This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The efficacy of ritual action

That visible effects might have invisible causes is not a difficult proposition for most Christians to accept, given the belief in an invisible spiritual reality governing the cosmos. However, the idea that visible actions might have invisible effects, or in other words, that physical procedures might influence spiritual realities, is much more difficult and is usually perceived as outright evil. This is due to the appearance of subversion, since it seems to imply that a lower order–the physical–is in this way allowed to impose itself on a superior order–the spiritual. This is the case with magic as commonly understood, such as in witchcraft and the occult in general. In this sense, Christians are rightly repulsed. However, what remains to be said is that in addition to the ‘black magic’ involved in the rituals of witchcraft there is also another sphere of ritual action that could be called, for simplicity’s sake, the art of ‘white magic’. It is this latter that we are dealing with when we come to the rites and rituals of religion properly understood, and especially when we are dealing with sacrifice.

What makes the properly constituted sacrifice a matter of ‘white magic’ rather than ‘black magic’ is the fact that it does not presume to control the spiritual or subordinate it to the material: instead it operates on the basis of spiritual knowledge, and models itself after spiritual realities and in this way ‘acts them out’ in accordance with the truth.

Here one should ask how such an acceptable ritual might come about and how we can know that it is authentic and divinely willed. The answer is simple: such rites are in most cases revealed by God directly or else indirectly via an authentic traditional authority. The first and foremost of these is, of course, the Eucharist, which is a rite instituted and authenticated directly by Christ Himself. Obviously with these credentials in mind, its legitimacy need not be questioned and it would be ridiculous to call the Eucharistic celebration, directly commanded by Christ, a form of black magic.

The manner of operation of legitimate ritual is also distinct from false imitations in that, as we said above, it is rather an imitation or analogous representation of a divine reality, and gains its efficacy by a kind of ‘participation’ in the work of God. If it has power, it is only insofar as it remains faithful to the divine model.

And so we can summarize by saying that ritual efficacy is premised on the facts of divine revelation (instituted by a true spiritual authority) and faithfulness to the divine work it has as its object. In the case of the Eucharist, we can say that it meets the first requirement by being taught directly by Christ; and that it meets the second requirement by re-presenting the drama of the ‘eternal self-sacrifice of the Logos’ through which all things were made and through which all of fallen creation is redeemed.

Having laid this foundation for the efficacy of the ritual in general and made brief mention of the Eucharist in particular, we need to elaborate on some of the specific aspects of this type of ritual, since a misunderstanding of its form has great consequences.

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