Last time I talked about the sacraments as God’s artwork, as God’s visible revelation of grace and truth. The sacraments reveal God’s grace in ways we have difficulty grabbing ahold of strictly through the spoken word. The sacraments are God’s grace in action and we learn as observe God at work.
At the same time, the sacraments don’t appear in a vacuum. The sacraments are ensconced in the liturgy, the gilded setting that surrounds and supports the diamond. I’ve mentioned before that the sacraments are always properly found within the liturgy because the liturgy is what gives them their proper context. Thinking further in terms of artwork and the further revealing of God’s mysteries helps us see how that continues to be true.
When looking at the different aspects of Communion, much of what we know to be taking place in Communion is spelled out for us in the ritual activities that surround it. Collecting the offering and the declaration that we are lifting our hearts to God tells us how we become part of the offering that is given to God in and through Christ as He acts on our behalf as high priest. The Lord’s Prayer identifies many of the things God will grant us through our participation in the sacrament. The prayer of thanksgiving carries out the primary duty of all creation as we give thanks to God in response to what He has given us. The Nunc Dimittis expresses our joy at seeing God’s salvation and our acknowledgement that we take that experience with us as God to tell others what we have seen and heard. The Aaronic Benediction declares that we have truly been in the presence of God and that He approves of us and continues to bless us until that time when we return to see Him again.
All of this and more surrounds Communion to build on what Communion does and give us the opportunity to meditate and reflect on the gracious work God carries out through the sacrament in new and different ways. The sacraments are not built for the liturgy, instead the liturgy is built around the sacraments. Each liturgical rite gives us a new window to view what God is doing on our behalf in a new and deeper way. Can the sacraments be divorced from the liturgy? Yes, and sometimes, such as in the case of emergency baptism, it is necessary. However, every rite surrounding the sacraments that is stripped away is another window peering into the Sacred Mysteries that gets boarded up.
As we walk through the liturgy, and the divine service in particular, the hope is that we take the time to reflect on what we are saying and doing, for all of it is meant for our edification, to learn who we are because of what God does for us through the sacraments and then learn to put that new life into action. Even in fringe cases, such as emergency baptism, every effort is made to bring that work back into the liturgy through an affirmation of baptism, to put the diamond into its proper setting so that its brilliance is further enhanced. The liturgy does not add to what God does in the sacraments and it was never intended to do so. The liturgy simply gives us more visual, auditory, and even kinesthetic ways of learning about God. When churches start throwing away different aspects of the liturgy because they are outmodded, unexciting, or deemed unimportant, it merely robs the congregation of a means God has provided us with to understand Him better.