“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
I once heard a story 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, isn’t about the contents of the bottle. The woman’s 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.
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”
Gregory 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 notions 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’re 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 only in our heads.
For months now, most of us have been worshiping as Calvary by way of the internet. This is the definition of a modern liturgical nightmare. What could be less embodied than online worship? Well, lots of things could, we are learning. We are worshiping at a distance only because we have never been more collectively aware of bodily existence than we are right now.
The 20th-century mystic and philosopher Simone Weil once used a metaphor of two people in adjoining prison cells who had learned to communicate by tapping on the wall. The barrier between them was also their means of communication. “It is the same with us and God,” she wrote, “Every separation is a link.”
It is the same with us and us as well, I’m slowly coming to believe. We’ve always been linked by our separateness. Even the closest of lovers and friends remain mysteries to each other at some level. For any person you think you can adequately explain has become a concept, and when wonder dies, so does the relationship.
Right now, we are linked by a shared experience of physical separation. Which means we may never have been a more liturgically-minded community. Resorting to live streams and Zoom is only more evidence that we won’t settle for ghosts or concepts or anything less than the embodied mystery of one another.
This is a truth worth wondering at. One that can lead us not only to our God-given need for relationship, but also to the One who inhabited “places, streets, rooms, countrysides, and by his presence in the flesh he changed them all.”