Saturday, 19 September 2015

Matter matters

"If you put together all the relics of the True Cross, you'd have enough lumber to build a merchant ship!" A good punchline from the 16th century Humanist Erasmus. Maybe you've heard it before. It would be funnier if it were true. But in 1870, a French scholar named de Fleury measured all of the extant fragments and calculated their volume, and he worked out that altogether, they wouldn't make up even a tenth of a Roman cross. Definitely not enough to carry freight. Not even enough to crucify a man. But then, to paraphrase Einstein, common sense isn't much more than the prejudices we acquire by the age of eighteen.

Our cynicism about relics of the Cross was not shared by the ancients. In the early fourth century, St Helena, wife of Emperor Constantine, reputedly excavated three crosses hidden by Christians under the streets of forcibly paganized Jerusalem. By the end of that century, even the great St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and mentor of St Augustine, had no doubt that they were genuine. We live in an age and nation where only disbelief is really credible, certainly an age to mock Catholic credulity. But I do wonder: is Protestant scepticism really better? The scepticism of our Northern European nations, where religion is safely boxed in for private consumption on Sundays, and, surely by no coincidence, atheism flourishes. Is that better than the Catholic religion of our southern neighbours - the religion which spills out of the churches into the streets, in fiestas, shrines, processions, and even sometimes in popular devotions to such anomalies as relics?

I was in Rome a few weeks ago, and the highlight of the trip for me was celebrating mass in the catacombs of St Callistus. Call me superstitious, but the reason it was so moving was that I was reciting those ancient words in the company of the human remains of two centuries' worth of saints and martyrs. Of course, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we do it in the presence of the saints and martyrs, even the angels, and the whole company of heaven. But if we take seriously the fact that the Word became flesh, that God entered matter and even human bones; if we take seriously the claim of our faith of a bodily resurrection, that in some way our very bodies will be reconstituted in the Heavenly Kingdom, if, in short, we don't fall into the old gnostic heresy of placing an impenetrable dividing line between the spiritual and the physical, then the bones of the saints do matter. They're the physical, material connection not just to our forbears in the faith but to our future companions in the Kingdom, because we know not how but trust in faith that those bones will be there!

In the Christian faith, we cannot neatly separate the spiritual from the physical. Matter matters. It matters because of the Incarnation. This is something that our Anglican Reformers firmly emphasised, unlike their Calvinist counterparts in Europe, and that's because alongside their Bibles they read deeply of the tradition of the Early Church. The 17th century Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Bible, defined the Anglican way as: one Bible, two Testaments, three Creeds, four Ecumenical Councils and the first five centuries of the Church Fathers. In these scriptures, creeds, councils and the words of the Fathers, our Reformers found a clear emphasis on the Incarnation: on God in the world, the Word made Flesh. They did not share the obsession of their Calvinist contemporaries with personal justification and salvation, and returning to the ancient sources, they saw the Cross as something much more significant than just "how it relates to me." For them, as for the Early Church Fathers, the Cross was not some spiritual doctrine for the chosen few, but that real piece of wood, that real instrument of torture, was the matter through which the God Incarnate in matter chose to bring the whole realm of matter into union with him. Continental Protestants taught that Christians have to choose: it was faith or works, scripture or tradition, God or world, saved or damned. But the Anglican theologians recognised the ancient Catholic truth that Christianity is not a religion of 'either/or.' It is the religion of 'and:' grounded in a real person who is not God or man but God AND man. In the Incarnation and in the Cross, God tears down the veil between the spiritual and the physical. We have to find the spiritual in the material; find the maker in what he has made.

"Materialism" is not a highly favoured word at present. Yet in a way, Christianity is a highly materialistic religion. It is no coincidence at all that two materialistic economic systems sprung from European soil, growing in the ruins of Christendom. We've heard a lot in the news recently, especially around yesterday's election, about the materialistic philosophy fertilised and nurtured by Karl Marx. The other shouts at us from advertisements every day. But both Socialism and Capitalism are materialist systems, concerned with the redistribution of material wealth, and both developed in largely Protestant countries. As a Christian, you may favour one or the other, but only an ideologue would believe that either system is perfect. If you ask me, the flaws of both systems come from that Continental Protestant tendency to separate the material from the spiritual. It's seeing matter as the end in itself, rather than as just the means towards the the spiritual end for which God provides all creation.

So what is that end? What's the point of existence - and so of the Christian religion? Lancelot Andrewes found it summed up best in the words of St Augustine, which he translated: "God has become man, that man might become God." It is none other than the flesh and blood of Christ and the hard wood of the Cross that effect our union with God. At our peril do we sneer at it or spiritualise it away or sell it off. Tomorrow's feast of the Holy Cross is not the celebration of an abstract doctrine about salvation. It's the celebration of matter, of wood and nails, flesh and bone and blood. Far be it from the Christian to despise matter when is through matter that God has chosen to save the world. Rather, it is our chance to see in matter God's hand, God's work. It's about taking up the Cross into our hearts and truly knowing, in our innermost being, the fundamental Christian truth: that God shares in our nature and so we share in His, and so does the rest of Creation. I pray that God will open all the world's eyes to the glory that lies hidden, waiting, in ordinary matter, ordinary bread and wine, ordinary people, neighbours, foreigners, refugees, because with the folly of the Cross will come the peace and plenty which purely human wisdom and ideology cannot bring.

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