One of the foundational books for me in discovering a meaning of sacrament that I both could understand and give my life to was Edward Schillebeeckx’s book from the 1970s, Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. It is my understanding that it was Schillebeeckx’s theology, along with that of Rahner and Fischer and other European liturgical theologians, that really underpinned the Vatican Council’s view of the sacred liturgy. A brief summary of his thesis goes something like this: Jesus Christ is the sacrament, that is, the “visible sign of an invisible reality,” of God, and his presence in the world of history and of faith is God’s work at reconciling the universe. God reaches out, as it were, in the incarnation, to bring humanity close; so close, in fact, that we can say that we share, by virtue of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, in the actual life of God. Schillebeeckx goes on to say that, by virtue of the indwelling spirit in the life of the Christian, the Church is the sacrament of Christ (and a priori of God), and the sacraments of the church are sacraments precisely because in them we experience the healing, reconciling, creative energy of God.
What never occurred to me was that the very word “encounter,” when used in a theological context, was already loaded in Schillebeeckx’s generation of writers and theologians by the work of Martin Buber, for whom “encounter” summarized the energy of all relationship. Buber’s dictum was that "All actual life is encounter,” and he described all relationship in terms of “I-it” encounters, mediated by thought, judgment, value, etc., and “I-Thou” encounters, in which person encounter other persons and things in their otherness without preconception or judgment. Encounters with God are all of the I-Thou variety, because it is the only way in which God, who is infinite, can be experienced. In fact, Buber would suggest that a rare I-Thou encounter with anything, a place, a thing, or a person, would also be an encounter with the infinite, suggesting that all things are bound in being in oneness with the Creator. We “oscillate” in our encounters along a continuum between the more common I-it relationship of objectification and the I-Thou between subjects. The whole theory of encounter, though, underpins the sacramental theology of Schillebeeckx, or so it seems to me.
I don’t even know why all of this occurred to me, but I was thinking about it the context of the Eucharist, for better or worse. As a church, as Christ, in the Eucharist we set out to experience God’s presence in certain created things: bread and wine, spoken words, priests, and one another. On rare occasions, we are stunned by the encounter, though generally I’m with Annie Dillard that it’s probably safer for us to stay asleep to God’s presence, or perhaps to let God sleep so we can go about our merry business of ignoring her. ☺ But week after week, the liturgy leads us along a way in which we are gently wakened to who we are and to what or whom we might become, and the way begins with I, leading us to the “Thou” of divine presence, and ultimately leaving us there surrounded by a family we forgot we had, a sometimes-wonderful “we” that is God’s answer to our sin and alienation. It is exactly as the second Eucharistic prayer for reconciliation puts it, about the gift of Jesus and the paschal mystery: “You gave him up to death so that we might turn again to you and find our way to one another.” (Old translation, of course, because the new one isn't worth remembering.) By turning toward God and away from our own “way” of isolation and sin (this is the turning implied in the Greek metanoia, an inward change of direction), we find ourselves looking at one another, and finding our way to community. I hate to say this, but I think this drives liturgical fundamentalists crazy, because they seem to think the journey ends with praise of God.
So we get up on Sunday, maybe eat a little breakfast, have the first of several tiffs with one of the children, an exasperated exchange with the spouse. It takes a major act of self-denial and an angelic apparition to prevent us from giving the deacon the Universal Gesture of Ill Will when he cuts us off heading into the church parking lot. Another tiff on the way into church when Junior gets oil, a grass stain, and jelly from a doughnut all on the same pants on the walk from the car to the church door. You see people you like, and people you like less. Maybe it’s noisy and you like it quiet, maybe it’s hushed and you wish someone would say “hello.” But then, the music starts, and someone encourages us to take out a book and start singing a song that’s both familiar and yet not completely interiorized. There’s a splash of color, a cross, a book, people moving. The song progresses and we begin to be caught up in its logic of love. Then several hundred of us, all at once, mark ourselves with the sign of our baptism, repeating words of the gospel that are nearly two millennia old, words that were spoken by the likes of Peter, Paul, Andrew, James and John, Agnes, Cecilia, Benedict and Scholastica, Francis and Claire, Thomas More, Cromwell, and Henry, Martin Luther and Robert Bellarmine, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Gregor Mendel, Asa Gray, Lord Kelvin, Oscar Wilde, Tolkien, Hemingway, and Kerouac.
We cry out in ancient Greek (!) for God to have mercy on the planet, to shower on us the alms of divinity, to be God for us in the wretchedness of our complicity with sin and betrayal. We sing that the glory of God in heaven is the same as peace on earth among people of good will, and praise the God who is three-and-yet-one for making it so. We pray. We process. We listen to scripture and sing psalms and songs, until finally we turn together to face the God who has given us everything, including Christ whose body we have once again discovered that we are, and together we offer ourselves in Christ even as God’s spirit makes it possible for this I-Thou encounter between Christ and Abba to include us. Feeding on the food that is now the presence of the living Christ, we are sent like him, with him, by the Spirit to serve the needs of the world. From the hundreds of “I” who entered into the sacred space an hour ago, there is but one “I” who emerges, and that is Christ. Or better, the illusion of “I” has begun to evaporate, and the reality of Christ has become clearer.
From “I” to “Thou” to “We.” Does it happen every Sunday? To use the vernacular, “Hell, no.” And it’s largely our own fault, and the fault of well-meaning but ill-trained or just cavalier presiders who screw around with the ritual and with a casualness that approaches reckless negligence. Rather than submit to the rite, and try to get inside of it, figure out what it means, they manipulate it, add to it, change its texts, and make it mean what they want. Is it any wonder that for so many of us involved in Church work that Sunday can be the most depressing day of the week?
One keeps hoping that, for all our arrogance and messing around with the rite, God will still be God, and somehow make something beautiful from our garbage. Maybe, by not abandoning the struggle, by not abandoning each other, we can still be a part of the encounter with God that saves the world, a part of Christ, the sacrament of the encounter with God.