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Earlier this week, Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell sparked a lively conversation on this blog with his provocative question, “Does being a hard-nosed Calvinist who sees the struggle and brutality of nature make you a different sort of environmentalist?”

It’s a wonderful question. I rather like the idea of the Calvinist skeptic deflating overly romantic notions of nature’s wonder and beauty with nothing more than a single, withering glare. I suppose I’m displaying my Calvinist bonafides when I reveal that my favorite chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the one in which Annie Dillard marvels at a world so designed that a good share of all creatures can only exist by “harassing, disfiguring, or totally destroying” other creatures. In fact, she observes, everything is nibbled, tattered, frayed, and infested with parasites. Praise the Lord!

Steve’s question places us, as he suggests, right at the nexus of wisdom and eschatology. Wisdom cites Psalm 104, where God provides water for wild donkeys and grass for cattle and wine to gladden the human heart. Lions, we note, roar for their prey, and God seems to revel in whipping up stormy weather. This is the earth, full of creatures, that God made in wisdom: there’s abundant provision, but also terror and death and returning to dust. That impressive admixture raises the question of eschatology: what is the end point of nature’s dependence on death to create life? Will lions and lambs someday lounge in vegetarian comfort together, and if so, would they still count as genuine lions and lambs?

I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. However, I wonder if it might be useful to reflect on another nexus: the sacraments. The sacraments condense death and life into a single mystery, embodying this mystery in ordinary elements of the earth: water, grain, fruit. The sacraments thus shatter our temptation to divide the material from the spiritual, affirming the incarnational union of God and creation. The ordinary stuff of the physical world, the very fundamentals of survival provided by God, are transformed through human art and through the blessing of the Spirit, and they become means of grace.

Baptism takes water, the very basis for all life, and connects it to cleansing as well as to dying and rising. In baptism, we are cleansed and renewed, and we participate in the dying and rising of Christ. Communion takes bread and wine, products of ancient human arts derived from domesticated and cultivated plants, and connects these sustenance basics to remembrance of Christ’s death, our communion with one another, and hope for the eschatological banquet feast. These elements, as we call them, affirm our material embeddedness, gathering up along the way the entirety of God’s redemptive work: the fruit in the garden, Noah’s flood, manna in the wilderness, the life and death and resurrection of Christ, the river of life—all of it concentrated in ordinary things of the earth. God has chosen the simplest of things to become special means of grace so that we might see grace in the simplest of things.

In other words, as Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote in his 1970 work For the Life of the World, the sacraments render the world transparent to God. Practiced regularly, the sacraments pull back the veil that makes the world opaque. Schmemann writes:

“The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view. Intercession begins here, in the glory of the messianic banquet, and this is the only true beginning of the Church’s mission. It is when, ‘having put aside all earthly care,’ we seem to have left this world, that we, in fact, recover it in all its reality.”

The point of engaging in ritual actions—in setting aside some things as holy—is to train us to see the holy in all things. Over time, ideally, the sacraments work on us, teaching us that faith is more than words and ideas; through experience, sacramental practice trains us to perceive the whole creation imprinted with the presence and mercy of God, including the processes of death which propel the natural world.

Schmemann considered humans the priests of the world, as if the entire world was one giant eucharistic element and our job is to offer that world back to God as priests “of this cosmic sacrament.” I’m not sure, at this historical moment, that we need further elevation of human importance, since humans have never been more powerful and anthropocentric. But Schmemann is not the only theologian to emphasize our priestly role. Swiss theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen—a Reformed fellow through and through—also posited the redemptive importance of human worship for the sake of the rest of creation. Not only do humans rediscover our “true life in worship,” we also discover our “solidarity with the whole of creation.”

I sometimes wonder whether the more-than-human creation praises God much better than we humans do. After all, blessedly free of all the stormy weather that self-consciousness inevitably brings to humans, creatures do not need the whole apparatus of religion to get them praising God. They do so simply by being what they are.

However, von Allmen thought that the rest of the world actually longs for us humans to engage in worship in order to complete the praise the whole earth longs to give. Because of the Fall, he writes, “the song of the world is now perceptible only as a sigh. But in [Christian worship], because there man has found again in Christ—the KEPHALE of the cosmos—his original function and ultimate end, the sighs and groans of creation can be transformed into singing.”

Creation cannot fully sing unless we worship well. That’s a lot of weight on us as worshipers, and a lot of weight on our sacramental practices. What happens if we neglect them?

Well, we’re finding out right now, not by our own fault. In these last months, deprived of in-person worship in the sanctuary, congregations have been making do with Zoom and Facebook. We’re worshiping as best we can, but it’s especially difficult to engage in sacramental practice, which depends on embodiment, depends on the gathered body of Christ in the flesh.

While I’ve missed everything about our Sunday gatherings, perhaps most of all I’ve missed our communion circles, where we gather around the table embraced by the voice of the congregation at song. We pass the bread and cup to each other and speak performative words: “The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ, the cup of our salvation.” Sharing a cracker and sip with my spouse on the sofa at home has been, I’m afraid, a poor substitute.

Numerous stalwart and faithful people have confessed to me lately that their worship “attendance” has dwindled to rarely if at all. We are engaged in an involuntary experiment forcing us to ask the question: what is church for, anyway? Many people have been coping with pandemic restlessness by going outside, taking walks, finding God in nature. Do we even need church if we’ve got the woods and lakeshore?

It’s not that God isn’t present among the hills and trees and birds and clouds–general revelation and all that. But I would affirm that the church holds the means of grace through which that presence is fully revealed. We are people of Word and Sacrament. Both are essential. The sacraments are the ritual focal point where our cognitive understanding goes supra-rational and sinks into our bodies. The water, bread, and wine reveal Christ at the center of the cosmos so that we see Christ as the one in whom all things hold together. Lutheran theologian Paul Santmire writes: “the bread and the wine on the table are, for those eucharistic moments, positioned in the center of the cosmos, and the revelation of the divine energies of the crucified and risen cosmic Christ, in whom all things consist, radiates from that center”

In a few weeks we will observe Transfiguration Sunday. I wonder if transfiguration is not quite the right word. In that dazzling mountain-top moment, it’s not as if Christ changed before the very eyes of the disciples. It’s the very eyes of the disciples that were changed, so that they could perceive, for one intolerable moment, the glory of Christ. This Christ would soon gather even death into God’s redemptive purposes for all creation. The sacraments train us to pull back that veil, to taste and see, not only in worship but in every radiant ordinary lovely fearsome corner of creation, the glory of God.  

Thanks to Ron Rienstra, my live-in supplier of von Allmen quotes and all manner of helpful theological processing.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Brilliant. I love it that you went to Schmemann and Von Allmen. One further note. Everytime we celebrate, we say, “On the night he was betrayed . . . ” Even the Eucharist admits “red in tooth and claw” (broken body, blood poured out) and that we who celebrate it are the betrayers, and we are the betrayers who are to celebrate it, who have betrayed our calling in the world.

  • mstair says:

    “Creation cannot fully sing unless we worship well. That’s a lot of weight on us as worshipers…”

    “ …it’s especially difficult to engage in sacramental practice, which depends on embodiment, depends on the gathered body of Christ, in the flesh.”

    These two observations engage me the most this morning. The Apostle-led worship was so (natural?), (spontaneously sincere?) – even though they had no “Book of Worship.” Our Lord’s allowance of COVID has certainly curtailed this type of worship.
    God’s Grace, may allow us to return together this year.

    Does He desire us to alter the rather large-corporate, artificial, obligatory, presentational modes of worship we have been employing in the 21st. century?

  • “The sacraments train us to pull back the veil…” My experience in the pandemic and actually in recent years includes “the ordinary fearsome…creation” training me to see more fully the glory of God in the sacraments. My hope is that these times are inviting us to explore the practices that enable us to be aware of God in ways we have not known before, beyond corporate worship, not only through noticing the non-human world but also in experiencing the glory of justice and community and creativity. For me, the Spirit has used contemplative spirituality to lead me and several colleagues in that direction. Thank you for this thoughtful writing.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Debra. Daniel says “brilliant.” I’d say, “anything but.” Your thoughts here make me wonder what you’ve been smoking. What you’re suggesting is so surreal and out of touch with reality and common sense. What you are suggesting is not altogether new, but is so altogether out of touch with reality that it has not caught on with the universal church and is very unlikely to. It is hard to fathom that the normal (Christian) person would consider nature or the sacraments as you suggest here. You think Christians are increasingly becoming disenfranchised with the church and dropping out? The reasons are obvious, as you suggest. They see God in his own revelation, the creation, and not in made-up human revelations that make little sense. Try introducing these surreal thoughts to the public and the church doors will be shuttered sooner than later. Thanks, Debra, for a challenging article. I do appreciate your thoughtfulness in your writing, even if articles like this seem out of touch with reality.

  • Len Vander Zee says:

    Dear RLJ, if what Debra is talking about here is “surreal (dreamlike, fantasy, unreal according to the dictionary) it may be because in most Protestant churches today the Eucharist is not embedded in a liturgy, the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. Worse, in most Protestant and even Reformed churches, Holy Communion is merely a remembrance, a kind of teaching device, to remind us of Christ’s gift of personal salvation through the cross. The Eucharistic is not surreal, it is amazingly real; it’s all about matter, the very stuff of this world. The creator God has entered this material world in Jesus Christ, and in the Eucharist he feeds us with himself in the material stuff if bread and wine “the fruit of the earth and work of human hands”. It all says that matter matters to God, it reveals God, it is redeemed by God, and it will be finally transfigured by God. The Eucharist bonds my faith to the material reality of life in this world. As the Eucharistic prayer often closes, “by him (God made flesh), with him, and him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, Almighty, everlasting God.” In the Eucharist we are offering our material selves and this material world back to God in our life and our work as members of the body of Christ.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Three cheers. Hiep hiep hiep hoera!

    • RLG says:

      Len, if what Debra is talking about is surreal, it is because it has a foundation of surrealism, fantasy and unrealism. Even Christians question the validity of other religions because the many miracles that they claim as true and valid cast suspicion upon them as being unreal and make believe. But somehow the miracles of Christianity, which are just as bazar as those of other religions (and even more so) only validate the Christian message for Christians. Why are the bazar miracles of other religions false and the bazar miracles Christianity true? Both claim a God inspired Scripture.

      So, Len, we have Christians who accept the miracles of Christianity, such as the incarnation and ascension of Christ, by faith, and not because they are realistic and naturally believable, because they aren’t. Common sense and science both argue against them, just as they argue against a seven day creation and a fall of the human race instigated by Satan. So to build upon such surrealism and fantasy, as Debra has, only makes one wonder what is going on in her mind or perhaps your mind. Thanks, Len, for your interaction. And, hip, hip, hooray to you Daniel.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    I love this Schmemann-ian and Von Allmen-ian and Ron Rienstrarian (ooh, now that’s a good one!) reflection on sacraments, creation, and humanity. Thank you, Debra!

  • Marchiene Rienstra says:

    Thanks, Deb (and Ron) for sharing your insights confirming viewing the Sacraments as an essential way of experiencing the rich meaning of Incarnation in Christian theology. I would add oil to the water and wine and bread you eloquently describe, since oil is used in what a huge part of the universal Christian Church regards as Sacramental. Oil is used in the sacraments of healing, confirmation, and ordination in many churches. I think another article by you on the Incarnational and Sacramental meanings of these sacraments would be valuable.
    I would also add a couple thoughts inspired by authors like C.S.Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and others: Creation was and is affected through and through by the Fall of human beings which I see not just as an event but also a process. That ongoing process of disease, death, destruction, etc. in nature mirrors that process in fallen human beings. The sacraments establish an experience of the redemption of humans and all of creation–a glimpse, a promise of those wonderful words of Scripture: “Behold, I am making all things new!” “In Christ we are a new creation.” “A new heavens and a new earth.” And we are clearly promised that in this new creation there will be no more death or destruction or pain or weeping. Worship and the sacraments are ways of reminding us over and over that we can live in the Light of these promises. How to do this is something we all need to explore and enact!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    “it’s not as if Christ changed before the very eyes of the disciples. It’s the very eyes of the disciples that were changed,” Yes, in the sacraments, the ordinary elements become bearers of the extra-ordinary. It takes the eyes of faith to see the supernatural in the natural, but one day finally we shall all be changed.

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