“God did not become a movement, a concept, an ideal, or even a committee, but a man of flesh and bone with a parentage, friends, a language, a country, a home. He inhabited not just a time but places, streets, rooms, countrysides, and by his presence in the flesh he changed them all.”
– Aidan Kavanagh, Elements of Rite
Evergreen folk really get into Halloween. And their seasonal installations remind me of a story I once heard on the radio about a woman who auctioned a glass bottle containing two ghosts for $2,000. This is a great mystery.
The mystery, however, wasn’t about the contents of the bottle. The woman is the mystery. And I don’t mean she’s a mystery because she’s crazy enough to believe in bottling ghosts. It’s just that a thing (a person being some-thing rather than no-thing) is a far greater mystery than a concept. That’s why wondering about whether ghosts exist is nothing like wondering at the mystery of a real person who gets out of bed on a particular morning in March and decides to sell her bottled ghosts on eBay.
Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”
Gregory of Nyssa and Aidan Kavanagh (the fellow quoted above) share a suspicion of our preoccupation with concepts, with disembodied ideas. And they both believed that God changed and changes us less through ideas than with bodies. The incarnation isn’t a concept. It’s “a man of flesh and bone with a parentage, friends, a language, a country, a home.”
Christian theology often seems to be about carrying around proper concepts about God in our heads. I love the struggles and arguments that these concepts have stirred up over the centuries. But the concepts are the ghosts in our bottles. They have a lot to do with who we are, but we are what’s real, and it’s us that God’s at work in and on and through.
This is why Aidan Kavanagh cared so passionately about liturgy. Liturgy is a way of doing theology. Liturgy isn’t a concept. Liturgy is always embodied. Liturgy is always about bodies and buildings and furniture, things seen and smelled and heard. Liturgy is never less than real voices singing and speaking among living people and sturdy things in a real moment in earthly time. Liturgy can be done well or poorly, but liturgy can’t be done at all in our heads.
So I wish you a wonder-ful Halloween and All Saints Day. But I hope they make you wonder less about abstract concepts (like whether you believe in ghosts or God) and turn your Christian wonder toward actual things. Which may be the only way to truly wonder at the God who inhabited “places, streets, rooms, countrysides, and by his presence in the flesh he changed them all.”