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Thursday, February 08, 2007
(12:06 PM) | Stephen:
Liturgy Among the Cotton: Anamnesis and Negro Spirituals

Note: Just theology here, folks. No politics. I could use a break.

Recently perusing Johnny Cash's discography - I'm late in discovering his greatness - I was pleased to see that he recorded a version of the great Negro Spiritual, "Were You There." If you don't know it, the lyrics run thusly:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble,
Spending some time with these lyrics will soon show their high level of theological sophistication. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Why ask this question? What could this mean - is this only about memory, about an intellectual recalling of the events?

It wouldn't be much of a blog post if that were my opinion, so let's delve deeper into this issue.

This question touches upon the very nature of symbology, what it means for the Church to have an anamnestic liturgy and why the Church developed a doctrine of Original Sin. It's a very hebraic question, showing a hebraic understanding of the participatory nature of an individual's existence, that our connectedness to one another is not merely an external and intentional thing, but is deep into the essence of what it means to be a human being.

Symbology is a good starting point, since it is the easiest to handle. For Westerners, a symbol is of little consequence, something that refers to something else. The letter "k" is a symbol of a sound that English speakers make. Prince used a symbol to refer to himself for a while, so when reading about him we would see that, and when hearing about him we would hear "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince."

But a symbol is far more than that. A symbol is something that not only refers to another thing but also participates in the reality of that other thing. A flag given to grieving parents is not merely a decoration for a coffin, but the symbol and enduring reality of that soldier's patriotism, pride and devotion to duty. The Vietnam vet at the Wall, sobbing as he touches the names of his fallen comrades understands that those names are symbols, and he is actually with his long-dead friends, actually saying goodbye to them.

The Jewish faith is particularly good at this. At Simchat Torah Jews will dance with the Torah scroll and celebrate their love for it. At Succoth they will build small shelters and live in them to commemorate the years in the desert. At Passover they eat the unrisen bread, the bitter herbs and they keep the empty seat for Elijah, and all of this is intended to be more than mere memory, more than just ritual. Perhaps the power of symbol is why so many Jews who consider themselves agnostic or atheistic still participate in these rituals.

The Church has two main symbols, Eucharist and Baptism. The bread and the wine of the Eucharist are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. The Roman Catholics have perhaps the strongest understanding of what it means for these to be symbols with their doctrine of transubstantiation.

In order to understand transubstantiation, we need to understand the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine. To say that the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus is not to say that Christians practice cannibalism. It's the difference between accidents and essence. Think of a car. It is made up of thousands of parts: metal, glass, plastic. It has electronic components, pipes, wires, seats and much else. It may be a red Corvette or a black Rolls Royce. All of these things are the car's accidents. But its essence is that it is a car, and can be said to share in the same car-ness that other cars do, no matter what differences there may be in appearance. In transubstantiation, the flour, salt, water and grapes remain flour, salt, water and grapes. But while these items still share the same accidents as bread and wine, their essence is replaced by the essence of Jesus. They become, in the only theologically significant way, the actual body and blood of Jesus. That is to say, Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist.

We're part of the way there in answering the question of the Spiritual. The rest of the way is mapped out for us by the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation, the way into the Christian faith. It's done by immersing the baptizand in water, sprinkling water on the baptizand's head or pouring water on the same. Each method has an accompanying symbology, but that isn't important for our purposes here. Baptism is a symbol of dying with Christ and being raised with him (Romans 6:4). In Colossians 2:12, Paul takes it further and declares that in baptism we are buried with Christ. We are dead, with Jesus in the tomb, through our baptism. And with him we are raised, by the same power that raised him up, to new life.

Therefore, just as the Eucharist is the symbol of Christ's presence with us, meaning that he is actually, physically present with us, we can say that baptism is the symbol of our presence with Christ in the tomb and at the resurrection. To answer our question, then, yes, I was there when they crucified our Lord. I was there when they pierced his side, and I was there when they laid him in the tomb. All baptized Christians were there.

This isn't the best ending point. Obviously, I haven't yet talked about the doctrine of Original Sin. But I think this is enough to keep us going for a bit.

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