Two things happened this week that are connected, and which stimulated my interest.
The first thing was that we had some walls taken down in our living area, to make it ‘open plan’. As the plaster came off the walls, the builders discovered a pill bottle. Inside the bottle was a small cross, some Cyprus pine fronds, and a small amount of cotton wool. I was told that it is common for Greeks to place such objects in the walls or foundations of their houses to signify that they are blessed.
When we moved into this house, we also had a house blessing, and placed a cross over the door to signify our desire that God’s blessing be on our living n this place.
The other thing was this: Where I am being a locum (in Seymour) the intercessions each Sunday mention those who are in need of prayer. So far, this is nothing new. But then the intercessor says “and we pray for those whose names ‘lie upon our altar’. “
And it is true! There, on the altar, in folder are the names of the people who are in need of ongoing special prayer.
The thing that connects these two ‘comings to awarness’ is the sheer physicality of them both.
It seems that although we talk about ‘spirit8ality’ and ‘an outward and physical sign, of an inward and spiritual grace’, where we sort of prefer the grace to the mere ‘sign’, we are inextricably wedded to the physicality of things.
I am reminded of the way in which the ancient Hebrew priests had a breastplate with twelve jewels in it, which represented the twelve tribes of Israel. They would wear this breastplate as they went about their work, and especially as they entered into the presence of God. As they did so, they were ‘carrying the people on their hearts’.
This is a lovely symbol, and it could be of course done without the physical breastplate, but the union of the physical and the inner life of thought and intention is the more powerful for the union of both.
I also often see the roadside memorials that remind me of the places where people have died inroad crashes.
Psalm 103 comes to mind ‘Our days are but as grass. We flourish for a while, and the wind goes over it, and its place shall know it no more, but the merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever for those who love God.’
It is as if the loved ones of those who died in the crash are saying “If we do not mark this spot with some thing, then you will not know that some thing serious that has affected our lives has happened here. We want you, the driver who passes by, to know that this place (not just the person who has died) means something because of what has happened here.
This is what the builder of the house is saying too, by their small bottle. This place is not ‘just any old place’ but this is a place where God is invoked. It is singled out for that reason.
So in the Church, we fill it with symbols that speak to us of the meaning that is made as we enter the building. It is the things (clothing, windows, furnishings) that capture our attention, and then speak to us.
For this reason I love going around churches both in Australia and Europe, trying to ‘read’ the kinds of messages that their furnishings and other material culture are trying to send.
Our friends who do not know how to ‘read’ such buildings say ‘We love it coming to visit you when you take us into churches, because what is there starts to come alive. It begins to ‘speak’ to us too.
There are some churches that take out all of the obvious Christian symbols, or meet in factories or theatres in order not to ‘put people off’. It is as if their main activity is designed for people who do not yet know how to ‘read’ a Christian space. This is not such a bad idea, unless it stops at that. Where are the Churches that begin with a theatre, and move on to a rich Christian symbolism of dress and iconography?
The other thing might be a down playing, in reformation style’ of the physicality of life, for an emphasis on the ‘hearing’ of Gods Word. Some Churches of the Reformation were built precisely as ‘auditoria’ (a place for listening) so that other senses were downplayed. Some churches are set up for an experiencing of the presence of God through music (Like Taizé or Hillsong). This is also not so bad, because music is a powerful means of experience in any form, but especially when one wants to experience the presence of God.
But I want to make a case in this reflection for the sacramental power of god in the physicality of worship. Just as we make roadside memorials and hide blessed objects in the walls of our homes, so the combination of building, vestments, and placing of names on an altar bring us, who have the knowledge of what they mean into the sphere of God’s presence is ways that we call ‘sacraments’. We are not just embodied ‘souls’ but we are human beings, with all that we are drawn into God’s life in Church.