ongoing way.
…God is tangibly involved with this earth and its creatures. More generally, God, by creating in such a way, has made room in the divine life for the very earthy creatures that God has brought into being…
This brings us next to Hans Boersma and his concept of “sacramental ontology.” In his book, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, Boersma argues that Christians should once again consider the older view of creation as a “mystery.” Such a view goes beyond merely recognizing that there is a link between God and the created world, or that this link is exhausted in the Protestant understanding of “covenant,” with its emphasis on agreements between parties. Boersma argues that the connection between the Creator and creation is deeper than simply a relationship between separate beings.
A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and “point of reference,” but that it also subsists or participates in God. [emphasis mine]
Hans Boersma asserts that the connection between God and creation is not simply external or nominal, but real and participatory. In some sense, God is really present in his creation and we participate in the divine reality. Creation, as he puts it, is a “sharing in the being of God.” Many of us tend to think of “real presence” only when discussing the Eucharist, but Boersma suggests that we need to think of the Eucharist as a particular instance, a special intensification of Christ’s real presence in the midst of a world in which he is everywhere really present.
“In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and, in Christ “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
With approval, Boersma cites C.S. Lewis, who writes about how understanding and engaging creation in this way can fulfill a deep longing in the human heart:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. (The Weight of Glory)