Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Matter matters. . .
Fr. Hunwicke, always a hoot, and he described a visit to the country and to a medieval chapel still in use as an Anglican parish. He was given a tour and the guide told him how this church building was inconveniently placed. Fr. Hunwicke mentioned that perhaps this building should have been sold to the Roman Catholics (who had purchased a much later formerly Anglican building near the heart of the town). But the guide responded in horror that such would have been unthinkable. This was the building that had history, it had stood for close to a thousand years, and it would be unthinkable to let this go for the sake of expediency.
That story got me thinking. On the one hand I was struck by the illogical character of it all. Why not sell the building inconveniently located and keep the newer building that fits the modern need of location, location, location (oh, and yes, parking!)? We would do that here in the US in a minute. We are not so attached to buildings and, unlike Britain and Europe, we routinely tear down perfectly good structures and build rather flimsy replacements because we think they fit our need better (and we thoroughly expect others after us to do the same thing). We build for the moment and not for the future (except when we think the future is some stark and cold thing and then we construct monuments to the future that people will surely tear down -- not because they are unusable but because they are ugly!).
For people today matter does not matter -- feeling does. It is the way that the spiritual but not religious mentality has captured our thinking and taught us that spirit matters but form and structure do not matter. This is but another form of gnosticism and an unChristian conflict between spirit and matter. Christianity is a religion in which matter does matter. God made all things good, very good, and created man in His own image and likeness. God did not favor spirit over flesh or flesh over spirit but saw them together as bearing the mark of His goodness. Christianity is incarnational -- ours is the God who does not disdain matter but comes in flesh for us and for our salvation. We are told from Scripture that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, that He took on the vocation of Joseph, His guardian, that He ate and drank and satisfied the hungry and thirsting, and that He honored sacred place with His worship and prayer. This is not accidental or incidental.
In Fr. Hunwicke's story, there is a lot of Christian sense -- a church was solemnly anointed and consecrated and for, perhaps, a millennium has been a place where prayer has been valid and generations have been christened and churched, married and buried, in which the community has had its centre ... and such things do matter. Ours is an incarnational religion, in which places are sacred. Matter matters.
This is not some quaint story about some quaint old building. It is a lesson. We are too often tempted to believe that matter is important to science but not to faith, that science in the domain of the concrete and real and faith the arena of the spiritual and what is believed (but cannot be proved or experienced). We would be wrong. God created us with a vocation within matter, a calling to exercise dominion over His creation which He calls good, to be fruitful and multiply and fill it. When sin stole this vocation from us and left us booted from Eden into a world which was in competition with us and must be worked, we did not relinquish that vocation. Instead it became hard labor for us, without the delight of God in it all, it was a duty rendered in obligation to the Law. Christ came not to release us from this vocation and calling but to enable us to reconnect to our identity and purpose and to equip us with the will and desire again to glorify God in the realm of the concrete.
Ceremony and ritual are not things completely indifferent but take on the character of belief, confession, and instruction. The sacred space of the church is not simply rendered important when we are there doing our sacred duties but as a space consecrated and set apart for God's use and purpose, His glory and work. God comes to us not in the ethereal but in the concrete of Word, water, bread, and wine. We kneel and genuflect, stand and sit, bow and cross ourselves -- not to satisfy rule or demand but as outward sign and posture of worship, adoration, prayer, praise, humility, and solemnity. We are too quick to tell our people that it does not matter -- that matter does not matter, that what you do does not matter, that worship practices do not matter... that only sincerity and feeling matter. Yet feelings, as important and good as they are, and even sincerity as motive, can be more subjective and shallow than the concrete. God does not merely live in our spirits. He has redeemed us body and soul. Matter matters. It is good to be reminded of this every now and then.