“Some sacred spaces bear none of the expected characteristics. The fact that we prefer stained glass windows, pomp and circumstance…has nothing to do with the sacred.” — Barbara Holmes
The half-empty bottle of red wine sat atop the toolbox marked with the shield of the Episcopal Church. Inside: stoles, wafers, a prayer book, and now a space where the corked wine — or should I say, “the blood of Christ” — once sat. All of the necessary tools for administering the sacrament of Eucharist. The toolbox matched with its “tools” created a juxtaposition to be sure. But juxtapositions were in order seeing that we were on a porch, and in true Southern style, rocking chairs took the place of pews.
As the first cool breezes of fall blew through the porch screens, the citronella candles flickered, the table was set, and so we began — “The Lord be with you…”
I find unconventional Eucharists — outdoors, in a prison, around someone’s coffee table, on a front porch — moving, inspiring, and comforting. Leaves rustle, bars rattle, children dart about under table legs, rocking chairs creak. It’s in these moments of rare community that I feel the humanity and interconnectedness behind Christianity and among Christians peek through. I think the Church too often disguises these moments.
Perhaps my longing for this kind of intimate space and experience harkens back to the first two-hundred years or so of early Christianity in which followers of a Jew named Jesus met in homes, apartments, or small buildings to remember his teachings, death, resurrection, and their renewed sense of place in a shifting world order. Whether out of necessity, convivence, or to hide from persecutors, this is how worship began: in small communities and intimate spaces where the Eucharist, a common meal, was central as “celebration of the man resurrected from the dead, who meets his disciples in the most unlikely time and place…”
Indeed, the word “church” — stemming from the ancient Greek ekklēsia– is rooted in the idea of community. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “The polis included the surrounding mountains, fields, woods, shrines, as far as its frontiers; it was the collective mind of the community who made it up, and whose efforts at making decisions came to constitute ‘politics.’” He continues, “…the ekklēsia represents the polis, a local identity within the whole of Christianity or Christendom, just as the Greek polis represented the local identity of the greater whole.”
The idea of “church” is more complicated than root words, but as MacCulloch points out, “…the faithful have a collective responsibility for decisions about the future.” Or in other words, it’s the collective “two or more…” that matters.
“All eternity is in the moment…” wrote Mary Oliver in Seven White Butterflies. And since that time on the porch, I’ve begun to think that it’s not the space and the place that matter; it’s the people and the moments. It’s the dear friend in the rocking chair next to me, the person across from me whose politics I abhor, or the prisoner that holds my hand as we say the Lord’s Prayer. These only add to the holiness, the human-ness, of the moment. They create the ekklēsia. And with that, I think the space becomes holy, sacred, and sanctified or “set apart.”
Sometimes, candles just need to be for chasing away mosquitoes, jeans serve better than vestments, screens can substitute for stained glass, and a toolbox will do just fine as long as we remember those standing, sitting, crying, laughing, running, hurting next to us. I think we might do well to heed the words of Rilke in his Book of Hours: Love Poems to God that serve as a prescient call to remember our roots:
“We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.”
Marilyn Stokstad & Michael W. Cothren, Art History (New Jersey: Pearson Inc., 2011), 222.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 95.
The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2005), Matt. 18:20.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans. Anita Barrows & Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 49.