In a comment on last week’s blog post, someone asked if I might expand on something I had said earlier equating the sacrament of Communion with spiritual therapy. So, I thought I might do that a bit this week.
While we are accustomed to thinking about Christianity as a single faith, the reality we all know is that Christianity really encompasses a great spectrum of belief and practice. One area in which this spectrum is very much in evidence is what we mean as Christians when we talk about salvation.
There is, of course, the “heaven and hell” model, in which salvation is understood as avoiding the latter in order to dwell eternally in the former. Whether one “gets to heaven” in eternity is usually tied to some definition of faithfulness, which often includes believing certain things (most particularly, that Jesus is the Savior) and living a personally moral life. It is safe to say, I think, that this understanding of salvation has been dominant in Western Christian Protestantism with roots in Western Roman Catholicism. And, it certainly seems to be supported by a surface reading of parts of the New Testament.
Yet, this is hardly the only way to understand salvation, and I would argue that it is not the way the Christian churches in the earliest centuries of our history understood what salvation really was. To more ancient Christians, particularly in the Christian East, salvation has been understood as a process of healing of the human person and, by extension, the communities in which humans dwell. At the heart of this approach is the conviction that something is wrong with us: we have a spiritual illness which creates in us a tendency for self-centered egoism which leads us into sin. That is, it leads us into living our lives in ways that are contrary to God’s dream for us and, consequently, are unhealthy for us. The reality of human physical death is seen as having a spiritual corollary: a spiritual death that results not from an arbitrary divine judgment or the failure of some God-designed test, but from a completely unhealed humanity.
Salvation, then, is seen as the process in which we begin to be healed of this spiritual illness, and from this perspective, all of the elements of the spiritual life become therapeutic tools that assist us in that healing process. All of those tools really have one thing in common: they are conduits through which we are able to receive God’s grace. In most of the Christian tradition, the therapeutic tool par excellence has been and is the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
While Christian interpretations of Communion run the gamut from seeing it as a spiritual remembrance of Christ’s death to believing that the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ, the deeper truth about Communion that runs through most of the tradition over the centuries is that in the celebration of the sacrament, we have a genuine encounter with Christ. My own tradition, that of The Episcopal Church, generally declines to specify how this encounter happens. It is a mystery. But we affirm the reality of that encounter, believing that in the whole service of Holy Communion from the opening sentences to the blessing and receiving of the bread and wine to the closing dismissal, we do genuinely encounter the living Christ. This is understood as an experience of grace.
And that encounter with Christ, that experience, is therapeutic. It does us good on a spiritual level, delivering to us spiritual “medicine” that helps in making us whole, in creating salvation within us. Of course, the Christian tradition would be emphatic that Communion itself must be allied with the other spiritual tools: personal and corporate prayer, life in Christian community, works of mercy and compassion, regular reading of the Scriptures. All of these are conduits and avenues of grace that help to reform us into the image of God revealed in Christ. It is all spiritual therapy, it is all energized by the Spirit, and it moves us into salvation – a process that is not isolated to a single “ah-ha” moment but which unfolds over the whole of our lives.