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Solemn need not mean ponderous

28 March 2013

Alec Graham looks at the message of a book on the sacraments

Lumen Christi: a paschal candlestick,c.1450-1500, from Castilla-Léon, Spain, depicting Adam and Eve, prophets, St Benedict and the five Franciscan saints, and six apostles. From The Cloisters: Medieval art and architecture (MMA/Yale, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-0-300-18720-5), a new guide by Peter Barnet and Nancy Wu, including 206 illustra­tions, of which 188 are in full colour

Lumen Christi: a paschal candlestick,c.1450-1500, from Castilla-Léon, Spain, depicting Adam and Eve, prophets, St Benedict and the five Franciscan s...

Joy: The meaning of the sacraments
Peter Waddell
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT602 )

JOY ranks high in St St Paul's list of the fruits of the Spirit, and it has a place in most of his letters and the farewell discourses of St John's Gospel. It does not, however, feature much in Christian understanding of the sacraments. This may be because of the lines in a hymn: "The joy of thine abode, All earthly joy excels," a sentiment patently untrue in that context.

There may also be a suspicion that it is perilously close to enthusiasm, in the sense of unbridled excitement. But the use of the word "celebration" with reference to some sacramental rites suggests that joy complements the solemnity that properly attaches to them, not least because, without joy, these rites may be ponderous. In any case, the joy that should attend them is no earthly joy, but the joy of heaven, of Jesus himself. Thus this book explores the place of joy in the sacraments, and it does so in an illuminating fashion.

The opening chapter develops the place of joy in the earthly life of Jesus and in the young Church. His incarnate life was an expression in human terms of the very life of God, constantly flowing out so that others may share it. This joy wants to share itself so that others may live and love more abundantly. There follow six chapters of varying length.

Each concentrates on a particular sacramental rite: baptism and confirmation are understood as a single rite of initiation. The author is a not uncritical Anglican, who draws extensively on the understanding of sacraments in other Churches, and explores the variety of practice and understanding among Anglicans themselves. Further, he addresses particular problems experienced by all Churches in their administration of the sacraments in today's culture. The study concludes with a chapter on the eschatological dimension, when sacraments shall cease.

Not surprisingly, in a comparatively short work, there are occasions on which a longer discussion would have led to greater elucidation, particularly in one of the longest chapters, that on ordination. Also, it was at first surprising to read that St Augustine's relationship with the mother of their son was "monogamous". Nevertheless, further in that chapter, one comes to see that such a view is not inconsistent with the implications of some of the ways of understanding marriage set out there.

At the end of every chapter, there are passages for reflection, some from the New Testament, most from Christian authors, both ancient and modern. These illustrate the variety of views in the Christian tradition on the sacrament treated in that chapter. Together with the accompanying topics for discussion, these passages make this book ideal for individual study and for use in study groups, ecumenical and parochial. All who work their way through it will find their understanding deepened and their devotion quickened.

The Rt Revd Dr Alec Graham is a former Bishop of Newcastle.

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