Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holy of Holies

Partly because I know the landscape and the sights and smells and weather, the juxtaposition of salt water and fresh in modern day Istanbul, I pause about many things we still take for granted in our worship and practice of the Christian faith in churches today. For it was in Istanbul, formerly Byzantium, formerly Constantinople, that the worship life of the Christian faith got itself tangled up with the trappings of royalty, the processional grandeur of the imperial court.

Hagia Sofia, the church begun by Emperor Justinian in AD 536, still stands on one of the city’s hilltops. If there was a place where the deadly prosperity gospel may have first reared its ugly head to become the official iteration of the church, perhaps it was here in this maritime city that is more like Seattle than Phoenix--our usual impression of anything and everything in the Middle East.

Hagia Sofia was a Christian church for over 900 years before it became a mosque. The minarets were added much later. One at a time. They don't match. It was a mosque for twice as long as the United States has been a country. It's been a state museum for nearly a century. I know what it looks like and feels like and smells like inside, how worn many of the stones are in the floor and doorways.

That fascination with pageantry, with clerical robes and vestments, bejeweled artifacts, "sanctuaries" veiled behind screens, became the order for worship that was supposed to trickle down to the provinces. How ironic that when Jesus on the cross yielded up his spirit, the veil in the temple was rent asunder, from top to bottom, from one end to the other. Completely. Totally. Irreparably. It was torn "ANOTHEN", according to the Greek.

Jesus opened the Holy of Holies. The Imperial Church with its grandeur seemed to close it off again in so many ways.

Anothen... That's the same adverb Jesus used in his conversation with Nicodemus when he told him that he must be born "from top to bottom". How utterly poor our translation "born again" in this passage! Jesus was hinting at something that defies description in human experience, leaving us almost tongue-tied. It should.

It's not something that I think Jesus would ever have said needed the special protection of a sanctuary, a closed circle of special practitioners with special Gnostic knowledge and initiation.

Conversely, what the church and its worship became here in Constantinople, thanks in large part to its unholy alliance with Constantine--even its celebration of the passsover meal of the brand New Covenant--seems to have become the polar opposite of the "breaking of the bread" by which the Emmaus travelers recognized the risen Christ on Easter evening.

It takes two or three gathered, not a cathedral...

When the church became royal and imperial, it also became territorial hierarchical. Bloodily so. Oh, God, bloodily so! The most troubling book that modern Christians could ever read would not be the work of atheists, Communists, Nazis, racists, libertarians, the KKK, or space aliens.

It just might be our own story, The Story of Christianity, a masterfully researched and unemotionally told tale by Cuban-American scholar Justo Gonzalez. It's required reading for many seminary students. Might help if a few more folks in the pews had cracked the covers.

The book forces us to take a long, hard look at what we have been. At what we have done. In the name of religion, in the name of an establishment, in the name of hierarchy, and fiefdoms, and property and cathedrals, in the names of kings and queens and princes and thrones.

The Desert Fathers were apalled by what they saw going on in Constantinople. They fled to save their consciences. Unfortunately, that was no solution either. Most of the people in the cities, towns and villages had families and crops to tend. They could not go out to the wildernesses to find healing and guidance. Those tasks were always the responsibility of the church from the get-go. But too much of that mission got lost when the church became royal, imperial, territorial, wealthy and addicted to itself.

How many sectarian wars? How many denominational splits? How much abuse of vulnerable people in monastery, convent, college, church bathroom, priestly quarters or at youth campout? How much of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome was built on the fear-induced offerings of souls held hostage by a tyrannical and corrupt priesthood?

To be sure, even in dark times, much good work has always been done. Even clerics holding the power of life and death in their hands could not stop the humble spirit of Christ in the hands and feet of his true servants.

Still, huge tragedies persisted. Modern ones do, too. How many modern worship wars over liturgical style, hymn books, the color of carpet in the narthex, paint on the walls, the volume and tempo of music played?

Kind of like the tragic life of a gifted artist who is also a drug addict.

As Augusutine said, "The church is a whore but she is still my mother." Yeah, a whore and a druggie both. Often, by choice, it seems. Still, our mother.

Today, some friends bemoan in their Christmas messages the dearth of creches and Nativity displays. I wonder... They see the change as empirical proof that we live in an anti-Christian age. As if Christmas decorations could change that. Or should. I wonder...

As a child I memorized Luther’s Small Catechism. It was required. I still recall this explanation of “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, the third petition of the Lord’s prayer: “The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.” It doesn’t depend on plastic decorations made in China, nor on constructions cut locally from plywood.

If we want to be strictly biblical, it doesn’t seem that the Eastern astrologers bearing gifts were ever there side by side with the shepherds. The infant in the manger was not born to have a life apart from the cross. The serenity of the supposed “silent night” cannot be savored apart from Herod’s slaughter of children and the little family’s recapitulation of flight into Egypt without which there could be no Exodus from it.

If there’s a model of where and how God works, we might consider a refugee family today. The homeless man, self-medicated and asleep in the doorway...

We can have perfect and comprehensive knowledge of what happened in events past, or at least convince ourselves that we do. But unless we know what these events mean, we really have little more than an empty symbol. In every time and every age, the Lord reigns, and Christ’s church needs renewal. Resurrection is possible only when there has been a death. Whatever we mourn as a death is passing, however, because re-birth is going on regardless. The church, ironically or perhaps not, has had its most vibrant life in times of severe adversity. Angels call to us today to look about for that re-birth. It is always ahead of us, never in the past.

The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer… even without our decorations. It is always done first, if Scripture and the Incarnate Word are at all reliable witnesses, among poor, hungry and lonely folks carrying burdens larger than themselves.

Instead of asking where the creches and Nativity displays have gone, perhaps this season and any season we'd do better to ask ourselves this question:

Whom do I know by name and life story that I otherwise would not know, were it not for the fact that I know Jesus of Bethlehem and Nazareth and Calvary and Emmaus?

That may be all the decoration we'll ever need in life. God works anothen. The undecorated Gospel is anothen, not sentimental.


Pastor Roger