Baptism, Eucharist, and Artistic Tokens of New Heavens and a New Earth

One of the symbols early Christians employed to describe the already-not yet tension of humanity’s (indeed, all creation’s) salvation in Christ was the token. That word token, of course is an English gloss for Greek, Syriac, and Latin terminology found in the church fathers’ catechetical homilies, symbolizing a pledge, a downpayment, an earnest marking the beginning of a covenant or contractual agreement underway but still to be fulfilled or completed in the future.

By applying the Greek term typos to elements of the rites of Christian initiation those ancient pastors taught the faithful that what happens in the symbolic elements, words, and gestures of baptism and the Eucharist is a real, albeit partial, share in the reign of God, whose assured fulness — “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13) — is  yet to come. Bodily (symbolic, sacramental, mystical) participation in baptism and the Eucharist empowers spiritual (ethical, social, interpersonal) actions and attitudes experienced as tangible anticipations of the coming reign of God.

Edward Schillebeebkx brilliantly translated that biblical, patristic tradition for our late-modern Christian context by speaking of sacramental and other mystical practices as “fragments” of the eschaton, moments of joy or conviction or even awesome dread revealing the subversive power of the gospel in our time, foretastes of the heavenly banquet nourishing work for liberation on earth.

Schillebeeckx’s effort to articulate gospel faith in the undeniable, now globalized, face of suffering has rung true for me ever since my first close study of him in graduate school. Decades later, settling into the current stage of my Jesuit vocation in Middle Tennessee, I was delighted to learn of a local theological ethicist’s enculturation of the ancient mystical-ethical symbol of the token.

      Tokens host Lee Camp opening “Bread.Wine.Water” on Oct. 5th

Now in its second decade on the stages of Nashville’s storied Ryman Auditorium and Lipscomb University, the Tokens Show presents lively entertainment as an ongoing “cultural experiment” pulling together Americana, folk, and contemporary music:

Our variety shows and events imagine a world governed by hospitality, graciousness and joy; life marked by beauty, wonder and truthfulness; and social conditions ordered by justice, mercy and peace-making. We exhibit tokens of such a world in music-making, song-singing, and conversations about things that matter.

We celebrate artistic brilliance; critical thinking; and friendship. We have fun, and we make fun: of religion, politics, and marketing. And ourselves. You might think of us as something like musicians without borders; or as poets, philosophers, theologians and humorists transgressing borders.

For the most recent Tokens production, “Bread. Wine. Water.,” founding director Lee Camp invited me to be the scholar-author interviewed during six-minute segments in the first and second halves of the show. I was humbled in accepting a role previously held by such authors as Walter Brueggeman, Barbara Brown Taylor, Stanley Hauerwas, Amy-Jill Levine, and Tobias Wolff. Adding to my delight was the fact that my interviewer would be one of my former doctoral students, Lauren Smelser-White, now an assistant professor at Lipscomb University.

With the first half of the show devoted to baptismal themes, Lauren asked me to opine on the relation between the natural world and Christian faith as found in the practice of baptizing in rivers and streams. She and the audience seemed delighted to learn just how natural early Christians made the sacrament by performing the rite on naked bodies (“They got neck-id back then!”). Follow-up questioning included description of the lobe-shaped, womb-like fonts found in North Africa, but also the eschatologically eight-sided ones elsewhere around the ancient Mediterranean Christian world.

The show’s second half circled around the Eucharist, mostly highlighting the communal, church-and-humanity unifying dimensions in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. My few minutes with Lauren mostly drew out implications from 1 Corinthians 10 through 12, while guarding some remaining time for me to elaborate on my assertion that nothing in our human lives are more real than symbols. I did this in sad awareness of how polemics over symbol versus reality have exacerbated divisions in Western Christianity but also how crippled are our late-modern imaginations — religious, cultural, political, ethical — by that symbol-reality divide. That it was a point worth emphasizing I was gratified to discover in the lobby after the show. A young man approached to tell me that my explanation of the fundamental role of symbols in our reality was something that only in that moment he realized had been long tacit in his thinking but now was being upended in an enlightening way.

In the style of radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry, Tokens always includes a few humorous skits. The recent evening benefited from the return of actor Greg Lee in his comic role as Brother Preacher, whose confounding sermons never fail to induce laughter. This time around, moreover, host Lee Camp paired Brother and me for a little act in which we answered questions from the audience. My response to “What is your stand on sanctification?” was simply, “I’m for it.” In contrast (and true to form), Brother Preacher began by noting how the word sanctification was one of the longest in the Bible, only to spin off other terminology from there, leaving me to wonder whether I might not have been mistaken earlier by so closely identifying symbol and reality.

The show opened with a beautiful rendition of “Down to the River to Pray” that gave me no fewer goosebumps than Alison Krauss’s cut on the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where ArtThou. Many solo and ensemble songs and instrumental performances comprised the majority of the show time, with all on stage to close with Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Host Lee Camp’s recap of the entire program may be read at the blog page of the Tokens website.

All photos by Eric Brown Photography

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