Some of this may sound to some readers as a bit esoteric, but bear with me! Here is another thing that I have been thinking about as a result of the Israel/Palestine trip. Our course director on the pilgrimage was The Rev’d. Dr. Rodney Aist. He began the by talking to us about the idea of ‘holy places’. As the pilgrimage went on, we could see clearly that often, no one knew the ‘exact place’ where something had happened. Rodney used a phrase that would become like a refrain. “This is the place where this narrative is commemorated.”
So now my brain starts to hurt. There are just so many questions. Are there ‘holy places’ without a narrative to tell us that they are holy? If there are places that are venerated because of the story that is told about them, but which are not the actual places, does it matter? If it does not matter, why can’t we just tell the story about any old place? Why have a place at all? Why not just tell the story?
These questions are interesting, but here’s the thing: I think that what these questions do is to ‘put asunder what God has joined together.’ Despite these questions, what remains is an irreducible fact: people want to put places and stories together. When these stories have to do with our encounter with God, we call these places ‘holy places’. Before it became possible to visit and protect them, we know that the Christians remembered where the places were that were associated with Jesus. As soon as it were possible to visit them, pilgrims did, and they were protected.
I think that this indissoluble union ‘narrative and place’ reflects an essential truth about what it means to be human. As human beings it is possible to ‘divide ourselves up’ into identifiable parts. We talk about ‘body, mind and spirit’ or ‘body mind and soul.’ These divisions are useful because they help us to distinguish the ‘major organ’ with which we engage God and the world. Sometimes we ‘engage God and the world’ mostly with our bodies, say, when doing physical work. Sometimes we engage God and the world mostly with our souls when praying or thinking. But the truth is, I cannot ‘think these thoughts’ and communicate them to you without the substrate of my body: my brain. I cannot communicate them without my fingers and arms at the keyboard. When I ‘with my body’ worship my wife, as I promised to do, it is not as if everything else is inactive. It’s just that at certain times my body is the foregrounded element of my ‘whole self’.
So the union in our ‘selves’ is the basis for the union we make in the ‘world’ between narrative and place to complete the ‘self’ of that place. Just as a ‘soul’ without a body is no ‘self’, and a body without a ‘soul’ is no self. So no holy place is holy in and of itself without a narrative to go with it.
This is the question that was being debated between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The Jews were saying ‘You must worship only in Jerusalem.” The Samaritans were saying “ You must worship on mount Gerizim” But Jesus says, “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem: God is Spirit and must be worshipped in Spirit and in truth.” The power of God to encounter us transcends any particular place, but, must happen in some concrete place!
Now it is true that the history of a memory being kept at one place, adds to the likelihood that the same experiences, that are membered at that place, will happen again for new visitors. My experience in Israel/Palestine was that certain places spoke more powerfully to me than others, depending upon what questions I brought to them. The birthplace of Jesus, though impressive, did not move me as much as the Jordan river place of his baptism, or the Holy Sepulchre and Golgotha or the sea of Galilee. It was my own issues and memories that I brought to a particular ‘co-memoration’ that held the power to move me.
Psalm 103 talks about the transience of humanity, as being like grass. It says “The wind goes over it, and its place shall remember it no more.” See the connexion? The place and the memory go together, but sometimes it is the memory that informs the place, and at others, it is the place that informs the memory. But again, it is the unity of place and memory that is important, and the engagement that happens when my self connects with the ‘self’ of that place and story.
The idea of the ‘Stations of the Cross’, in churches, came about because although it was a high value to do the’way of the cross’ in Jerusalem, not many people could go. So doing the ‘way of the cross’ in one’s local church became a good substitute got being able to go to Jerusalem. It is important to do the ‘Way of the Cross’ (tell the story) but it has to be in some place, with some journey (physicality).
This came home to me when we visited the Church where Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem is commemorated. There we were, looking over Jerusalem, and about one kilometre away was the actual ‘Way of the Cross’, yet in the Church itself were the ‘Stations of the Cross’! Not even in Jerusalem is it possible for everyone to do the actual ‘ Way of the Cross’, but doing the ‘stations’ is just as good. However, having been there and done that, every other ‘way of the cross’ is enriched.
It is this union of ‘narrative and matter’ that also gives rise to the sacraments. In worshiping God, we do exactly the same thing that is happening with the reality of our ‘selves’ and the holy sites. We re-join in one place and make a unity from what God has already joined together. We make one ‘self’ one ‘thing’ (a sacrament) out of the physicality of bread and wine and the narrative we tell about it. This is why I think that ‘Word based’ Christian denominations have taken the reformation emphasis too far in de-emphasising the physicality of sacraments in favour of ‘Ideas’. Even preaching requires the physicality of the body of the preacher to and the bodies of the hearers to become ‘Word of God’. But in this case it is the narrative that is foregrounded and the physical aspects of the ‘sacrament of preaching’ are backgrounded. But in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the bread and wine, I think that the narrative and the physical elements of the sacrament are brought together in a more complete way, because both the narrative aspects of the event, and the physical aspects of the event are presented in a unity that does not preference one element over the other. Instead there is a dance, where foreground and background, story and ‘things’ continually swap places in the foreground and background. While the whole of the Eucharist, from beginning to lend is also the ‘sacrament’ of Christ’s presence, I think that what is going on comes to sharp focus in the Great prayer of thanksgiving.
So here is a four fold elaboration of the nature of ‘things’ that makes life sacramental. The union that is our ‘selves’, the connection of narrative and place that makes for ‘holy sites’ and the union of story and matter in the Eucharist: all of which unfolds the nature of God: the Incarnation.