The Concept of B’rith and Its Importance for Our Understanding of the Indelible Sacraments
The Christian faith grew out of Judaism as a development of Judaism in light of the Incarnation. Christianity was, originally, that is to say, simply Judaism in response to Christ, accepted as fact. However, Christianity soon spread to the gentiles, and many previously Jewish-Christian communities became predominantly communities of pagan converts to Christianity, whose formation in Jewish thought and practice was minimal at best. Many other communities arose never having had even Jewish synagogue communities as its roots, but instead, always having been communities of pagan converts to Christianity. Because of this, many of the Jewish references inherent in Christian practice came to be obscured very early on. Even so, those references never really disappeared entirely.
Among these Jewish references still at work in Christianity but largely obscured from view is a certain concept at the heart of the Church’s idea of an “indelible” sacrament. The Church has always held that certain sacraments could not be repeated. Attempts to repeat them were regarded as sacrilege or blasphemy. The four sacraments in this category were Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. Eventually, theologians began to see in this fact an underlying truth that they came to express by the assertion, “This sacrament imprints a character on the soul.”
What does this mean to say this?
The question for us here is, what does it mean to say this? Are these empty words that signify only that there is some reason, we do not know what, that certain sacraments are permanent and cannot be repeated? Is it nothing more than an affirmation of the consequent, a bald assertion masquerading as an argument? Or, on the contrary, is there some content to which we can point here? I believe that Judaism holds the key to answering these questions-that what the Church took centuries to describe in scholastic, metaphysical categories was something obvious and ordinary to the Jewish Christians of the first century and would have been indicated by the Hebrew word b’rith (בְּרִית).
We typically translate this term into English as covenant, but, more generally, b’rith is a concept that indicates a blood bond. Through the shedding of blood (“cutting a covenant”) two persons are bound together in mutual responsibility, in a relationship that, as if derived from blood or as if it has always been, now enjoys an irrevocable character. The b’rith, in other words, forges a relationship that enjoys the status of the relationship that exists between parent and child, or between siblings. That relationship is part and parcel of our very existence. It is not something about us that, once it is so, can yet be undone. Rather, once it is so, it is always so. It can never be changed. I can never be un-born or un-begotten. If I have a sibling who has the same sort of relationship with my parents that I have, my relationship to my sibling, too, is non-negotiable and inalterable. Once it is, it can never not be.
In Judaism, the ritual of circumcision is understood in this way. It forges a relationship between a boy and the People Israel, and thus between the boy and God, that, once it comes to be can never be undone. The shedding of blood that occurs there, through the removal of the child’s foreskin, establishes the boy as a sacrificial victim. Here he participates in the vicarious animal sacrifices given to God at the Temple, which are seen to have their real meaning as a representation of the person himself. When Abel sacrificed the first of his flock, it was not merely the animal that he offered, but more fundamentally, himself.
The Blood Relationship
That point itself is essential for understanding the relationship between Christ and us in the Eucharist, but here, we’re concerned with the point of the blood relationship. In Circumcision, the child is brought into a relationship with God that can never be undone.
This is the very thing Christians believe to occur in Baptism. Once the relationship is established, it can never be nullified. To bring the matter into an engagement with a certain contemporary controversy, this characteristic of Baptism is the reason that the Church cannot yield to demands made by the New Atheists to revoke their baptisms. They can renounce their baptisms, but they can never unbaptize themselves, and neither can the Church. It is as if the child were born of God-as if he had always been God’s child. That is just who and what he is. This fact about the person-this “character”-can never change, no matter how deeply he offends that relationship.
In Judaism at the time of Christ, there was a debate about divorce, reflected in the Gospel. Some held a very liberal view, based upon an interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1, which is a bit ambiguous in its actual wording. There it said that a man could dismiss his wife if he found in her any-here is the ambiguity-erwat (עֶרְוַ֣ת). This term derives from the word ervah (עֶרְוָה), which means, basically, “nakedness,” and which, in this association, now takes on any of a wide range of meanings, for example: fault, flaw, blemish, impurity, indecency, shame, or displeasing quality. The liberal end of the spectrum on this question read the passage as saying that a man could divorce his wife if he found anything about her at all that displeased him. On the other end of the spectrum was the extremely restrictive interpretation that a man could only divorce his wife if he found in her some fundamental impurity, something incompatible with the marriage-what, in the Septuagint and the New Testament is indicated by the Greek word, porneia (πορνεία). In the New Testament, it is this extremely restrictive view that Christ ratifies. To do so, he points to the moment, “in the beginning,” when the first man and the first woman had always been husband and wife, from the very first moment they existed together. With this reference, Christ is saying that when a man and a woman enter into a spousal union and become one in flesh and blood, they enter into a b’rith, and their relationship is permanent, as if it has always been, such that it can never not be. This quality about marriage is what makes Christian marriage indissoluble, and why the process of “annulment” is really quite distinct from the idea of “divorce.” Here, we are not separating what God himself has joined, because that would be impossible. Rather, we are discovering whether the couple had been impeded from ever having been joined by God in the first place.
The concept of the b’rith is very important for Judaism, and it remains very important for Christianity. Only once we recover this concept in our own theologizing will we really be able to speak about the “indelible” sacraments in language that evokes more than an appeal to metaphysics and law but really captures the logic of covenant. It is not that those other ways of speaking are wrong, but it is clear that they do not capture, fully, what is meant in the concept of b’rith, and therefore, leave unexplained much of what is really at stake in the meaning of these very important sacraments and the Church’s perennial teaching about them.