A Touchy Feely Faith - Relics and Sacraments
One day while digging up my backyard to create a garden for my wife, I ran into a stubborn spot in the dirt which contained a host of old-west artifacts including an irritating number of square nails and richly rusted barbed wire of strange design. Despite the hinderance they presented to me, I really enjoyed finding them and am sure that I saved a few of the nails - though I don't think I could specifically locate them at the moment (but then again there are many things I am unable to locate in this house!). What I find interesting is the attraction I felt toward these old rusted items and how they really caused me to sense and connect with the past - it was somewhat moving for me to hold the very same nail that some 19th century farmer used to build a fence around his livestock in what was then a bustling Northwest logging town. I don't think I am unusual in sensing this, am I?
Consider how we humans often connect to the past through physical items: we have gigantic museums built around the storing of artifacts, we collect tons and tons of memorabila from just about every historical age, and we identify and make sacred fields, forests, and buildings in or upon which significant history has taken place. Who can hold in their hand a minnie-ball taken from a Civil War battlefield and not feel at least a slight notion of awe? Who can walk amidst the artifiacts of the Titanic and not feel themselves transported back to that horrible night? Who can walk the streets of a ghost town and not sense that in some other reality it is still alive? Who can walk through a cemetary and not have a sense of reverence (perhaps even fear!) for the bodies that there lie?
(Yes I know what you are thinking, there are plenty of people who can ignore such things...but I ask you to consider their character in general and realize that this post - amongst many other things - are not intended for them.)
I can also recall a time in which my wife and I were seperated by a great distance and we left with one another a simple object with which to remind each other of our presence, despite our absence. And as I sit here and type I am reminded that there need not be a great seperating distance for us to need such connections: there is a ring on my finger! I think if I were to go on, and if you the reader of this post would attempt to, we could come up with a host of other examples in which we humans strangely attach seemingly immaterial (I use this term cautiously) and profound significance to physical objects and I am beginning to wonder if we do this because of a God-given and inspired inclination to such. Furthermore, I also am wondering if there is an ontological reality to the significance we place in physical items...is there a reality to the magic we seem to allow them to perform on us? Maybe?
A couple of Biblical items come to mind to perhaps shed further light on this concept.
The modern symbol we have for medicine (a snake wrapped around a staff) comes from the biblical story when God told Moses to make a bronze seprent and place it upon a high staff and that whoever was bitten by a poisonous snake could look at the serpent on the pole and they would not die. Strange story isn't it? I mean why didn't God simply command the people to just have faith in God and they would be healed? Why the need for this physical intermediary?
When Joshua led the people accross the Jordan river, God commanded that they collect stones from the river and save them as a memorial for the children of Israel forever.
I also recall the strange physical means by which Elisha brought a dead child back to life, and I also recall a protestant preacher explaining the scientifc/medical reasonings for Elisha's actions...hmmm. I'm not sure how this guy would explain Elisha's dead body touching and resurrecting a dead man.
There are hosts of examples of God commanding the use of physical items not only in worship practices, but also to literally do miracles in the Old Testament. Perhaps you say that such things ended in the ushering in of the New Testament? That such physical items were no longer needed. First, let me point out the Incarnation, which is THE most intense example of what I am talking about. But then we have other instances to worry about, such as: the Insititution of the Euchairst and Baptism, St. Paul sending out prayer napkins to heal people and St. Peter's shadow apparently falling on people and healing them. And I'll not even begin to demonstrate the patristic tradition in which we even see the bodies of martyrs being heavily revered and honored.
So, what's the point? In the very early Church, the Fathers fought long and hard against the Gnostics who held to a very complex and intricate religion which they claimed to be true apostolic christianity. However, the foundation of their belief as generally outlined in the teachings of Marcion was that the physical created world was evil and that only in the spiritual realm was to be found truth and holiness. Religion for them took place in the mind and in the spirit...for all else was sinful.
While I was a protestant, I walked a very close line to this sort of thinking...too close. I laughed at the catholics ( I didn't know about other groups that espoused any sort of sacramental theology) and their silly belief in the effectiveness of sacraments, I KNEW ( I was soooo smart) that to worship in spirit and truth meant that we needn't do things like trace crosses on ourselves or bow, I KNEW that the only path to salvation was to have something happen in my heart and spirit and that what my body did was for the most part irrelevant, and I had a general sense in which my spirit was at war with my flesh and that only death would free me from the burden of the flesh. I shudder to think how ignorant I was.
I believe we are a priestly people who bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual. And we look for the resurrection of the Dead and the life to come and not some spiritual utopia. In the meantime we continue to live a physical faith in which God meets with us through the Holy Mysteries. We use physical objects in our worship (that connect us to apparent unseen realities?), we honor the bodies of the departed saints and we often times see miracles associated with them, we touch and we feel in the very same way that God through the Incarnation reached out, touched, and restored the physical world. The Incarnation is the hinge to all of life, I think, and when we recognize our inclination to connect with physical items I think we testify to the Incarnation in some mysterious way that I am still working out.
Perhaps that strange connection I sense in handling those old nails is not something that takes place only in my mind. Maybe there is some means of literal connection in such physical items...somewhat like the sacraments? What I mean is that maybe more is going on than just my own private memorial? I don't know.
I am sure, however, that it is quite deliberate that the official title of the Christmas feast according to the Orthodox is thus:
The Nativity according to the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 8:34 AM [+]