The holidays bring a bit of my family together – for fun and conversation and the joy of a feast. The conversations, however, can serve as a reminder of what I don’t know. Two of my adult children are deep into the world of computers: one is a software engineer, the other a web-designer (among other things). Sometimes their conversations lapse into the technical world of jargon – words that I do not know. I see that they’re smiling at each other so there’s no argument taking place. As a parent, all I can do is nod and pretend not to be as clueless as I am.
Most professions have their jargon, specialized words that serve to speed up the exchange of information. Theology is no exception. If I say that I take an ontological approach to eschatology – it saves about two paragraphs. It also means that over 99 percent of those reading it pass into cluelessness. The information received mostly goes like this: “He knows more than I do.” How is that useful?
This explains to me my frequent joy in reading ancient theological writings. Occasionally, an ancient author writes in a manner that is “pre-jargon.” He shares a common experience with us, but his language can be more free-ranging. He reaches and explores for words while we often settle for something less. A wonderful example of this centers around the word, “sacrament.”
There are those who like to point out that the traditional Orthodox word for “sacrament” (Eucharist, Baptism, Chrismation, Unction, Ordination, Marriage, Penance) is “mystery.” Common speech, though, usually reverts to the more popular, Western word. Interestingly, the Latin “sacramentum,” originally meant an “oath.” Exactly how it came to be the word used to describe these holy events in the life of the Church is not known (I have a guess, but I’ll keep it to myself). But even the term “mystery” was slow in coming to be the primary term used in the Orthodox Church. Language sometimes evolves slowly. That Greek-thinking Orthodoxy preferred the term “mystery” to the more legal-minded “sacrament” is itself a lesson. However, I will take us all down a different path – with a word from one of the Fathers that might give a clue as to how he thought about these things.
The author, Dionysius the Areopagite, writing in the early 6th century, made huge contributions to the theological vocabulary of the Church. Though he wrote under the name of the first-century Athenian philosopher converted by St. Paul, historical scholarship agrees that his work should be attributed to an unknown author in the 6th. His writings, however, are well-named. He engaged the popular philosophical writing of his day, primarily of the Neo-Platonists, and managed to correct them, and to draw their insights into the service of theology. He invented the word, “hierarchy,” for example, with a much broader meaning than today’s bureaucratic use of the term. He was looking for language to describe the inner order of a universe created to reveal its Maker. His acceptance and wide influence makes him one of the most important voices in the history of the Church.
The word that interests me for the purpose of this article is “teleute.” It is related to the word, “telos,” which is the “end” or “completion” or “purpose for which something exists.” It is Dionysius’ preferred word for sacrament. It opens a whole vista of understanding on what is going on within the life of the Church.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said that sacraments do not make something to be what it is not, but reveals it to be what it truly is. That thought is also found in St. Basil’s liturgy, where, instead of saying, “Make this bread to be the Body of our Lord, and God, and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he says, “And show (manifest) this bread to be…etc.” In the sacraments, God is “pulling back the veil,” so to speak, and making known to us the purpose of His creation and our purpose within it.
This interests me as well when we contemplate a famous use of the “telos” language in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “And be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word “perfect” translates teleios, and is certainly not incorrect. However, in modern English, “perfect” generally carries only a meaning of moral perfection. As such, it is a verse that sort of grinds us into the dust as we languish in our sins and failures. Who can be perfect?
The verse takes on a very different meaning, though, if teleios, is given a more proper translation. “Be whole, as your heavenly Father is whole.” “Be complete…” or most especially, “Be what your heavenly Father created you to be just as He is Who He is from eternity.” The oppression lifts, and the good news radiates into our hearts.
Dionysius takes this word “teleute” to describe the sacraments as they work in us to complete and bring to “perfection” the fullness of their intention within us. He places this in a classical framework that many Orthodox will be familiar with:
Purification, Illumination, Theosis
First, the sacrament grants “perfection” (completeness) to those who are being purified…
Second, it illuminates with teaching those who have been purified…
Third, it initiates into completion those who have been illumined.
This is, to a certain extent, a description of the catechumenate, but can be extended to describe the whole process of the Christian life. It is a life-long liturgy (of which Pascha and the rite of Baptism are the most singular example) as we move deeper into union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Years ago, during my ordination to the priesthood, as the Bishop laid hands on my head he pronounced the words:
The Grace Divine, which always healeth that which is infirm and completeth that which is lacking elevateth, through the laying-on of hands, (NAME), the most devout Deacon to be a Priest. Wherefore, let us pray for him, that the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.
I recall a conversation with the late Archbishop Dmitri, of blessed memory, about that prayer. I had served for 20 years as an Anglican priest. I had baptized hundreds, married just about as many, heard confessions, and celebrated the eucharist over a thousand times and more. There was no answer to the question, “What about all of that?” Perhaps the answer would be, “There was something lacking.” I do not think the answer would be, “It meant nothing.” His Eminence comforted my heart that the work of the Holy Spirit was to “complete that which is lacking.”
I think to myself that this work continues. I am not yet the priest that I am called to be. The priesthood of Christ resides in me, it is God’s gift. But it is the work of the Holy Spirit to complete it. “Be complete!”
All of this, though, takes me into the mind of Dionysius. Every sacramental event is far from being a “thing.” The sacraments are not discrete holy moments where we try to touch heaven. They are, instead, “completions,” revelations and manifestations of what the whole of the world, and ourselves, are meant to be. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him,” Christ says. Dionysius would tell us that this is the purpose, the end (telos), of our existence. It is who we are – those who abide in Christ and in whom Christ abides.
The simple bread and wine that we bring and offer is not yet what it shall be as it is completed and made manifest on the altar as the Body and Blood of God. We are all sacraments of the Goodness of God (as is the whole creation). Creation groans as it awaits that final manifestation (Romans 8). We groan within ourselves as well – but, as often as not, we forget that we are being purified, illumined, and completed. We lack. We hunger. We wait.
Complete us, Lord, and elevate us to the glory you have ordained for your sons and daughters!