Introducing The Sacramental Imagination

Introducing The Sacramental Imagination

Shawn McCain

Shawn McCain

Shawn is the founding priest of Resurrection South Austin which launched in 2015. Upon completing an M.Div at Fuller Theological Seminary, he was ordained to the Diaconate in 2011, and the Priesthood in 2012 in the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others under bishop Todd Hunter. He helped plant Redeemer Anglican Church in Santa Cruz, CA in 2012. In addition to being the rector at Resurrection, he is working on a D.Min at Nashotah House Theological Seminary exploring the Sacramental Imagination, is helping start an Anglican church planting initiative in Central Texas, and serving on the provincial task force for church planting. He and his wife Michelle have been married for over ten years and are parents of four playful and beautiful children. Shawn enjoys brewing beer, (used to enjoy) surfing, and wrestling with his kids.
Shawn McCain

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Our church plant’s first major purchase was a chalice. Why?

The Eucharist is Christianity’s first and ultimate church planting strategy. It’s not just a sentimental moment to recall our Lord’s sacrifice. The Holy Eucharist is the celebration and realization of God reconciling all things through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:19, Col 1:20). If this is true, then our participation in the sacraments also enlists us as midwives, assisting the birth of a fresh movement of God’s work and presence in our lives and our neighborhood. 

Our young neighborhood church plant has wrestled with what might it look like, for example, to participate with the God who has taken on flesh and blood and moved into our South Austin neighborhood. Though it may seem hidden, we’ve wondered, what if it’s true that we live in a world where the invisible God became historically Incarnate in Jesus Christ and is now king? What would it look like if our sense of what is “realistic” and “reasonable” as a Christian community leaned more on the truth of the Incarnation than on anything else?

Whatever it looks like, we knew we could see it in the sacraments of the church. This is why we purchased a chalice first, because we were convinced that whatever God was bringing about, it would begin and end with His Incarnate Son celebrated in the Eucharist. Situating the mystery of the Incarnation as the basis for mission is nothing new, but has served to shape our perspective of what God is up to in our neighborhood.  I’ve been calling this the Sacramental Imagination, because it deals squarely with how we make sense of a world where the invisible God was made visible among us. This is the topic I’ll be exploring in the next series of posts.

So, why the sacraments and the Incarnation as the basis for the Christian life and mission? Let’s step back and take a fresh look at the reality the sacraments invite us into.

SACRAMENTS BRING REALITY INTO FOCUS

In the sacraments, we are swept up into a sacred, beautiful, true, and most in-touch-with-reality point of view. In our participation we ask for the “eyes of faith” to put in sharp focus and vivid color what God is bringing about in the world. The sacraments are God’s grace made visible, and in the Eucharistic liturgy, we find the church becoming what it is, “caught in the act of being most overtly itself,” as Aidan Kavanagh puts it. 

Heaven and earth overlap, time collapses, the cosmos is called to attention in the Eucharistic celebration of the Church. Our common human situation is elevated into the presence of God in these moments. Beauty, justice, love, and mercy are no longer external to us but now we participate intimately with their source in the triune God. This is no mere sentimental, spiritually “interior,” privatized reality, but a most public confrontation of God and creation. In the sacraments, we begin to realize that the limitations of our imaginative reach, our words, our categories, and our broken sense of what’s possible, is consumed by the goodness of God by the Power of the Spirit through the Incarnate Christ.  In the sacraments we are confronted by the presence and action of the Holy Trinity, and it is overwhelming. 

St. John Chrysostom writes of the psalmist catching a glimpse of this vision of God,

…The sacred writer leaned out over the infinite abyss of God’s wisdom and was seized with giddiness. Filled with wonder he drew back trembling and said, “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works.’ and again: ‘such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is high, I cannot attain it.’”

This is an imagination overhauled by a glimpse of the wisdom of God. Do we think the sacraments are any less an encounter? The psalmist’s fearful glee should sound familiar for those who have seen, touched, and consumed the life of God in the sacraments. We might expect to walk away with a wounded imagination from such a confrontation, perhaps realizing that our sense of what was true and real was not quite right.

OPENING OUR EYES TO THE SACRAMENTAL IMAGINATION

That we might see with “eyes of faith” what is really and truly in our hands in the Eucharist! We may think twice about approaching the altar if we were aware of those “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” that we join in worship. At the baptism of a child, we take vows among the saints and angel armies as we prepare to witness the death and resurrection of a child of God through the watery grave. The sacraments draw us dangerously close to the limits of our native western imaginations, socially acceptable beliefs, and “intellectually responsible” set of possibilities. The Eucharist dares us to actually see and hold the work of God Incarnate unleashed in our lives and our neighborhood. This changes everything.

Some years ago I went on a medical mission trip to Albania to provide eyeglasses for folks in a remote village. I will never forget watching a five year old girl put on glasses and see a tree for the very first time. Everyone in this small, dusty, make-shift clinic immediately started crying as she pointed out the window and asked what it was. She was being flooded with wonder, questions, and new possibilities through her “new eyes.” Her assumptions about the world were being renovated right in front of us, and we could see it in her glowing brown eyes. Similarly, our eyes are being healed in the sacraments, that we might begin to “see” with a renovated imagination the heavens being ripped open and poured out. 

Jesus offered parables, images to wrestle with, that some might respond to his invitation to “repent, and believe,” having “seen” that the kingdom of God is at hand. What exactly was he seeing when he responded to his critics, “I only do what I see the Father doing”? Was he somehow more in touch with reality or was he just hallucinating? The fact that we have to ask this question exposes that we are at odds with Jesus’ native imagination, a view of reality where the invisible God has taken on flesh and blood, and where His reign and rule was breaking into the unsuspecting world. This is the imagination we encounter in the sacraments, an imagination that we are invited to take on for ourselves.

SACRAMENTALIZING OUR VIEW OF THE WHOLE WORLD

Anglicans believe in Jesus’s promise to make himself really present to us. We believe this reality is central to the Christian life. However, less often do we think about how in the sacramental life of the church, we are made really present to God. Indeed, in the sacraments, heaven and earth “overlap and interlock,” to borrow NT Wright’s phrase. They are made really present to one another, or better, we see more clearly how intimately connected they really are. Considering both of these “real presences” challenges the “secular” imagination that has been smuggled into our everyday lives. If it’s true, that in the Eucharist Jesus is made really present to us and we, in turn, are scooped into the life of God, then we are doing far more than “seeing” something sacred. In the Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis, describes it this way,

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.

In the Incarnation, the ideas of life, reality, purpose, goodness, beauty, justice, and truth, are no longer external to us but something we intimately participate in through Jesus Christ received in the sacraments. In Him we receive and “become part of” the very person of life, purpose, goodness, beauty, justice, and truth.

The sacraments puts us in touch with the reality of God Incarnate. This is the opposite of Christian escapism or fantasy, that views the sacraments as a moment of departure from reality. The sacraments actually work in the opposite direction, inviting us to open our eyes to the way things truly are and will be, and transform how we make sense of the world.

Life and reality viewed through the sacraments put our most basic assumptions on trial. God is not somewhere else, too busy, or unconcerned with the created order. Instead, all of creation is “charged” with the goodness of God and every inch of it participates in the life of God sacramentally. That is, in an analogical way, creation bears glimmers and hints of its source. Its beauty, goodness, truth—its very being is not its own, it’s all “borrowed by way of loan through the infinite mercy of the one who is truth, goodness, and beauty himself” (Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 29-32). In this way, the sacraments serve as a revelation of sorts, a window into what is most real, and helps us wonder more truly about what God is doing in the world. They draw us into God’s reconciling movement already well underway in the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ, who comes before it all and holds it all together. Seeing and participating in this sense of reality means taking on a Sacramental Imagination.

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