The Christian religion is not only a philosophy of life–it is also a power which helps those who are receptive to spiritual influence to live the life that it teaches. In the last chapter a very brief outline of Christian philosophy, a philosophy that it is the same as that which underlies all the great religious faiths. The key-conception of this philosophy is evolution. Evolution is the working out of God’s purpose. Slowly the great purpose is being unfolded age by age. There is a great force within the universe, and within every atom of it on every plane, which causes this gradual unfoldment. That force is the God-force, which “mightily and sweetly ordereth all things.” But, as we have already seen, God has provided that at certain stages the force from within shall be met by a force from without, both making for the same end. The combination of these two forces obviously must assist evolution enormously at those levels and in those people where the two forces meet and can work together.
There is within us human beings, as in all other beings, the divine force at work. It is irresistible, yet it does not force a way. It is gentle in its working. It will wait until the person in whom it works is ready to let it work rather than compel that person to submit to it. We speak of the force as “it,” but it is really God. Sooner or later that force from within will achieve its purpose in every human soul, but not by compulsion. At every point in the whole vast universe that force is operative, but at the human level it delays, it hangs back, until the human soul is ready to recognize it as right and good and to cooperate with it. For such as these there comes the mighty aid of the spiritual force which is conveyed to human souls through the initiatic rites of religion. In the Christian religion the Sacraments are a major means by and through which this spiritual force is brought down from on high to our level.
There are several Sacraments or means of grace in the Christian Church. The Protestant sections of Christendom only recognize two sacraments, and to those two they do not attach much importance–they think of them rather as symbols of events than as channels of grace (spiritual power). The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other sacramental Christian churches, on the other hand, attach the very greatest importance to them, for they see in them not merely symbols or signs, but symbols which are in part that which they symbolize. In theological language they are efficacia signa–signs or symbols which carry their effect with them. It is this view which we propose now to expand.
The Sacraments have been handed down from generation to generation throughout the centuries, from the very beginning of the life of the Christian Church. The Lord Jesus himself directed his first disciples to use them and to hand them on to others wherever they established groups of Christian initiates. This receives confirmation from the fact that millions upon millions of people through the centuries have found in their own experience that the Sacraments really are vital means of spiritual help. The Sacraments are alive with the life of Christ. This can be distinctly experienced by those who have developed their inner perceptions through meditation and participation in the Sacraments. The Lord Jesus Christ uses the Sacraments as means by which his life and his power, proceeding from his exalted level, is brought down to our level and distributed far and wide. By these means spiritual forces are both poured out upon individual Christian initiates and, in the case of the Eucharist (or Mass), are spread over the world, blessing and uplifting as many people as are receptive to them.
The Sacraments are so designed and arranged as to meet and to help human beings at every stage of the initiatic life. The first Sacrament is Baptism. The effect of Baptism is to deaden the influence of bad tendencies and strongly to stimulate the seeds of good–both of which the individual has incurred from former incarnations, as well as this present one. At the same time a guardian angel is linked to the life of the individual. A protecting shield is created to surround him, and certain chakras, centers of spiritual force in his body at the top of the head, on the forehead, on the throat, and at the nape of the neck, are anointed with sacred oil which acts as a sentinel at these entrances, guarding them against the intrusion of evil thoughts or feelings. All of this is done for the protection of his interior evolution.
Baptism And Confirmation
“And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him” (Matthew 3:16). As with our Lord, so it is with us. Immediately after the cleansing effects of Baptism which clear away so many inner obstacles, the Sacrament of Confirmation (known in the Christian East as Chrismation) is conferred to fill us with the divine light of the Holy Spirit. The Archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Here, too, we are like her. Through Confirmation we are truly “filled with the Holy Spirit” so that our own Christhood may be conceived with us and in time brought forth unto our perfection. To assist in the accomplishing of this, chakra-centers of inner powers within the body are anointed with sacred Chrism (consecrated and divinely empowered oil) to purify, attune, empower, and awaken them for the conveying of higher consciousness to the initiate. The spirit, the intuition, the mental nature (both higher and lower), the emotional nature, and the physical body are all strengthened and stimulated with force from on high by this Sacrament.
Although the Sacraments have an immediate effect, they also have a long-range effect–for the rest of the initiate’s life as he perseveres in the path of conscious spiritual evolution. This is especially true in regard to Baptism and Confirmation. But in all the Sacraments it is Christ our Lord who pours the grace through the Sacraments, and it is faith and preparation which appropriates it. Faith cannot create the grace–Christ alone can do that. And Sacraments, administered by those who have themselves been set apart and empowered through the great Sacrament of Priestly Ordination, are his chosen channels for the distribution of his deifying spiritual power.
The Anointing Of The Sick
“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). The Sacrament which is known as the Anointing of the Sick is the carrying out of this counsel of Saint James, the first Master of the Christian community in Jerusalem. By anointing the sick person with healing oil that has been specially magnetized by a bishop, and by laying his hands on the sufferer while invoking the healing powers of Christ, a priest confers this Sacrament–not only for the healing of the body, but also for the healing of the emotions, intellect, and will. “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up” (James 5:15).
The Sacrament of Ordination is in a sense the key to all the other Sacraments, and for this reason it has been left until the last, though perhaps it would have been more appropriately placed at the beginning of this section. Holy Orders, or Ordination, is the Sacrament at which the power to administer all the Sacraments is conferred on certain chosen candidates. There are three grades or degrees of major Orders: bishops, priests, and deacons. At every ordination it is the bishop who confers the Order, whether it is to the diaconate, to the priesthood, or consecration to the episcopate. And the outer form of the Sacrament is the laying on of hands.
The inner side of it is very interesting, and for those who receive Holy Orders very solemn indeed. At the laying on of hands the Lord Himself links the inner principles of the candidate closely to Himself. By “inner principles” is meant the higher mind, the intuition, and the spiritual faculty. The link is made with the higher mind in the case of a deacon, with the intuition in the case of a priest, and with the spiritual faculty in the case of a bishop. The purpose of this inner linking is not that the man, whoever he is, may have the honor and joy of being thus linked to the Lord for his own sake (though, of course, it is a very high honor indeed), but that through the man thus ordained the Lord himself may do what is necessary at every Sacrament to make that Sacrament a real channel for his power. The Lord is really the officiant at every Sacrament, not the priest or bishop. The minister, of whatever degree, is for this purpose part of the Lord himself, providing the material apparatus which the Lord needs for the distribution of his power and blessing far and wide at our level.
The handing on of the grace of Orders and of the power and authority to administer Sacraments is confined to bishops. The power to do this has been handed on by the laying on of hands from generation to generation, since the time when our Lord himself founded the Christian religion. This continuity is generally known as the “Apostolic Succession.” The principle to be borne in mind is that at every Sacrament the ordained minister acts only by virtue of his inner link with the Lord Jesus Christ. He is, so to speak, for this purpose an instrument, with mind and hands and voice, for the Lord to use.
From the foregoing it will be seen that Sacraments are very real and important means to effect our ultimate evolution unto divinity. The thousands of saints produced by the Sacraments of the Christian Church in both East and West–indeed, throughout the world–are the proof of this.
The Supreme Sacrament
“Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). The Holy Eucharist, the Mass, is the supreme Sacrament, for it is specifically the Sacrament of Love–a love so great, so free, and so giving, that in it we receive the total being of Christ our Lord to act as a divine leaven within us that in time will bring us “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). That is, through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist we are enabled to become a Christ–as Jesus of Nazareth did before us. The Eucharist is important, also, in that it is the most frequently administered and has the most widespread effect of all the Sacraments. To explain it at all adequately it will be necessary to consider it separately further a little later on. All that need be said about it at this point is that it is intended to benefit not only those who participate in the transformative rite, but the world and its inhabitants, visible and invisible. Mystics have told us that the Holy Eucharist extends its effects even beyond this material plane and sweetens all the worlds with the love and light of Christ.