Another Look: Sacramental from the Beginning

A March dawn in the Kentucky hills (2014)

Note from CM: I recently read two other perspectives that, to some extent, critique evangelicals’ attraction to — but fuzzy understanding of — sacramentalism as an answer to living in a “disenchanted” world. I encourage you to follow these links and read Jake Meador’s comments on Derek Mishmawy’s post.

• • •

…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.

• 1 John 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)

14 thoughts on “Another Look: Sacramental from the Beginning

  1. Hello Burro,
    an interesting comment . . . . hope you ‘drop in’ frequently during Great Lent as you are an indispensable voice in the ‘Great Hallway’. I think too many times the ‘roots of our wrath’ may go far deeper into our formation than we can even remember, and maybe exposure to irritants is not so unhelpful as we think, when we get to consciously take a look at them and in doing so, begin to sort them out with intent to take hold of and then let go of what we do not any longer wish to own.

    If that doesn’t make sense, I’m probably speaking personally; except that I value your voice here and would miss it


  2. Drive out the roots of my wrath

    This would be a very appropriate prayer for me if I decide to drop in here during Great Lent.
    This place infuriates me, and I feel obliged to return the favor.


  3. “Hark, Heaven’s Maker
    what every poet asks;
    That Thy mercy may come
    to me softly:
    Thus I call to Thee,
    for You have created me;
    I am thy peon
    and you are my Master.

    God, I call upon Thee
    to weep for me;
    to remember that I am fragile
    and thus need You the most.
    Oh, drive out the roots of my wrath,
    so generous and above all,
    every sorrow that has taken hold
    of my heart’s fortress.

    Reach for me, o’ mild One,
    when I need You the most;
    preferably every moment –
    in a world that You possess.
    Send us, Son of the virgin,
    the beauty of creation
    and all aid fromThee
    into my heart.?”

    . (The song is a sung version of Kolbeinn Tumason’s hymn (13th century), composed by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson (in 1938). It’s a 800 year old Icelandic Hymn.
    “Listen, Smith Of The Heavens”.)


  4. At the same time, I understand the concern of those who say that by not differentiating between sacramental presence and omnipresence we inevitably wind up with a Protestant devaluation of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. I don’t think it has to be that way; the fact that it has been that way does not mean it is inevitable. The importance of Eucharist for focusing and emphasizing the presence, and omnipresence, of Christ to the Church and the world in congregational worship does not depend on the idea that something magical happens by the recitation of certain words and the enactment of certain gestures (usually by certain people) that makes Christ more present and available in the sacrament than in the world. The Eucharist is a revelation, in reenactment of Jesus’ words and deeds at the Last Supper, of his ongoing presence, and his omnipresence, as self-giving God. By this practice, we do not on our part make him more present than he otherwise would be; but we rehearse and remember (re-member, a corporal term that includes body as much as spirit) his presence in our past, present, and future — “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The enacted words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper are the signs that promise and remind that he is always materially present to and for us; they do not make him present any more than the Bible/New Testament does, but they are just as important as signifiers that participate in the reality of his presence. By them, we recognize him as he is revealed in the breaking of bread, one of the most ordinary and everyday things imaginable, but not less holy or sacred for that.


  5. I was first introduced to “sacramental-lite” through the Lutheran understanding of presence of Christ in bread and wine. Then, sacramental life in all things through Fr Stephen Freeman and re-prints of Eastern Russian and Early Church Fathers at SVS Press. It is the closest I have found to a home, practicing communion in a Lutheran church but having daily devotions on the sacramental life in all things.

    I fear it may become another Evangelical fad, but it has brought me the closer to peace then any theology I ever studied in the evangelical world.


  6. 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.

    Yes. Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God, and he is everywhere. I prefer Sunday worship in which the Eucharist is the culmination, because Eucharist focuses and emphasizes Christ’s real omnipresence in the world, and because it centers worship, which otherwise can slip and slide, around the presence of Christ, and on his words and actions both at the Last Supper and in the present. But nothing can limit the presence of Christ in our world, nothing can make his less available to those who need him — and isn’t that everyone?


  7. A bit late I know but as we live at the other end of the world,
    I will have a go.

    Christ is transfigured before us daily in the needs and eyes of those we encounter and to whom we give and receive love.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: