In fact, the sundering had taken place centuries earlier and has its source already in the patristic period, as soon as the notion of “sacraments” emerged, as soon as theologians formed the notion that “sacraments” were magically and ontologically different from other signs, and as soon as they came to believe that the Church’s meal was a supernatural meal and the Church’s wafer was supernatural wafer. ~Peter Leithart, Against Christianity
This chapter of Leithart’s series of reflections is by far the weakest of the three I have looked at so far. Most of the chapter is dedicated to the rather obvious idea that the question of whether the Eucharist is symbol or reality is a meaningless and false question. Of course it is. Only Protestants, if I may be so blunt, would raise such a question in the first place, because it is their deficient understanding of what a symbol is that created this imaginary dichotomy in the first place. In the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy attributed to St. Dionysios, we are presented with a series of liturgical symbols that represent and make manifest the divine and intelligible realities to which they refer. A symbol is a manifestation, a proof of reality, not a cipher in place of it.
Another weakness, perhaps unavoidable given the impressionistic nature of the book, is the complete inconsistency in abjuring sacraments but endorsing ritual and liturgical theology. As a favourite writer of mine might say: Huh? It is as if Leithart could not make up his mind. If liturgical theology is vital to repudiating the privatised religion that Leithart terms Christianity, it is rather hard to avoid sacraments, or mysteries, if he would prefer to use the older, more flexible Greek term. In fact, but for the celebration of the Eucharist as a manifestation of Christ in our midst there would be very little purpose for the Liturgy beyond the commemorative. Commemoration is perfectly good, but liturgical life is participation in the Life of God, not simply reenacting a story.
Without the Eucharist, and without it having special significance, there might be some nice Gospel and Psalm reading and some singing, but it would lose all of its meaning as the congregation of the people of God in real communion. It is the ontological reality of communion, initiated in baptism and confirmed and strengthened in the Eucharist as well as by the other mysteries of the Church, that matters. It is self-evident that taking the bread and wine cannot accomplish this in anything more than a metaphorical way if the Eucharist is not “supernatural,” which is to say if Christ is not truly present in the elements through their miraculous transformation. Ritual practice in itself, however desirable or valuable, obviously cannot accomplish this. These are not simply rituals designed for our edification to live life “as it was meant to be lived,” as Leithart claims, but to effect gradually our perfection and the recovery of the likeness of God that we have lost in our fallen state.
If we are to complain about sacraments being “magically and ontologically different,” we might as well complain about Scripture being “magically” different from any other written works. There are fairly obvious reasons why some things are considered sacred and others profane, and why some symbols are higher in a hierarchy of symbols than others. Any system of symbols, to speak in terms of cultural hermeneutics for a moment, works because the symbols are interrelated and refer to one another. Some are more significant than others, just as some words are more meaningful than others, yet as part of the structure or grammar each symbol or word has its appropriate function. It isn’t magic, of course, but God’s revelation and activity that gives these acts their greater significance. The Word is present in both sacraments and the written Word, and His presence makes all the difference. They are distinct from and ‘higher’ than the rest of creation because God does not give the rest of creation the power to transfigure men. Specific sacramental rituals do not imply that the world is deprived of sacrality: God has redeemed all of creation, and all of creation praises the Lord.
The weakness of Leithart’s chapter on sacraments is the weakness of someone completely ensnared in Protestantism’s historically very weak sacramental theology but desperate to escape the logical consequences of the atomising, privatising tendencies that he finds so troubling in the departure from ritual. Leithart wants to affirm liturgical theology and ritual, but he is not nearly so concerned to affirm the traditional meaning given to that theology and ritual.
He somehow imagines that marking off the mysteries from other signs and rituals isolates the Church and leads to what he calls Christianity, but it is basic to any Orthodox understanding of the mysteries that we truly become and are sustained as members of Christ’s own Body through these mysteries, we participate in the One Who is Life and Resurrection and through the Church we are joined to all those who have put on Christ in the new creation of the Eighth Day. The mysteries initiate us into a communion broader and more expansive than any that might be accomplished by common ritual practices, and are distinguished from other rituals and their participation is regulated by the canons for the sake of embracing and incorporating all men in Christ.