Sunday, October 24, 2004

A sacrament by any other name...

I came across a passage of St. Augustine recently in which he recored that it was the custom of the Christians in Carthage to refer to Baptism and the Eucharist as salvation and life respectively. This reminded me of a conversation I had some years ago with an Englishman wherein we discussed the names given to the Sacraments in pre-reformation England (many of them having Anglo-saxon roots). I no longer remember all the details of our conversation, but it did set me thinking about the words we use to name the sacraments.
Baptism comes from the Greek 'to dip in water'. This explains why a recent effort at Biblical translation called John the Baptist 'Jack the Dipper'. Of course the older English term (still commonly used) for Baptism was 'Christening' - i.e. making Christian.
In its role as sacrament par excellence the Eucharist probably has more names than any other sacrament. (If you want to sound liberal one should avoid using the definite article before the word 'Eucharist') It comes from the Greek for 'thanksgiving' - it may be argued whether this implies that the Eucaristic ceremony itself was seen by early Christians as being a service of 'thanksgiving' or whether the Christians themselves were thankful for the gift of the Eucharist. The word 'Mass' comes from the Latin for dismissal - again it is argued whether this is a reference to the 'Ite missa est' at the end of the Mass or the earlier dismissal of cathechuments. We also refer to 'Holy Communion', 'The Sacrament', 'The Blessed Sacrament', 'The Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar' and so on. The Protestant tradition prefers to refer to 'The Lord's Supper' for their eucharistic services. It is notable that none of the names given to this sacrament directly refer to the central essence of the Sacrament itself. It seems that the great mystery and gift of Christ's Body and Blood is so great that it evades direct naming! I remember my English friend telling me that the old English name for the sacrament was the 'housel' coming from an Anglo-saxon word meaning gift. He also informed me that altar rails are still occasionally called 'housel rails' in English churches.
This is a much more directly named sacrament - it can be called 'Confession', 'the Sacrament of Penance' or 'the Sacrament of Reconciliation'. The fact that recent magisterial documents have reverted to speaking of the 'Sacrament of Penance' rather than 'Reconciliation' has raised eyebrows in some quarters. The older English name for confession was 'Shrift,' a term sometimes applied to absolution. The verb is 'to shrive' which could refer to the act of the priest or the penitent. Surprisingly it actually comes from the Latin root 'scribo' (I write). This was accepted into the Anglo-Saxon tongue as being connectioned to the idea of a 'prescription' and so 'to shrive' was to prescribe a penance. Also linked to this word is 'Shrove Tuesday' and one of my favourite lines from Shakespeare is Friar Laurence's quip addressed to Romeo: 'Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift'
This seems to take its name from the idea of completing or consolodating one's commitment to Christian faith. There seems to be a dearth of alternative names - perhaps this has something to do with its reputation as being 'a sacrament without a theology'. In the Eastern Churches and (I think) in pre-reformation England the sacrament is/was refered to 'chrismation' - i.e. anointing with chrism.
This sacrament's name carries with it the idea of being set apart or put into an 'order' in a hierarchy. The old English term was 'priesting'. (Need I explain?)
This comes from the Latin 'maritus', a husband and ultimately from 'mas/maris' a male. Faminists needn't worry because the term 'Matrimony' comes from 'mater,' the Latin for mother. We often still use the old English word 'Wedding' which comes from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning 'to pledge' or 'to engage'. This shares a root with the German 'wetten', to bet. I'm not sure if that says anything about the dangerous business of chosing a spouse.
Sacrament of the Sick
The modern title needs little explaination. In previous years it was known as 'Extreme unction' which suggests that it was one's last anointing. It is still refered to as 'anointing'.

No comments: