Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Proclaiming our faith: Earth, land, sacred meals, Resurrection

This religion we practice, this faith we profess, has many angles, many elements, many ways of experiencing it. We tell the biblical story of God’s creation and salvation, and our role in it. We write creeds, prayers and songs. But sometimes there is something so obvious that we might overlook it.

Our religion is also about the land.

The Daily Office readings this week, though somewhat difficult, drive home the point. We hear about the wars of the Maccabees, the visions of John in Revelation, Jesus healing an epileptic, and paying taxes in Capernaum.

The readings have this in common: all are about concrete places with names and descriptions. Heaven is not imagined existing out there, but as becoming a concrete place here, on the Earth's land.

The Bible makes a great deal of fuss about the land: The Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark; the Promised Land and the Valley of the Dry Bones; the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee; Mount Tabor and Mount Zion; Solomon's Temple and the pools of Bethesda. We hear of real places, like Jerusalem, and places imagined, like the New Jerusalem.

Depiction of Solomon's Temple
People fight over the land, they dream about the land, they lament over lost land, and they celebrate when they win back the land of their ancestors. They build, destroy, and rebuild. They proclaim their faith as they flourish or endure on the land in the real world.

This religion we practice is grounded in the ground itself. It is about concrete things – land, buildings, food on the table and bodies that win battles, or bodies that hurt and die. We talk of religious things that are real and physical.

The biblical faith is many things, but one thing it is not is dualistic. It is not about a second universe existing side by side with ours, or some kind of amorphous spiritual ether. God creates this universe and it cannot exist apart from God.

The religion we practice proclaims the presence of God not as metaphor, but as reality. We may understand that reality through the imagery of metaphor, but that underlines how our understanding is always physical.

The religion we practice proclaims that God exists in every dimension and in every place and time. This tradition we follow always connects itself to real places, whether inside the walls of Jerusalem, or to a monastery in Iona, or the “thin” place of a mountaintop, or in a small country church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. God exists everywhere, but we feel God’s presence keenly in physical spaces we discover are sacred.

The biblical readings assigned in the Daily Office this week especially underline the physicality of faith.

In the Revelation of John this week, the author is not talking about people being whisked off to a misty heaven in some kind of spiritual rapture. Rather, the author is talking about heaven physically coming to earth (Revelation 21:1-8). God remakes earth, and the new earth – the New Jerusalem – is a place of physical healing and wholeness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
The biblical faith is the promise of physical divine presence.

Our experience of religion is grounded in the physical. We remember the events of Jesus not just through words, but also through the physicality of a meal: the bread and wine at our Holy Eucharist. Even the words of our remembering have a physicality. The words ring in our ears, jump from the page, fill our minds. We cannot experience or understand this apart from our bodies. We touch the religious experience.

We remember the death of Jesus on the Cross as the real death of a real human being. We remember that his disciples experienced his resurrection not as an idea or a dream, but as physical.

They could touch him, eat meals with him, yet he was completely changed in ways they could not easily describe. Christ was the same, but different, but the same.

Our religion is fully human, and our human way of remembering involves all of our human senses. Our own human physicality – our bodies – become part of our spiritual imagining and awakening.

Medaba mosiac map of
Israel, 6th century
In today’s reading from Revelation 21:9-21, the writer describes the physical presence of angels showing him Jerusalem made new. He describes this vision physically. Holiness is connected to the land and to a real city, Jerusalem. Notice how John describes the renewal of the Holy City in precise gleaming detail:
The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred and forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass.
The ultimate mystery of our physical bodies is what happens to us after we die. I’ve been much thinking about this lately having lost several dear friends, one after the other. What happened to them? Where are they? Are they still present with us? Can we still touch them?

I have been around death many times, and there is nothing romantic about it. Death is physical, and so is its aftermath.

Our memories of the departed are physical memories even after the image of their face fades. It is not unusual to have a physical reaction when we remember someone we love, or even feel them physically again in odd moments. Our bodies remember the departed, and that is a clue about how we really experience the divine.

Yet our culture has given into an idea that our bodies don’t count when we die. They are “empty vessels” and the real us is now unencumbered by the constraints of a corrupted body. We use the euphemism “passed away,” as if the dead have flown away to somewhere else.

But that is not the faith proclaimed by the ancient Jews, or Jesus, or Paul and the early Christians, or the cloud saints who came after.

Seder plate
The ancients proclaimed their outrageous belief in the Resurrection as a physical reality. Our bodies die, become dust of the earth, and we are dead. But God makes us new – resurrected – living in God’s eternal time with bodies that are made whole and healed. We don't fade away.

The ancients proclaimed we are embodied as who we are, yet as Paul says, “changed in the twinkling of an eye.” We are still us, yet resurrected, made new. We have not “passed away,” but we have “passed on” to eternity.

That is why Jews say the Kaddish for a year after someone has died. The Kaddish it is a prayer praising God’s glory – not a lament. And for the same reason, we proclaim these joyful words at the end of an Episcopalian funeral:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

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