In the blog post “Imitating Christ, Body and Soul,” I discussed the physical and spiritual makeup of Christ and the Church. As the Church is built upon Christ, the Church rests upon the mystery of the meeting of the physical and the Spiritual. As humans we imitate Christ by also being both physical and Spiritual beings. To continue in this discussion, in this post I will discuss the nature of the sacraments as deeply human activities performed in tandem with the deeply human Christ.

The Church takes literal hold of its physical and Spiritual nature through the sacraments. Now, I know that referring to the sacraments as “literal” holds some denominational baggage. For the sake of this discussion the description of the sacraments as “literal” will refer to the fact that they are literal physical acts performed by people who are literally physical beings. If the sacraments are performed by physical and Spiritual humans in relationship with the physical and Spiritual Christ, the physical component does not simply “represent” the Spiritual reality; it is part of the reality itself. For example, the physical act of receiving the Eucharist engages the digestive tract of the human body, which is no less a realization of the human person than is the soul.

The Eucharist plays a foundational role [1] in the life of the Church as it offers a tangible, routine exchange between the realms of the Spiritual and the physical. It is the practical articulation of God’s inherently physical encounter with humanity. As Christ took on physical flesh to bring the Spirit to humanity, through the Eucharist the Church takes on Christ’s physical body to receive the Spirit. Through this exchange we may share with God in the understanding that, while the physical and Spiritual realms are distinct, they are not without intimate contact with one another.

The Eucharist also connects the modern day Church to the early Church, as through it we experience the same physical phenomena as our first century sisters and brothers.[2] We share in the sacrifice of the body of Christ by sharing in the digestive process of intaking the body of Christ. In this way the Eucharist legitimates human physical life and its need for food. We share with all our sisters and brothers in the Spirit who ensures eternal life by sharing in food that ensures earthly life.

Through an interpretation of the Eucharist that regards the elements as the actual body and blood of Christ, we may also deduce that by consuming the elements, we literally become the body of Christ. Simply because “you are what you eat,” if we feast upon Christ’s body and blood, our body and blood becomes that of Christ.[3] In this way, we may become transformed into the likeness of Christ, body and soul.

While the sacraments articulate the union of the physical and Spiritual within Christ and the Church, they also call to our attention the tragedy of their inevitable temporary separation at death. Depending on denominational tradition, the human experience of birth is sacramentally consummated by the Baptism or child dedication. Paradoxically, as is the case with every sacrament, within the celebration of new bodily life is the acknowledgement and presence of bodily death. During Baptism we spiritually die and briefly physically drown.[4] Therefore, though we are raised to new life through Baptism, we also lay hold of the reality of our impermanence and finitude. Fortunately, however, the final picture presented by Baptism is the promise of everlasting union between the physical and Spiritual within the baptized person and the everlasting union between humanity and Christ.

As no living person has ever experienced death (barring medical and miraculous resuscitation), the sacraments and other physical exercises of the Church offer an opportunity to fully embrace the inescapable reality of bodily death. On Ash Wednesday we humbly admit our incapacity to flee bodily death by coming into contact with dead matter.[5] In an age of skyrocketed life expectancy and meticulous sanitation of death, death is not nearly as overtly present as it was in the time of Christ during which the average life expectancy was around thirty years.[6] Ash Wednesday can come as a shock to the system for the modern, first world Christian, and that is precisely the reason it needs continued observance.

The physicality of human spirituality also provides the opportunity to engage in ascetic practice. The act of martyrdom is in itself a sacramental act, as the faithful believer confesses with their soul and body that they belong to Christ in their absolute entirety. Martyrdom is not necessarily a Platonic rejection of the body and its desires but an all-encompassing gift unto God. The body is not removed from the martyr as worthless but rather is gifted to God in cooperation with the soul as precious treasure. 

Ascetic practice in general has an interesting way of bringing the dynamic of the body and soul into light. While it is possible to perform ascetic practices in productive, reverent ways, they may take the form of attempted rejection of the body and its “carnal” desires. This does not purify one’s humanity but rather rejects it in an attempt to become an angel—a strictly spiritual entity.[7]

Through the observance of the sacraments we may more fully embrace the nature of Christ and our own nature. The sacraments not only celebrate the actions of Christ but also the inherently physical nature of the human person. By participating in the rituals of the Church we more fully understand and participate in the meeting of the Spiritual and physical—which is our relationship with God.

[1] Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 1993), 121.[2] Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels (Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2004), 96.[3] Clement, Roots of Christian Mysticism, 109.[4] Ibid, 169.[5] Ibid, 170.[6] Ibid, 31.[7] Clapp, Tortured Wonders, 63.

 

Rachel Parsons

Rachel Parsons

Blogger (Christian)

M. A., Spiritual Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary, Littleton. B.A., International Studies from UNC-Asheville. She engages the creation by hiking, dancing, playing guitar and banjo, and traveling with the other physical bodies she loves.  She is a spiritual director in Littleton, CO. You may reach her at [email protected]