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But the purpose of this study is not simply to satisfy our curiosity. This question of the sacraments as signs is of fundamental importance for pastoral liturgy. Because they are not understood, the rites of the sacraments often seem to the faithful to be artificial and sometimes even shocking. It is only by discovering their meaning that the value of these rites will once more be appreciated. There was no such problem in the early Church, for the explanation of the sacramental rites held an important place in the very formation of the faithful.
During Easter week, for example, explanations of the sacraments were given to the newly-baptized who had received their first Communion after their baptism during the Easter vigil.
Etheria, who, at the end of the fourth century, attended the Easter celebrations at Jersusalem, describes the bishop as saying in his last Lenten sermon to the catechumens: "So that you may not think that anything that is done is without meaning, after you have been baptized in the name of God, during the eight days of Easter week you will be given instruction in the church after Mass.
Our study will be based essentially on this teaching of the first Christian centuries, and will consist, therefore, of an interpretation of the symbolism of Christian worship according to the Fathers of the Church. We shall examine successively the symbolism of the three principal sacraments,--Baptism, Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist; and then that of the Christian week and of the liturgical year.
But before we study these patristic interpretations, we must first define the principles which inspired them. For this symbolism is not subject to the whims of each interpreter. It constitutes a common tradition going back to the apostolic age. And what is striking about this tradition is its biblical character. It is, then, the meaning and origin of this biblical symbolism that we must first make clear. That the realities of the Old Testament are figures of those of the New is one of the principles of biblical theology.
This science of the similitudes between the two Testaments is called typology. At the time of the Captivity, the prophets announced to the people of Israel that in the future God would perform for their benefit deeds analogous to, and even greater than those He had performed in the past.
See J. Coppens, Les Harmonies des deux Testaments, p. He is the New Adam with whom the time of the Paradise of the future has begun. In Him is already realized that destruction of the sinful world of which the Flood was the figure.
In Him is accomplished the true Exodus which delivers the people of God from the tyranny of the demon. This is what St. Paul calls the consolatio Scripturarum Rom. But these eschatological times are not only those of the life of Jesus, but of the Church as well. Consequently, the eschatological typology of the Old Testament is accomplished not only in the person of Christ, but also in the Church. Besides Christological typology, therefore, there exists a sacramental typology, and we find it in the New Testament.
The Gospel of St. John shows us that the manna was a figure of the Eucharist; the first Epistle of St. Peter that the Flood was also a figure of Baptism. This means, furthermore, that the sacraments carry on in our midst the mirabilia, the great works of God in the Old Testament and the New: 8 for example, the Flood, the Passion and Baptism show us the same divine activity as carried out in three different eras of sacred history, and these three phases of God's action are all ordered to the Judgment at the end of time.
But there is a special question in relation to the sacraments. For the sacraments present two aspects. First, there is the reality already accomplished, and this reality is in continuity with the works of God in the two Testaments. But there is also the visible sign,--water, bread, oil, baptizing, feasting, anointing,-by means of which the action of God operates.
Here, properly speaking, is the sign, the sacramental symbol. But how are we to interpret this sign? Does it possess only the natural significance of the element or of the gesture that it is using: water washes, bread nourishes, oil heals. Or does it possess a special significance? Here the recent studies on the history of liturgical origins are of service to us, for they have established the fact that we must not look to Hellenistic culture for the origin of the Christian sacraments as people have been so willing to do for the last fifty years, but rather to the liturgy of Judaism, 9 to which they are directly related.
We must, therefore, ask ourselves the question: what significance did the signs used in the Jewish liturgy hold for the Jews of the time of Christ and for Christ Himself? It is also quite evident that the mentality of the Jews and of Christ was formed by the Old Testament.
Consequently, it is in studying the significance for the Old Testament of the different elements used in the sacraments that we have the best method of discovering their significance for Christ and for the Apostles. We shall possess a typology that will bear not only on the content of the sacraments, but also on their form; and this typology will show us that we are quite justified in seeing the sacraments as prefigured in the Old Testament, since it is for this reason that these particular signs were chosen by Christ.
Let us consider some examples. We usually interpret the rite of Baptism by seeing in it a reference to water as cleansing and purifying. But now this does not seem actually to be the most important meaning of the rite.
Two references in the Bible set us on the track of other interpretations. But the water of Baptism is also the water that brings forth a new creature, and this sends us back to the Jewish symbol of the waters as not only destructive but also creative. And, finally, Jewish baptism may also have referred to the crossing of the Red Sea. Or, again, in regard to the Eucharist: the choice of bread and wine may well have contained a reference to the sacrifice of Melchisedech; and the framework of a meal a reference to the sacred meals of Judaism, figures of the messianic feast; the season of the Pasch, a reference to the paschal meal, the symbol of the alliance between the People and God.
This biblical symbolism, therefore, constitutes the primitive foundation which gives us the true significance of the sacraments in their original institution. Later on, in the midst of a Hellenistic culture, other kinds of symbolism were grafted on to this primitive stock--symbols borrowed from the customs of the Greek world.
In this way, for example, the imposition of the sign of the cross, the sphragis, was first interpreted in relation to the Jewish rite of circumcision, but later was compared to the brand or sign with which sheep, soldiers and priests were marked. Or again, the dove, originally referring to the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, was later considered to be a symbol of peace. But these later interpretations have never entirely covered over the original biblical foundation which the Fathers have preserved for us.
And so their sacramental theology must be considered as essentially biblical. This reference to the Bible has a double value. Moreover, these references to the Bible give us the symbolism in which the sacraments were first conceived, and they point out to us their various meanings, for the New Testament first defined them by means of categories borrowed from the Old.
The sphragis, for example, is, therefore, to be interpreted in line with the theology of the Covenant; Baptism in line with that of the judgment and of the Deliverance redemption , the Eucharist in line with that of a meal and a sacrifice.
We can, therefore, now see the true value of our undertaking. We are not concerned with the personal theology of the Fathers; but what constitutes for us the supreme value of their work is that in them we meet apostolic tradition of which they are the witnesses and the depositaries.
Their sacramental theology is a biblical theology, and it is this biblical theology which we are to try to recover. We are to look for it in the Fathers of the Church inasmuch as they are the witnesses of the faith of primitive Christianity.
In them, we see this biblical theology as refracted through a Greek mentality, but this mentality affects only the method of presentation. John showed us as actually having come in the person of Christ. A few words must now be said concerning the principal sources in which we discover this sacramental theology. The period of the first three centuries gives us only fragmentary witnesses, although these are particularly valuable by reason of their antiquity.
If we must go back to the most ancient origin of treatises on the symbolism of worship, we should, perhaps, begin with the Gospel of St. John, if it is, as Cullmann believes, a kind of paschal catechesis commenting on the mysteries of Christ in relation to their biblical prefigurings 12 and also to their prolongation in the sacraments. But we are not going to speak only of the Fathers of the Church.
We observe, first of all, that the ancient rituals often contain theological indications. Thus, one of the most ancient, the Traditio Apostolica of Hippolytus of Rome, mentions the explanations of the Eucharist given by the bishop to the newly baptized before giving them their first Communion during the Easter Vigil.
More important are those which we find in works explicitly concerned with the rites of worship. We have a small treatise of Tertullian, De Baptismo. In it we find an interpretation of the figures of Baptism in the Old Testament: the different rites are enumerated with their significance. This treatise, known to Didymus the Blind, was to serve as a model for later works.
It might seem astonishing that there is nothing like it to be found in relation to the Eucharist, but the reason is that the discipline of the arcana, of secrecy, forbade the revelation of the Mysteries. The only teaching given on this subject, therefore, could not be preserved for us in writing. The subject most fully documented at this ancient time is, perhaps, that of the liturgical year, that is, essentially, of the paschal season, which was its principal feast.
For the date of Easter caused several controversies and so gave occasion to various writers to treat of the subject. Two works on Easter by Origen have recently been found in Egypt, though unfortunately they have not yet been published. And, again, the feast of Easter, which was also that of Baptism, served as the occasion for sermons, some of which have been preserved for us.
Thus, a Homily on the Passion by Melito of Sardis has been found and published by Campbell Bonner, 15 giving us a text of capital importance for paschal theology. Again, a homily that is substantially at least by Hippolytus of Rome, has been found by Fr.
Charles Martin among the spuria of St.
The Bible and the Liturgy
The Bible and the Liturgy / Edition 1