I grew up in an English speaking family and learned only basic Welsh in school. Some of my relatives spoke a little more of the ancient language of our land, and there were several chapels with Welsh services in our village. I passed into adulthood hardly aware that a significant political struggle was taking place around me. The obliteration of anglicised place names on road signs with green paint graffiti shouting 'Cymraeg' (i.e. Welsh) was at first a puzzling irritation. Eventually, I realised it wasn't a matter of language purists objecting to bizarre spellings, but an open challenge to the assumption that everyone spoke English and belonged to the same culture. The story of the campaign to prevent Welsh language and culture from being overwhelmed by English is not part of my story, but the fact that it happened when it did influenced me deeply.
Bi-lingual road signs, bureaucracy, radio and television channels, and a vigorous Welsh language pop music are a feature of Wales today. Welsh is not just preserved, but flourishes as a living expression of European regional culture. When my mother church, the Church in Wales, was disestablished from the Church of England in 1921, it was constituted bi-lingually. As I trained for ministry in Wales, I realised that bi-lingualism was an expression of diversity encouraged by Christian belief. This had been alien to my social conditioning. Later, as a priest in a poor area where many parishioners were distinguished by their skin colour and their speech, this was a lesson well learned. If it hadn't been for the battle of the signs that first caught my attention, how long would it have taken for the penny to drop? Sign language is more important than we realise.
From several New Testament letters we learn that conversion and acceptance of the teachings of Jesus did not lead to instant ‘shalom-salaam’ among his disciples. There were arguments, clashes of personality, power struggles, broken promises, even defections. These failings were faced honestly. They became occasions for repentance and renewed commitment to live together with differences in the way of Jesus. Setbacks led new insights into the life of faith and opportunities to spread the Gospel. "The Spirit helps us in our weakness", testified St Paul (Romans 8:26).
When the risen Jesus had finished preparing his disciples to continue his mission, he promised that God's Holy Spirit would come to strengthen them for their task, protect them from evil, and guide them in the way of truth. Through all that would happen to them, God's saving work would be seen to continue in their lives. What mattered was not success in human terms, but what God achieved through them with all their imperfections. In that early church community, fired as it was with a sense of mission, God's presence was manifested by unusual miracles of healing, signs and wonders. Such miracles have been reported to happen in every century of the church down to our times, but, such manifestations of extraordinary divine activity are not everyday occurrences.
The mystery of the incarnation, though it can be seen in the extraordinary, chiefly finds expression in ordinary events, in the capacity of everyday things to communicate divine love and beauty. The language of signs and symbols starts here. Coming to know God in the person of Jesus awakens awareness and sensitivity to the environment and to others. This is one way in which God's Holy Spirit works. The first Christians spoke of the 'enlightenment' or 'anointing' of the Spirit. The Spirit is evident in our lives when the longing to believe is aroused in us, when we can make a commitment of faith, and when we become aware of our gifts and vocation. This need not take the form of an overtly 'religious' experience. We may find too, that the activity of the Spirit can be deeply disturbing as well as consoling.
The act of Baptism - our initiation into the Christian community - identifies us with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The drawing of the sign of the cross upon the forehead of the candidate (using oil or water), accompanying the washing with water, makes this point symbolically. Baptism also promises that we will continue to receive the Holy Spirit through our new relationship with God. In the adult baptism ceremony water used in symbolic action and hands are laid upon the candidate's head. In some traditions another anointing with oil upon the forehead, hands and sense organs is part of the ritual. These are signs of being 'confirmed with the Holy Spirit' as Christ's disciples, consecrated to be his witnesses, and called into this new relationship between God and each individual.
For some Christian groups, Baptism is offered only to those old enough to understand the Gospel message and make a public commitment of faith during the ceremony. This emphasises personal responsibility towards God in receiving and growing in the Spirit. Since early times it has also been common practice to baptise children not old enough to answer for themselves. When families converted and were baptised together, infants were not left out. The custom of bringing all infants to baptism evolved from there. It is done on the understanding that they are raised and taught in the faith of the church. Here Baptism emphasises the gift of identity in relation to God (we talk of receiving a Christian name). It stresses belonging to God's church as the way to life in the Spirit.
Eventually each baptised person must recognise the gift conveyed by Baptism for what it is - the offer of new life through Jesus Christ. They must make their own relationship with God and express their commitment to the Christian community publicly. In the Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Protestant churches, the symbolic actions of Baptism are separated in time. Washing with water takes place in infancy, anointing and laying on of hands follows at a later age with conscious consent, after a preparatory course of Christian instruction.
This later stage is called Confirmation, because it involves a person confirming the faith of their Baptism. A church, through its authorised minister, amongst Anglicans, a Bishop, confirms the candidate’s role as a responsible church member. Social convention can pressurise adolescents into Confirmation before they are ready, encroaching upon their spiritual freedom to decide. It can work to hinder their growth into mature responsible faith, yet for some, the experience opens the door to the process of deeper conversion.
Adult Baptism and Confirmation, or just being confirmed can be a profound and influential experience in spiritual self discovery. Symbolic words and actions can convey many meanings at once, whether consciously or unconsciously assimilated. We do not always realise immediately how powerful and important signs are.
In Christian liturgies signs serve, like a navigation beacon, to orient our lives to the story of Jesus, and its meaning. Christians use the term 'sacrament' to describe material things and actions used to symbolise God's gifts and presence along life's journey. Sacraments are the media God uses to convey love, strength and special help where we need it. They are both ordinary and special things at the same time.
The great sacramental sign of participation in the life of the community of those who are baptised is the sharing of a sacred meal. Eating bread and drinking from a common cup of wine together is an action which goes by many names in different streams of Christian tradition. It can be called the Lord's Supper, the Mass, Holy Communion, Eucharist, the Holy Mysteries, the divine Liturgy, the Breaking of Bread. Each name speaks of different aspects of understanding the meaning of the same activity.
The fragmentation of family and community life and everyday work patterns means that eating a meal together is becoming less of a commonplace event. When it happens it may now be regarded as special rather than normal, how we'd like things to be rather than how they are. We compensate, often extravagantly, with big feasts to celebrate special occasions. However, Christians have inherited from their Jewish roots a sense of the importance of eating together, making the commonplace sacred, making an everyday event an opportunity for prayer and praising God. A challenge to Christian disciples is not to lose touch with this important spiritual emphasis in the home as well as in church.
Jesus gave a fresh impulse to the symbolic act of washing in water practiced by John the Baptist. He instructed his disciples to go and make disciples, to baptise them as a sign of forgiveness and entry into the life of the Spirit. (Matt 28:19f) He also gave new meaning to their everyday action of saying grace before and after they ate. At his final meal with them, before his arrest and betrayal, he blessed their common loaf and the wine of their thanksgiving cup as usual, but as he did so he said: "Take eat, this is my body"; and, "This is my blood of the new covenant, which will be shed for you and for many." (Mark 14:22-4)
At the time, these words must have seemed puzzling. The disciples had not recognised his warnings of impending death. When later they realised that Jesus had given his life to defeat the powers of sin and evil, his cryptic words took on meaning. Like the ancient Jewish prophets, he had used a simple action as a sign to point to a deep truth.
Jesus identified the breaking of bread and outpouring of wine with the breaking of his body and shedding of his blood upon the cross. He sacrificed his life to forgive all who sin, and to restore right relationships between God and humankind. He inaugurated a New Covenant (i.e. a solemn declaration of mutual commitment) to supplant the exclusive Old Covenant between God and the Jews. He told his disciples to remember him whenever they shared this meal.
The Greek word for 'remember' means to make the past alive in the present, rather than return to the past. Also, his words: "This is my body" and "This is my blood", recorded in Greek but spoken in Aramaic, have an unexpected extra sense of meaning in the original. "This is my body" in Aramaic indicates: "I am here", and, "This is my blood" indicates "This is my life", or even "I am alive". The bread broken and wine outpoured with these words are signs not only that Jesus sacrificed himself for us, but that he also lives and gives himself when bread and wine are shared as part of remembering him.
This action, with these associations, has been at the heart of the church's celebration of the meal, performed in many different ways and settings throughout two millennia. It reminds hearers of his crucifixion and his presence alive from the dead, wherever Christians meet and do these things. Baptism into the community of the disciples of Jesus entitles us to share this meal to sustain us on our spiritual journey through life. The celebration is marked by love and courtesy. Participants make an effort to be at peace with one another, to accept each other's differences. Each member of the community, regardless of age, status, race or gender is equal to the other, through their relationship to Christ. It is a model for living together in peace, justice and non-violence. It is a rehearsal for the way we are meant to live the rest of our lives.
Unfortunately, the church's celebrations do not always succeed in conveying their true purpose. Attempting to live by the teachings of Jesus in a world marred by mistrust, injustice and violence entails struggle, compromise and failure. The church since New Testament times has a record of success and failure, advances and retreats, rises and falls, periods of great fecundity and of barrenness. When churches in one place decline, places in another are in renewal. God never leaves his world without the witness of some lively churches. Even in hostile circumstances, hunger to know God is not easily suppressed. Albania was for forty years an officially atheist state. Churches were shut, priests imprisoned or murdered, and no public worship was allowed. Since the fall of communism, the stream of church life concealed in the bosom of the family has re-surfaced, and once again churches, priests and lay ministries appear, despite great poverty and adversity - and this is not unique. Wherever Christian community is reborn, Christ’s resurrection is again revealed.
On the journey of discipleship, waning of enthusiasm, discouragement, disillusionment, doubt and even denial of faith can occur. Each of us is imperfectly human, trying to discover how to be more human but not always succeeding. Sin exists in our lives, no matter how good we try to be. It is a fact of our existence. Sin inflicts suffering, and is against God's will. When we sin, we experience shame and guilt, the pain of knowing we have caused suffering. It is like a sense of indebtedness. This can drag us into despair and drive us further astray. In fear and anger, we punish ourselves and each other for failure. Punishment may act as a deterrent, but does not touch the root cause.
The way of Jesus is not to punish sin or failure, but to endure suffering, to pardon, to reconcile and release the offender from their guilt. The actions of Jesus declare that nothing need stand between the sinner and God. The important thing is to recognise and learn from error, to understand its cause and the remedy for effective reconciliation. The service of Baptism and all its spiritual preparation is a model for re-enacting this in daily life.
Penitential prayers are habitually recited in public acts of Christian worship. These recognise that all people share responsibility for the sin that defiles the whole world, and must look to God for help to put things right. However, there are times when a general confession is not enough. Personal problems and errors can become a burden that prevent an individual from growing spiritually. At these times, being able to speak to someone in protective secrecy about what troubles the conscience is most beneficial.
When guilt and shame are confessed, words of reassurance and pardon are addressed to the penitent to draw a line between them and their wrong-doings. This gives a new start, a chance to remedy the offence, and heal the hurt. For Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglicans, the symbolic ritual of confessing to God in the presence of a priest, then hearing the solemn declaration of the forgiveness of one’s sins, is a vital therapeutic action. It is usually accompanied by advice and help to learn and grow through failure. This is called the sacrament of Absolution or Reconciliation.
The unconditional love Jesus showed in his life and death overcomes sin. It heals the pain of guilt, and frees people to act with dignity and confidence once more. Jesus teaches what a difference forgiveness makes. Yet, it is a lesson each person must learn for themselves. Forgiveness originates with God's compassion for us. It restores a positive sense of who we are. It shields us from the destructive power of our despair and self hatred. When we have known divine compassion, we can offer it to others and if we haven’t, we can’t.
As I struggled to comprehend the bewildering atrocities of the Yugoslav war, I came to realise that people who behaved in unimaginably evil ways did not know at a deep level how to forgive or be forgiven. They no longer cared much for their own lives nor for the lives of others. Forgiveness is an element of people’s faith easily suppressed by the loud demands of race and culture.
From time to time, our personal and corporate lives go through periods when confidence in God is eroded by complacency and over-familiarity. Too much creative energy is diverted from living faith in God to relying on our acquisitions and achievements. When challenged by change or crisis, we find we don’t have the resources to respond. Either we fall, or we set about restoring our fidelity to God. Career changes, life-threatening sickness, an accident, personal relationships deteriorating, can all precipitate a spiritual crisis. Despite the suffering, we can be led to know God in even greater depth. Change, development, crisis are God's gifts – blessings, if we accept them in the right way.
There are other sacramental signs associated with important turning points in our life’s journey, illuminating them with spiritual meaning and purpose. They consecrate the passage of time in our lives to God's glory, and challenge people of faith to see divine meaning and purpose in existence at every level. To these we now turn.