One of my favorite concepts in Christianity is sacrament. I guess it’s more than simply a concept, but I don’t know what else you’d call it. Reality, perhaps? What a brilliant notion, that we experience God through certain mundane elements, like bread or water, in a special way in a special moment. Various traditions look at sacraments differently but well pretty much agree (as NT Wright talks about in Surprised By Hope) that something happens when we take communion or are baptist; somehow, God’s kingdom collides with the earthly in a tangible reality. Sacrament is more than symbolic, but not (in my opinion) changed in essence. Rather, the essence is made whole and becomes a real, living exhibition of New Creation. I also like the idea that this kissing of heaven and earth requires a certain amount preparation to receive, that not every single piece of bread is communion bread until it is blessed and broken and Jesus’ life and death remembered.
I’m a fan of recognizing more sacraments. I’ve written a bit about why I think hospitality is another sacrament–the practice of welcoming the stranger as Christ over and over allows Jesus to take up residence and transforms a house or a community into a touchstone for the new creation.
Yet another sacrament, I think, is the sacrament of kindness, or just plain being genuinely nice. This needs some explanation.
Conservatives and liberals are both convinced they’ve got it all right. Yet, as Richard Rohr and Shane Claiborne are prone to say, both sides can have all the right answers and still be downright mean. Having the right answers (supposedly) doesn’t necessarily fill anyone with holy compassion and gentleness, and in fact is often the inspiration for meanness and derisiveness towards others.
But on the flip side, sometimes I meet people who are so nice that afterwards I’m quite convinced I’ve met Jesus. Sometimes it’s strangers other times it’s people I know, but I’ve found myself smiling and feeling such joy after that kind of experience; I know that Jesus was unusually present in that person.
I can’t help but wonder if niceness is a sacrament too, a kissing point of heaven and earth. Not fake niceness, not just politeness, but an intangible quality where another person displays that they value you in the present moment. I’m quite sure there’s a blessedness in it, that just as the bread is broken and shared so too is niceness to be shared in remembrance of Christ. Afterwards we are left chewing on what just happened, trying to embody what we’ve just experienced. Such a profound sense of kindness is rare, and while it uses the mundane, it is distinguishable from other experiences.
There’s point to this, besides just the fact that niceness makes us all feel better and even helps us experience God. Holy anger from time to time is necessary and understandable, but I get so fed up with mean Christians. Part of the point of the sacraments is that we taste a bit of the new creation and are hopefully converted again to be more like Jesus, turning and turning toward the cross. We become just a little bit more like the new creation we long for when we partake in the sacraments: a bit more restored, a bit more reborn, a bit more capable of transforming the world around us. Yet we become so wrapped up in having the right answers that we cannot participate in the sacrament of kindness because our hearts are not prepared, we’ve not been blessed and broken. We must be the ones who offer this sacrament to one another and to the world.
A royal priesthood indeed.