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Sacrament: An Overview


The meaning of the term sacrament is heavily determined by Christian usage. This circumstance presents both important opportunities and certain difficulties for the scientific study of religion. On the one hand, the familiarity of the term and of the rituals to which it refers in Christianity makes possible, at least for the Western student of religion, progression from the known to the less known with the aid of developed categories used for comparative purposes. On the other hand, there is the danger that the derivation of the category of sacrament from Christianity will result in a distortion of other religions, unduly emphasizing cognates or analogies while ignoring or dismissing distinctive features of other traditions.

In order to both make good on the comparative opportunities provided by the term and to overcome the limitations of too heavy a reliance upon the perspective that has determined its customary meaning, this article will first indicate some of the antecedents to the standard Christian view of sacrament. A consideration of parallels or cognates to Christian sacraments will be followed by a brief consideration of the possibility of a more strictly formal definition of the category.

Hellenistic Sacraments

While classical Christian usage has largely determined the understanding of sacrament that the student of comparative religion employs in the study of religion, it is important to have some awareness of the pre-Christian understanding of sacrament and its Greek antecedent, mustērion. Three antecedents to the classical use of the term will be considered: the mystery cults, the apocalyptic mystery, and the mystical, or gnostic, tradition.

The mystery cults

The Greek mustērion is of uncertain etymology but is most probably associated with muein, meaning "to close" (the mouth), and thus "to keep secret." Certainly it was this connotation of secrecy that dominated the technical usage of the term to designate the Hellenistic cults, especially those associated with Eleusis, which are accordingly known as "mystery cults" or simply as "mysteries" (musteria ). The term mustērion designates the sharp dividing line between initiates, for whom the secret history of the god (his birth, marriage, or death and rebirth, depending on the cult) is dramatically reenacted, thus binding their fate to the god's, and noninitiates, who cannot participate in this kind of salvation.

If the term were to be employed in this, its earliest technical religious sense, for phenomenological and comparative purposes, its application would necessarily be restricted to esoteric initiation rites of cult societies such as those found among the indigenous peoples of the Americas (for example, the Snake and Antelope societies of the Hopi). A somewhat more flexible usage might include those rites of passage that stress the esoteric character of the knowledge imparted.

Such usage, however, would be unwieldy for two reasons: (1) it would exclude many rituals for which the term sacrament has become standardChristian and Hindu rituals in particularand (2) it would duplicate existing terminology of initiatory rituals and rites of passage.

Apocalyptic usage

In the New Testament, mustērion is used in a way that is grounded in apocalyptic rather than cultic sensibility. Here mustērion refers to the disclosure of God's ultimate, or eschatological, intention. The term is used quite widely to designate anything that prefigures the final consummation of the divine will or plan. Thus Christian proclamation, biblical typology, and the inclusion of Jew and gentile in divine election could all be referred to as mustērion (which becomes sacramentum in Latin). Significantly, the term was not used in a specifically cultic sense at all in this period.

If this sense of the term, derived from late Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings, were to be decisive for phenomenological or comparative approaches to the study of religion, then the term's application would be restricted to those groups that have a strong orientation to future fulfillment. The Ghost Dance of the indigenous peoples of the North American Plains and the elaborate baptismal rites of the African independent churches are illustrations of ritual enactments of such eschatological expectations.

Gnostic usage

Deriving from the theory and practice of the mystery cults, certain mystical and especially gnostic philosophical traditions of the Hellenistic world used mustērion to apply to the quest for transcendental insight. While they dispensed with outward forms of ritual or cult, they nevertheless sought by knowledge a saving union with the divine. The religious tradition that best exemplifies this sense of mustērion /sacrament is the Hinduism of the Upaniads and of yoga. While these movements do not reject the ritual or cult but seek to give it a more pure, interior, and "noetic" significance, other reform movementsmost notably Buddhismreject this connection to the Vedic rites in the quest for ultimate insight. In the Western Christian tradition examples of sacramental mysticism often approximate the pattern of the yogic or gnostic transformation of external ritual into interior discipline. While these parallel phenomena demonstrate the way in which the bodily action of ritual may become paradigms for an interior praxis, it is with sacrament as a species of bodily action that the phenomenology of religion must be most concerned.

Emergence of the Classical Perspective

The Latin sacramentum was generally employed as a technical term for a military oath, the vow of a soldier. The initiatory function of this vow understood in relation to the vow of secrecy associated with the Greek mysteries made possible the appropriation of the term sacramentum for those activities (especially baptism) in which the Christian confession of faith (which, like the vow of soldiers, placed one in mortal danger) played an important role. Thus, despite the typically exoteric character of Christian doctrine and practice, ideas and practice associated with the Greek mysteries were used to interpret Christian rituals. Sacramentum gradually lost its wider, apocalyptic meaning, was increasingly used to refer to baptism and eucharist, and then was extended by analogy to apply to related ritual actions including confession and penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and unction. The earlier Latin sense of "vow" can still be discerned in baptism, confirmation, marriage, and ordination, but the oldest Greek associations with cultic participation in salvation predominate. Thus sacrament comes to be exclusively identified with a set of ritual actions that are understood to be both necessary to and efficacious for salvation.

Cognate Sacraments

Since the scientific study of religion is a discipline that has arisen within the culture most heavily influenced by Christianity, it is natural that much of its terminology is borrowed from Christianity. (Just as, mutatis mutandis, Christianity has borrowed its terminology from the cultures in which it has taken root.)

If sacrament is defined ostensively, by reference to the set of rituals that bear that name in Christianity, then one is confronted with the question of whether to restrict this discussion to the two sacraments accepted by most Protestants (baptism and eucharist) or to include the additional five sacraments (confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction) accepted by Catholics. Clearly, eucharist and baptism have a place of singular importance in all Christian traditions; a phenomenological approach, however, will seek the widest possible range of data and so provisionally accept the more inclusive enumeration.

There are two sorts of such sacraments, those that deal with transitional moments and so are not repeated and those that are regularly repeated.

Sacraments of transition

The earliest and most important of the transitional sacraments is baptism. In early Christianity this ritual signified the movement from the worldly to the eschatological reality, or, under influence from the Greek mysteries, from the profane to the cultic sphere of participation in the fate of the god. This type of transitional rite is analogous to the initiation into cult societies of, for example, the indigenous peoples of the North American Plains. It is also characteristic of the African independent churches of central and southern Africa.

As Christianity became more or less coextensive with culture and society, the transition came more and more to be identified with birth or early infancy (a development contingent upon the understanding of penance and eucharist as supplementing the forgiveness of sins and transformation of life originally associated with baptism). As a ritual associated with infancy, it took the place of the Jewish rite of circumcision, except that it applied equally to female infants. It is thus similar in function to the Hindu sacrament of Namakarana, in which the child receives a name.

As baptism became "infant baptism," the catechetical aspect of the ritual that inaugurated persons into full membership in the cult society became fixed in the form of confirmation. Insofar as confirmation is associated with adolescence, it could enter into homology with rites of tribal initiationa species of ritual that is exceedingly widespread and well developed among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Australia. In Africa and Australia the sacrament of initiation takes the form of segregating a cohort of adolescent males and placing them under great stress (often including circumcision) so that distinctions among them are erased. The loss of social identity and the violation of bodily integrity is accompanied by esoteric instruction and rites of great emotional force that frequently involve symbolism of death and birth. A significant number of groups, for example, the Bemba of Africa, have initiation rites (Chisungu) of similar intensity for adolescent females. Among North American aboriginal peoples, the young males (and, rarely, females) undertake the highly individualized dream or vision quest, which may entail a rigorous journey, fasting, and other ordeals. This individualized initiation contrasts sharply with the corporate initiation of African and other groups.

A further extension of transitional sacrament occurs with the development of extreme unction, the anointing of the sick. This sacrament may assume the form of a viaticum, by means of which the recipient is enabled to make the transition from this life to the world beyond. Insofar as the Christian sacrament of unction has the intention of healing (as in the anointing of the sick), it becomes repeatable and homologous to the healing rites found in virtually all religious traditions. Collections of incantations for this same purpose constitute the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, and in ancient Iran the whispering of formulas to the dying person was accompanied by the administration of haoma, the sacred beverage.

Unlike baptism, confirmation, and unction, which traditionally have been required of all Christians, two other sacraments of transition, ordination and marriage (traditionally thought of as mutually exclusive), have developed. Rites of ordination are found in virtually all societies in which a priestly caste is drawn from the society as a whole. (In a number of societies the priesthood is hereditary, and rites associated with accession to cultic authority may be coterminous with accession to adulthood. This appears to be largely true of the brahmanic class of Hinduism, for example.) Marriage rites are obviously quite widespread although only those that have a clearly sacred or religious character are directly comparable. Often these have the added dimension of rites to ensure fertility.

Perhaps the most highly developed system of sacraments of transition is to be found in Hinduism. The term saskāra, which generally translated as "sacrament," refers to any rite of transition, of which several hundred may have been performed. In modern Hinduism the number of reduced (to between ten and eighteen). These sacraments begin with conception (Garbhādhāna ) and continue through pregnancy (Pusavana, Simanta, Jātakarman). In addition to the naming ceremony (Nāmakaraa), which occurs a few days after birth, there are sacraments to mark the first appearance of the infant outside the home, the child's first solid food, the tonsure, and the piercing of the child's ears. Sacraments that mark the progress of the male child's education include Upanayana and Vedārambha. The completion of these studies requires a further sacrament (Samāvartana). Marriage (Vivāha) is the only sacrament permitted to śūdras or lower castes. The final transition of death is marked by the sacramental rites of Antyei.

These sacraments generally involve sacrifices, ceremonies of fire and water, ritual washings, recitation of appropriate mantras and prayers, and so on. Both individually and collectively these Hindu sacraments are far more elaborate than the comparable set of Christian rituals and so may provide the student of religion with a more adequate set of categories for studying sacraments of transition.

Repeatable sacraments

While sacraments of transition are in principle nonrepeatable (with the possible and limited exceptions of marriage and extreme unction), two sacraments of great importance in traditional Christianity, penance and eucharist, do require repeated performance.

In the Christian tradition penance is related to baptism as the restoration of baptismal purity and to the Eucharist as the necessary preparation for participation. The confession of sin has a place of central importance in the religion of Handsome Lake practiced by contemporary Iroquois in the United States and Canada. Individual confession to a priest was of great importance in Central and South America, among the Inca and Maya, as is confession to a shaman among, for example, the Inuit (Eskimo).

The ritual that is most often associated with sacramentality is the Eucharist, Mass, or Communion of the Christian community. The selection of comparable rituals from the history of religions will depend upon the degree of emphasis placed upon one of three aspects: thanks giving or offering, communal meal, or sacrifice of the divine victim.

Certainly for much of Western history the last aspect has been especially emphasized. The most dramatic instances are the human sacrifices, which include the Greek pharmakos, a number of African rites, and practices belonging to the high civilizations of the Americas, especially the Aztec. Among the latter the sun god, Tezcatlipoca, was impersonated by the prisoner of war most honored for beauty and bravery, who received homage for a full year before being sacrificed. Many of the human sacrifices, including those to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, were subsequently eaten as a form of ritual cannibalism.

Substitutions for the flesh of the divine victim are also found, including the eating of a dough image of Huitzilopochtli, which first was shot with an arrow, and a similar ritual involving the dough image of the tree god, Xocotl.

The communal meal is a common feature of many sacrifices. A vegetable, animal, or cereal offering is presented to the god and is subsequently shared by all participants, much as in the Christian Communion the bread and wine is first offered in thanksgiving and then shared by the participants. Where these rites are associated with first-fruits festivals or with harvest, the element of thanksgiving (eucharist) is especially pronounced. These rites are found not only in agrarian societies. Common among hunters and gatherers are rituals involving a communal meal in which the sacralized game animal is both praised and eaten. An example from the Pacific coast of North America is the ritual surrounding the first salmon catch. Among circumpolar peoples such rites are performed after successful bear hunts.

Here too should be mentioned the preparation of sacred substances whose consumption makes for unity with the divine. The haoma of Iran, the soma of India, and the hallucinogenic substances so important to the indigenous peoples of the Americas are illustrations. Members of the Native American Church, which includes many of the aboriginal peoples of North America, use peyote as a sacramental element within a liturgical setting in order to acquire union with the divine.

Formal Definitions of Sacrament

The procedure that has just been illustrated, of finding material cognates to the sacraments of the Christian tradition in the field of religious studies, while illuminating in certain respects, may tie the term too closely to the Christian tradition to be genuinely serviceable for phenomenological purposes. Accordingly, one may attempt to acquire a more formal definition of sacrament, a definition that can be employed for comparative purposes.

Since Christian theology has devoted considerable energy to the development of such a formal definition, one may look first to the theological definitions. When this is attempted, however, it becomes clear that these are either of such an ad hoc nature that they devolve to disguised ostensive definitions or are so broad as to identify virtually any ritual action. If, for example, sacrament is defined in accordance with the principle of ex opere operatum ("what the action signifies it also accomplishes"), any ritual thought by its practitioners to be efficacious (including, of course, all forms of magic) will be covered. If, on the other hand, only those ritual actions positively commanded by Jesus are said to be sacraments, this proves to be an ostensive definition (which, moreover, is usually applied in an arbitrary mannerso as to exclude ritual foot washing, for example). The same is true of definitions of sacrament that insist on the conjunction of matter and form. According to this view, form designates the crucial pronouncement whereas matter may refer, for example, to the water of baptism, the oil of unction, or the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Moreover, this notion of matter may be arbitrarily extended to apply also to the sacraments of penance (the sin of the believer) and marriage (the love between spouses).

If a formal definition is required, it appears that theology will not be of much help. It does seem possible, however, to propose a more strictly phenomenological definition. On this basis sacrament may be defined as "a ritual that enacts, focuses, and concentrates the distinctive beliefs, attitudes, and actions of any religious tradition." While any ritual may perform this function to some degree, it will usually be possible to discriminate within the ritual complex of a tradition as a whole that ritual (or group of rituals) that functions as a paradigm for other ritual action and so may be said to have a privileged and normative relationship to the articulated system as a whole. Usually these sacraments will be found within the prescribed corporate ritual or liturgy.

In this definition the initiation rites of the mystery religions, the Christian Eucharist, the Ghost Dance and peyote ritual of the North American Indians, and many other rituals already mentioned would be included. But the principle of inclusion is not their resemblance to specific Christian rituals but their location and function within the religious tradition of which they are a part.

In addition, rituals that are not material cognates to Christian sacraments and so are necessarily overlooked on the basis of an ostensive definition of sacrament now acquire a sacramental character. Thus the Shalako ceremony of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, which displays the vigor and values of the Zuni while inviting the participation and blessings of the gods, is a sacrament in the form of a dance (to which there are no Christian but many other religious cognates). While regular occasions for prayer do not have a sacramental character in Christianity, they may well have this character in Islam, which is generally suspicious of ritual and of Christian sacraments in particular. Finally, the Buddhist practice of zazen, which consists of periods of sitting and breathing punctuated by periods of walking, may have a place of importance and function similar to the Christian Eucharist.

The further refinement of a phenomenological definition of sacrament in tandem with its use in the analysis of the place and function of particular rituals within the wider ritual complex of which they are a part is an important agenda for the study of religion.

See Also

Gnosticism; Human Sacrifice; Initiation; Mystery Religions.


For concise historical background, see the article on musterion by Günther Bornkaum in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, 19641976), and the article "Mystery," in the Encyclopedia of Theology, edited by Karl Rahner (New York, 1975).

The classic treatment of rites analogous to sacraments of transition is Arnold van Gennep's Les rites de passage (Paris, 1909), translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee as The Rites of Passage (Chicago, 1960). Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (Chicago, 1969) is a major contribution to the understanding of these rituals. A useful source for the Hindu sacraments is Raj Bali Pandey's Hindu Samskaras: A Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, 2d rev. ed. (Delhi, 1969). Ake Hultkrantz's Religions of the American Indians, translated by Monica Setterwall (Los Angeles, 1979), contains important information and an excellent bibliography. Ronald L. Grimes's Beginnings in Ritual Studies (Washington, D. C., 1982) suggests the relationship between zazen and the Eucharist.

New Sources

Davis, Richard H. Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshiping Siva in Medieval India. Princeton, N.J., 1991.

Vahanian, Gabriel. "Word and Sacrament: The Religious Dialectic of Nature and Culture." In Natural Theology Versus Theology of Nature, pp. 140149. Berlin; New York, 1994.

Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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