liturgy, sacrament

A Liturgical and Sacramental Definition

After finishing my Sacramental/Liturgical Guided Reading class, I’ve come up with a few definitions.

Liturgy: The event/experience of ontological space and action that functions as a Christological matrix of the grace of God.

Sacrament: Grace/gift/experience and understood by Christians in liturgy.

Sacramental: Experiencing the event of Grace.

The books that helped develop such an understanding were:
The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith by James F. White
Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual by Tom F. Driver
The Eucharist and Human Liberation by Tissa Balasuriya
Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology by Susan A. Ross
Beyond Ritual: Sacramental Theology after Habermas by Siobhán Garrigan
Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church by Joseph Martos
Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Experience by Louis-Marie Chauvet


15 thoughts on “A Liturgical and Sacramental Definition

  1. I have totally abused your scheme for my own purposes. Feel free to view the wreckage on my blog.

    PS – Interesting thoughts…I’m still mulling…

  2. Halden says:

    I like the definitions of sacrament/sacramental.

    Not sure about the definition of liturgy. If I read you right you’re saying that liturgy is basically whenever/wherever we experience the grace of God through Christ, right? To me that would be a sacramental event but not nessarily a liturgical one.

    It seems to me that any definition of the liturgy must reckon with the linguistic and theological roots of the word, i.e. as “the peoples’ work”. I’m not sure we can define liturgy without talking about the church as a people gathered for worship.

  3. I agree with you Halden. Chauvet tears apart metaphysics and runs with language using Heidegger, Derrida, and Levinas. I think you would like Symbol and Sacrament.

    One might be walking down the road and reflect upon creation. But a Christian reflects on such grace through the understanding of the memory of Jesus, which is distilled in the Eucharist. Simply, the community gives the Christian a way of language and being (while the community was already formed by the language in the first place), language which in itself is knowledge and experience/body (rather than a conduit to knowledge).

    Importantly, the gift of grace and the reciprocation is embodied in language and embodiment. Grace and reciprocation of grace is inherently done in one’s body; any response to grace is liturgical, or at least understood by the community’s liturgy. Therefore through our body’s response, we respond in rites and rituals, some formalized and codified, while others are ad hoc.

  4. Halden says:

    I just don’t think I can have a liturgical experience alone. Liturgical is by its very nature a communal, ecclesial event.

    I have Chauvet’s book now. I got it on the basis of your quotes. Looks like good stuff.

  5. irishanglican says:

    Read some stuff on liturgy and sacrament by the Orthodox, they are way ahead of most us western minds here!

  6. I don’t know if they’re ahead, but they certainly do have a different way of understanding, and deeply so.

    I have a hard time separating liturgy from sacrament because it is through liturgy that we have a clear, Christian understanding of grace in a holistic way.

    I also want to avoid understanding language as a conveyer of terms or experience – it is experience of grace and therefore grace itself.

    I, like you, understand it in communal terms because it is communal, and therefore any experience we do have is read through previous ontological space and relationship – reflection on creation itself is only understood through the language of the community. Our being in the world, and reflection on humanity’s life in creation, is done at the most common denominator, our body. Our literal, physical body. When we do a physical action, even if it isn’t already previously written down, it can be liturgical if it embodies or recognizes grace.

    For instance, when I go back to Alaska, I like to spend time in the mountains and sometimes by myself. When I respond to the revelation of creation by moving amongst it, raising hands, singing/humming, or other things, this can be a liturgical experience because something is physically being recognized and the grace of God is washing over my being. However, I could not respond as I do without being given the language to do so, without the memory of action in liturgical space, without still maintaining relationships with others in the Christian community.

  7. irishanglican says:

    “We must allow a great many books to go unread, and a great many social visits unpaid, in order that we may concentrate on Christ.” P.T. Forsyth

  8. Halden says:

    To me it seems pretty aximatic that not all things liturgical are sacramental. The church may gather to make confession of faith, sing songs, preach the scripture, pray and so on, but that does not necessarily mean that all of those liturgical acts are automatically sacramental in nature. It’s perfectly possible for me to pass the peace and not experience grace. It seems to me that the sacramental supervenes on the liturgical and ultimately the sacramental is beyond our control, intruding into our liturgies and into our lives when and where God wills to do so in Christ.

  9. Theres a few important points that Chauvet makes that I agree with and want to run with:

    One, grace is understood in terms of gifting. And two, there are two acts when talking of grace, grace which we do not control, but the second we do, called reciprocating. It is through both grace and reciprocation that the action of gift and re-gifting is completed.

    Importantly, if we separate sacrament from liturgy, then we fall into past notions of embodiment and language. In effect, liturgy as language becomes a conveyer of knowledge rather than language being the actual knowledge itself. So, if starting from an understanding that liturgy is an experience of grace because language is our way of knowing (since it is language that forms us, rather than us forming language), then, in a sense, liturgy is grace embodied. The liturgy — the act of remembrance and the constituting of the body of Christ — itself is given to us. With this language (language in the fullest sense of the word – ie. senses, organization, etc.) Christians interpret the rest of their encounters with grace. Quite simply, it is through the memory of Jesus that we understand grace to exist. Therefore, even if we may not experience a mystical feeling, that does not mean grace does not exist in that moment, for even at the fundamental level of ordering our humanity, grace exists.

  10. irishanglican says:

    An Orthodox sacramental would be Christ is present in and to the soul, the desire of theosis…transformation and recreation in Christ.

  11. Steve says:

    I realize that you’re discussing technical terminology. However, because this is the public internet, I’m here with this reminder of how normal people use these words:

    Liturgy \Lit”ur*gy\, n. (etymology elided)
    An established formula for public worship, or the entire
    ritual for public worship in a church which uses prescribed
    forms; a formulary for public prayer or devotion. In the
    Roman Catholic Church it includes all forms and services in
    any language, in any part of the world, for the celebration
    of Mass.
    [1913 Webster]

    Sacrament \Sac”ra*ment\, n.
    1. The oath of allegiance taken by Roman soldiers; hence, a
    sacred ceremony used to impress an obligation; a solemn
    oath-taking; an oath. [Obs.]
    [1913 Webster]

    2. The pledge or token of an oath or solemn covenant; a
    sacred thing; a mystery. [Obs.]
    [1913 Webster]

    3. (Theol.) One of the solemn religious ordinances enjoined
    by Christ, the head of the Christian church, to be
    observed by his followers; hence, specifically, the
    eucharist; the Lord’s Supper.
    [1913 Webster]

    Sacramental \Sac`ra*men”tal\, a.
    1. Of or pertaining to a sacrament or the sacraments; of the
    nature of a sacrament; sacredly or solemnly binding; as,
    sacramental rites or elements.
    [1913 Webster]

    Serviceable definitions, though not brilliant ones. Note the concreteness. Liturgy is defined as a formula of worship, a ritual. Sacrament is defined as a solemn ordinance. I can comprehend these nouns in a way that I cannot comprehend yours. Even the old standard “visible sign of an invisible grace” does more for me than “grace/gift/experience,” which seems like it could apply, or not apply, to just about anything.

    I do not claim that even my layman’s understanding of these words is exactly equivalent to what the dictionary says. I am far equating the sacraments to old religious habit. However, the standard definitions are still more useful to me, because I understand them more readily than I understand your “Christological matrix.” (What does that even mean?)

    I sometimes think your job as a theologian would be easier if you just coined new words instead of heaping delicate subtleties on words that are already well-worn. When you redefine or reemphasize an old word, and then use it technically, your job of communicating an idea becomes harder: you are working against your reader’s own vocabulary. That’s a very delicate rhetorical task.

    If I can find a hundred variant definitions of “sacrament,” what am I, as a Christian but not a theologian, supposed to make of them all?

  12. Meh. Webster is over rated. Definition comes from the community (which is defined by the story, and therefore language, that forms the community), not exactly an objective list, which doesn’t actually illumine the dynamic nature of words. Also, theologians have better definitions than Webster.

    A Christological Matrix is basically a lens or filter through which we understand something, however, it is more than a lens or a filter. A lens or filter, one might think, is something to get rid of because it gets in the way of the actual object, but instead, this Christological Matrix is the “the thing itself” (the grace) because the Christ story/language embodies and lives the gift of God. In other words, the Christological Matrix forms our understanding of grace in the most basic way because it constitutes the very language and direct interaction that we have with God. This is why the Eucharist is so important.

    As for a variety of definitions, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Lots of different humans have different categories to understand revelation, experience, etc. Think of it in terms of different denominations.

  13. irishanglican says:

    Theological language changes but never goes away. We must grow with it, and sometimes even change it if we can? When it is needed, that is. To simply try and build or “unpack” theology, etc. is a myth. It takes work and learning in many areas. But the real “theologian” is a title and honor but few can gain. The Eastern Church does not give away this office, honor and title easily, as the west. But, would that more people, and yes layman would learn and engage theologically. And true theology will always be the study of God!

  14. Siobhan Garrigan says:


    I just wanted to let you know how touched I was to see my name/book listed as one of the influences on your constructive theologizing. Thank you ever so much. I hope our paths might cross one day, as I suspect we would have much to talk about. In the meantime, very best wishes to you in your studies, and all else,


  15. Siobhan,

    I am glad you are encouraged, and take heart, the book was part of a one-on-one course that I had with Janet Walton at Union. She thought highly enough to include in the book list, as well as talk about it positively at length. Your work is read and is found helpful!


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