The Transformative Power of Paradox
As a theologically-minded young catechumen, on the cusp of being confirmed into the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, few doctrines troubled me more than those surrounding the sacrament of communion. How could the Body and Blood of Christ be present “in, with, and under” the sacramental elements? How could the consecration of the elements, an act of human will, result in such a transformation?
Years of soul-searching followed, which led me all the way from “Reformed charismatic” congregations to a brief flirtation with Roman Catholicism. Only recently have I begun to fully appreciate the doctrines with which I was raised. A question that bothered me for years was the tension between the transcendence and immanence of God – a tension that Lutheran sacramental theology directly addresses. And, perhaps ironically given my teenage frustration over the issue, it is now this element of the Lutheran tradition that grips me most strongly.
Today, Luther is best known in popular culture for his stand against a corrupted Catholic Church and his translation of the Bible into the common tongue. Yet to entirely disassociate Luther from his Catholic roots is to commit error: foundational to the Lutheran tradition is the embrace of paradox, a humble recognition that the nature of some truths may be outside human ken. Instead of the intricate, almost mathematically-styled salvific systems of Calvin and his successors, Luther left room for mystery, as does much of the Catholic tradition.
Comprehend the difference, then, that Baptism is quite another thing than all other water; not on account of the natural quality but because something more noble is here added; for God Himself stakes His honor, His power and might on it…Therefore we always teach that the Sacraments and all external things which God ordains and institutes should not be regarded according to the coarse, external mask, as we regard the shell of a nut, but as the Word of God is included therein.1
Thus the very question – “How could this be done?” – commits a category error: it attempts to approach a fundamentally non-scientific matter through the lens of naturalistic reasoning. In coming to such a conclusion, Luther charted a course between the twin dangers of mysticism and rationalism, pitfalls that continue to plague Protestant Christendom today.
From the standpoint of religious sociology, what Luther accomplished in so doing was nothing short of a democratization of mystery and wonder – a recognition that the glory of the sacred was not the exclusive prerogative of a Church that had lost its way.
For here we conclude and say: Even though a knave takes or distributes the Sacrament, he receives the true Sacrament, that is, the true body and blood of Christ, just as truly as he who [receives or] administers it in the most worthy manner. For it is not founded upon the holiness of men, but upon the Word of God.2
The sacraments – rites of unique intersection between the natural and supernatural realms – were no longer understood as contingent upon the merits of men, but were seen as God’s direct interactions with His people. They might be delivered by the hand of a pastor, but were not made holy by him. Nowhere was this democratization more pronounced than in the distribution of the elements themselves: in a departure from the old ways, both bread and wine were made accessible to the laity, binding all together in a common fellowship.
In light of this sacramental understanding, the great wonder and beauty of the Incarnation is cast into sharp relief. Through the shared humanity and divinity of Christ, both the transcendence and immanence of God are revealed. The Incarnation is the earthly manifestation of a Living Paradox, who may be encountered directly by all.
Like most Christians, I still have countless theological questions, many of which are frankly unanswerable through the reasoning of man. But this I do know: when we join together in Holy Communion, we encounter Christ Himself in a way that transcends the spiritual-material binary. The Eucharist is a sacrament far greater than a mere symbolic memorial, just as Christ was far greater than a mere wise teacher. And it is in such an encounter that my ultimate hope is founded.
1The Large Catechism – Holy Baptism.
2The Large Catechism – Holy Communion.
Image courtesy of Ian Britton.