I've been reading many conversations lately among church leaders (clergy and lay) and scholars centered around the questions, "Why does church matter?" and "How does church matter?" In a world that constantly harps on "change" (with very little seeming to actually do so), how can a two-thousand year old institution still offer something that people need?
To answer this question for myself, I have been looking for something to read to stir my imagination. Granted, God's word does this for me all the time. But part of encountering the Living Word, for me, involves going into the Bible with a guide (the Holy Spirit) and a partner (some other theologian- living or dead, clergy or lay).
My newest hunting partner is G.K. Chesterton. While I would not say that G.K. and I will become best buddies- he's a good hunting partner with sharp spiritual eyes, stirring me to looking for new signs and shapes of God's work in the world. So I have begun reading his book The Everlasting Man.
I'm not terribly far into it, but I'm already thinking of so many new things. He particularly stresses in his introduction the need for the Church of Christ (and its people) to look at the Church from a different, even foreign, perspective so that the significance of the Church can be grasped. While Chesterton eventually became a Catholic, here he is emphasizing the nature of the whole Church as the body of Christ- less the institution, than the embodiment of the Real Presence.
He says this: [The] Church, being a highly practical thing for working and for fighting, is necessarily a thing for [adults] and not merely a thing for children. There must be in it for working purposes a great deal of tradition, of familiarity, and even of routine. So long as its fundamentals are sincerely felt, this may be the saner condition. But when its fundamentals are doubted, as at present, we must try to recover the candor and wonder of the child; the unspoilt realism and objectivity of innocence. Or if we cannot do that, we must try at least to shake off the cloud of mere custom and see the thing as new, if only by seeing it as unnatural. Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt. (Ignatius Press, 2008, 14)
In the season of Christmas, we are full of things we "always" do because of their tradition and symbolism. Yet is the symbolism what has become meaningful to us... the symbolism more than what is actually celebrated?
We are entering the season of the church year when we see many people in the pews who have been missing in the intervening months since Easter (or maybe since last Christmas). Why is that? Because they're busy? Perhaps. Or maybe it is because we (pastors, regular churchgoers, bishops, etc) have failed to make the majesty, the grace, the awe of God known throughout the year. Church is more than tradition: Sundays, Wednesday, Christmas, Easter.
It is a strange and alien institution, formed by an alien righteousness. (Romans 3- all of it) The righteousness of Christ covers all our sins, so that we might be made right with God. The familiar shapes and sounds of Christmas- Mary, shepherds, fumbled microphones in Christmas pageants, Silent Night, green and red- consume the shocking event that we are celebrating... GOD AMONG US!!!!!! LIKE US!!!! BUT GOD!!!!
Consider this verse from Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth
Born to give us second birth
That's no regular baby (no regular birth story either). Familiarity hasn't necessarily, yet, bred contempt, but is it still breeding affection, in the words of Chesterton? In this season of overworked metaphors, let yourself be stunned by the miracle of Christmas- a pregnant virgin, angels everywhere, an accepting fiance, God present on earth in human form (yet retaining full divinity).
May God water the seeds of your contemplation, so that they may bloom forth in good works toward your neighbor and your family.
Church still matters. It is in the Body of Christ, God's church, that we experience together the provoking wonder of the greatest story ever told.