In the Absence of Meaning

pantocratorI really have no appreciation for vacuous rites, empty rituals, hollow speeches, “sounding brass or tinkling symbols,” as it were. Though I have a deep appreciation, and even love, of fine liturgical worship – powerfully poetic, collective obeisance to almighty God – there must be something substantive about it all. If the liturgy is nearly or completely dead, then it is meaningless and a waste of time … and I have no time to waste. On a deeper level, when I allow myself to engage in basically dead liturgy, as I have in the past, then I am guilty of “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.”[1] This is equally true in other rites and rituals, such as the supremely important sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

If the Sacrament of Baptism has no efficacy whatsoever, then I ask two fundamental questions: 1) why baptize at all? 2) How trustworthy is the apostolic testimony in toto if their testimony regarding Baptism is flawed at root? After all, the rite of Baptism was unquestionably important in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (and thereafter for nearly two thousand years.) First, the second question. The apostle St. Paul claims Baptism is tantamount to being buried with Christ and raised again into new life.[2] St. Peter equates Baptism to Noah and his family being delivered from death during the Great Flood, and then goes on to claim that Baptism saves us “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[3]

And again, St. Paul writing to Titus teaches:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.[4]

I’ve never claimed to be either a Bible scholar or theologian; however, taking the plain meaning of what St. Paul wrote, we can certainly conclude that we (Christians) are not saved by our own merit but by the gratuitous mercy of God, which is directly linked (connected somehow) to the “washing of regeneration,” most certainly referring to Baptism, and the “renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Or, perhaps, we can unpack his statement as saying that we are saved by the mercy of God, and by the washing of Baptism, and by the renewal of the Holy Spirit. This would be a kind of three-pronged approach to the idea of salvation or, maybe better, picturing salvation as a unified, three-part, symphonic movement. I have chosen to believe the trustworthiness of this apostolic testimony to Baptism – as I have as well regarding Holy Communion – which really effectively answers the first question. This is the reason for baptizing (and partaking of Holy Communion), because it actually does mean something; it does have real value.

At any rate, this is not meant to be a theological argument. My point here is merely that Sts. Paul and Peter actually meant something very real and substantive when they spoke and wrote about Baptism. I am not going to delve into how Baptism ought to be applied, whether by immersion or pouring or sprinkling.[5] In fact, the point here is not so much about Baptism as it is about meaning, or the lack thereof, in so many churches, and thus among so many Christians (at least throughout the American society.) Much the same can be said about Holy Communion. The Lord Jesus said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”[6] Of course, Jesus says much more according to the Gospel of John:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.[7]

This must be, of course, the most startling statement about what would become for the Church Catholic the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ – the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

And, of course, St. Paul informs the Corinthians that it is their unworthily partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ that has caused sickness among them.[8] “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord … and drinks judgement upon himself.”[9] Some people claim that, well, not very much is really said about Baptism and Holy Communion in the New Testament, but … is the preceding not enough? Besides, the Church has always laid great emphasis upon the substantive value of both Sacraments … right?

So St. Augustine told his listeners:

Recognize in this bread what hung on the cross, and in this chalice what flowed from His side… whatever was in many and varied ways announced beforehand in the sacrifices of the Old Testament pertains to this one sacrifice which is revealed in the New Testament.[10]

And St. John Chrysostom taught:

How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, and His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, (and) you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.[11]

St. Ephraim cries out:

O Lord, we cannot go to the pool of Siloe to which you sent the blind man. But we have the chalice of Your Precious Blood, filled with life and light. The purer we are, the more we receive.[12]

On the central necessity of Baptism, St. Ambrose taught:

The Church was redeemed at the price of Christ’s blood. Jew or Greek, it makes no difference; but if he has believed, he must circumcise himself from his sins [in baptism (Col. 2:11-12)] so that he can be saved . . . for no one ascends into the kingdom of heaven except through the sacrament of baptism . . . ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’[13]

And we find this same basic perspective shared throughout the early Church, that is, its understanding of and, thus, attitude toward the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. The same can be said about prayer, worship, marriage, godliness and so many other critical areas of life within the Body of Christ. Again, this is not meant to be so much a theological dissertation or argument as it is a focus upon substantive meaning. For the Church Universal, down through the ages, there has been meaning in all this – diversity in understanding and teaching, to be sure – but now (again, at least throughout the American churches) there seems to be a prevailing apathy growing out from a deeply rooted conviction that, well … there’s really nothing to it, whatever “it” may be at the moment. This has had, I’m afraid, the tragic effect of translating into the whole of the Christian faith-religion having no concrete significance, except, perhaps, as providing nothing more than a cheap ticket into heaven.

In his commentary of the Church of England’s (Anglican, in other words) Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, Gerald Bray claims there is no efficacy in the Sacrament of Baptism, listing examples of evil men who were baptized:

Bertrand Russell, for example, was baptised, but he openly denied that he was a Christian, so what was the effect of his baptism? Adolf Hitler was baptised, as was Josef Stalin. So what? Baptismal regeneration is a foolish and impossible idea[14]

This is nonsense. Does prayer have no efficacy because some people pray quickly and thoughtlessly? Is all worship inefficacious because there are those who glibly walk into church on Sunday morning and merely go through the motions? Do professing Christians who partake of Holy Communion unworthily make this Sacrament of no benefit to those who partake in a worthy manner? Could it be that Russell, Hitler, and Stalin actually did receive the benefits of Baptism, then of their own volition threw away the gracious, divine gift they’d received? Is this not also possible?

The tragic message conveyed in and through so many American churches, even including many Orthodox and Catholic parishes, is that there really is no actually meaning (or value) in so many actions of the Body of Christ. This doubtless goes a long way in explaining why not a few start-up “churches” have simply dispensed with sacraments, liturgical worship, and sacred tradition altogether. Consequently, they have no grounding in history, no heritage to which they can point, no inherited identity (beyond that purported by being “Christian.”) What is the result of this, though? The result, in my humble opinion, is that generations of millions of people now have no desire whatsoever to step foot inside any church, and many who have – including those who’ve grown up within the Church – are leaving … sadly, hardly ever to return. Well, to what would they return? To an ecclesial institution totally out of step with society and the world?[15]

If the Church has anything of real value to offer, then it is imperative that the various churches, which have (at least formerly) placed emphasis on some substantive meaning in sacraments, liturgical worship, and other ecclesial actions, to review and renew their understanding and commitment to such, and passionately convey all of this to the many people outside the Church, who are hungering and thirsting for real significance and value in their lives.[16] Or does this somehow conflict with sharing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus the Christ? No, of course not; it goes hand in glove with the Gospel. Point in fact, it is part of the Gospel or, perhaps more appropriately, this is part and parcel of living out the “Gospel life,” one might say.

As I stated at the beginning, I really have no appreciation for vacuous rites, empty ritual, hollow speeches, “sounding brass or tinkling symbols;” neither do millions of others. Thank God that is not what I have in my Christian faith-belief, but the truth of the matter desperately needs to be conveyed first to the people in the pew, then to people outside the four walls of the Church. (By the way, if the constitutional make-up of someone is empty – vain and vacuous – then this will show itself in every area of that person’s life. The whole idea in what has been presented carries over, beyond the Church, into every area of life. We see this, but… perhaps that is another discussion for another time.) It is far past time to refocus on the meaning of and reason for doing what we do as the Church (or churches, as is sadly the case,) and God have mercy on us and upon our beloved land.

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[1] Cf. II Timothy 3. 5

[2] Cf. Romans 6. 4 and Colossians 2. 12

[3] Cf. I Peter 3. 21-22

[4] Titus 3. 4-7 ESV

[5] Note: Early evidence seems to show that Baptism was commonly administered to one standing knee-to-waist deep in water (stream, river, lake, etc.) and having water poured over his/her head. Who knows but immersion may have been practiced, as well, but there is also some evidence, at least as I understand, that where water was scarcer, applying less water was certainly acceptable. Consequently, one may justly conclude that all three forms were acceptable, although in all likelihood either immersion or pouring were preferable.

[6] Matthew 26. 26 ESV; cf. also Mark 14. 22; Note: These verses lack the statement, “Do this in remembrance of me” found in Luke 22. 19; however, the Greek word ἀνάμνησις causes a great deal of confusion. The word does mean more than our usual concept of mere remembering; however, just what precisely it does mean – the breadth and depth of meaning – is a point of quite some controversy. For the purpose of this article, then, we will simply leave this matter alone and press on.

[7] John 6. 48-51, 53b-56 RSV

[8] Cf. I Corinthians 11. 22-30

[9] I Corinthians 11. 27, 29b RSV

[10] St. Augustine, Sermon 3.2, circa 410 A.D.

[11] As quoted on http://whitelilyoftrinity.com as accessed on May 1, 2015

[12] As quoted on http://whitelilyoftrinity.com as accessed on May 1, 2015

[13] St. Ambrose, On Abraham 2.11:79-84, as cited on https://carm.org accessed on May 1, 2015

[14] Gerald Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles, 155; Note: Bray recognizing all of the Scriptures that point to the efficacy of Baptism, as well as language in the Book of Common Prayer; however, being an Evangelical Protestant, he puts himself in the very awkward position of having to fully honor the plain meaning of these scriptures while at the same time denying what they seem to plainly teach.

[15] Being out of step brings to mind an important note from the opposite ecclesial end, that is: If the Orthodox churches’ Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (and St. Basil the Great, for that matter) are so important in and of themselves that the Church cannot bring itself to carefully, conservatively update the language into beautiful, contemporary English, then the Church betrays itself as having placed no actual value in the content of the Liturgy. It shows nakedly its real interest in being liturgical without any underlying concern for authentic worship. In the Sacred Tradition of the Eastern Church, the Diving Liturgy and Holy Scripture were translated into the vernacular of the people precisely so people could understand and more fully participate in worship, and truly learn and grow from the teachings of Sacred Writ. The various Orthodox churches use the New King James translation for New Testament readings, and this is good, and an untold number now use the St. Vladimir Seminary translation of the Septuagint for Old Testament readings, which is unfortunate only because the translation leaves one wanting, so to speak. The New English Translation of the Septuagint might have been a better choice… The Divine Liturgy ought to have been updated along the same lines as the New King James Version years upon years ago. At least one monastery has an updated version of the Liturgy, very reverent and beautiful. But, you see, this really is a case of “having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.” One would be tempted to think the bishops and archbishops prefer “sounding brass and tinkling symbols” to real, unadulterated worship.

[16] Here we have to be honest and say that this includes, of course, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as the Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and, perhaps, Presbyterian churches. Most of the Baptist, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are systemically unable to afford the sacraments, liturgical worship, etc. with anything of a high meaning and value. This could be an unfair assessment, but I don’t believe so.

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2 thoughts on “In the Absence of Meaning

  1. You may not consider yourself a Biblical scholar, but you’re certainly a well versed Biblical journalist…and great writer!

    Interesting post. Yeah, a bucket of water didn’t help Lord Russell. He was a powerful intellect and writer and I really like is History of Philosophy. It’s a great book. But Russell was pretty much an agnostic, bordering on atheist when it came to religion. He had an incredibly lucid mind and I think he felt religion just wasn’t something a rational person believed in. But, of course, the greatest philosophical mind of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was highly rational and a towering genius and was also a Christian.

    1. Thank you, Jeff! You’re gracious words are humbling, to say the least. My father was very conversant with Wittgenstein and loved his thought and writings; truly an intellect par excellent, as well as Christian. As for Russell, you are also most certainly correct: one cannot deny his ability, yet like so many others so gifted, he chose to stand in the center of his own temple as his own high priest, so to speak … the perennial temptation faced by all of humanity. God bless!

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