From time to time news reports announce the closing of churches worldwide. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that in the Netherlands two-thirds of the 1600 Roman Catholic churches will close in the next decade and in Holland 700 Protestant churches will close in the next four years. When I see these reminders of the state of Christian churches in the world I often reconsider the nature of these sacred buildings.
Many of these churches in Europe are sold and become condos, bars, restaurants, museums, libraries, and hotels. Entering these reclaimed spaces can be, for the Christian, a bit disconcerting. But, after all, the materials were simply that – matter, stone, wood, building blocks. Why should the Christian be troubled?
Catholic and Anglican churches are consecrated when used for holy worship, and when they are put on the market, they are deconsecrated. So, I say to myself, why be sentimental?
But another voice whispers in my ear. There is the history of prayers here, it says, remember all the sacraments, all the baptisms, confirmations, weddings, communions, funerals. Remember all the celebrations and seasons, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost.
So as I knelt at the altar to receive the Eucharist this morning in my parish church, I gazed upon our Christmas creche, set up a few feet away. There was the Lord of Lords in his bed of straw, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, the animals. The outline of the figures followed the pitched lines of the stable roof, peaked like hands praying. A star hung from the central point.
The nativity scene was, I thought, a church in itself, a little church. The manger was the altar, the Son of God in the center, the Holy Spirit descending in the star and twinkling lights, Mary and Joseph like the clergy preparing and caring for God-with-us, the shepherds and wise men like the congregation, some herders of sheep and some herders of words. The crèche was a mini-church.
Then I looked beyond the stable to the pitched roof of our own sanctuary-stable, the altar with its tabernacle holding God-with-us, the Holy Spirit weaving through our prayers and incense and flaming starlight, the clergy offering God to us and us to God, and we kneeling in pews and at the altar rail in adoration as the shepherds and wise men once did, bringing the gifts of our hearts, minds, and bodies.
And of course, in the end, there is the church of our hearts. Like the inn of Bethlehem, there is not always room for God in our hearts. But some of us try to make room and offer a rough stable where he can live and breathe, where Eternity can take root and make us immortal. In this way each of us, if we so choose, is a crèche cradling God, just like the Christmas crèche and just like the church sanctuary.
It is good to have the crèche to express the story of salvation, and it is good to have the church to enact the sacrament of salvation, to help us enter the mystery itself, making us one with God. Other expressions of our deepest held beliefs live in the physical church – the architecture of domes and aisles and sacred space, the baptismal font, the stories in stained glass, the Lady Altar with its bank of flaming votives. Music, prayer, ritual all give us ways to express who we are as created beings, who we are meant to be, and how we become what we are meant to be in eternity.
Church comes from the word ekklesia, a body of believers called together by Christ. So of course the church is foremost the living church, Christ’s Body. But people need structure, need poetry, need symbol. The physical church provides these things, enables communal worship in a common space and time.
In Europe villages grew up around churches, so the town came to be identified with the parish church, and in many cases took the church’s name. Today, when these communities no longer have this unifying central building, they have indeed lost something valuable, something that brought them together. Hence there is an outcry in Europe today among nonbelievers as well as believers. But closing the church is merely a symptom of an earlier closing, a greater closing, the closing of hearts to God, and this loss of faith has been going on for the last century. The only cure for such a death is a re-opening of those hearts, a resurrection of spirit.
America is younger and her history is less village-focused. Her cultural landscape is seeded with many varieties of belief and building and ekklesia. But here too, churches are sold, parishes consolidated. What is a believer to do?
It is a time for believers to find one another, to share in worship. It is a time to keep candles aflame and incense billowing. It is a time to sing a joyful noise unto the Lord so that the singing bursts through the doors and weaves through our communities, relighting the world with the good news of Christ. It is a time to tell the wondrous story, that God sent his Son to become one of us, one with us, Emmanuel, in a crèche, the first ekklesia.
It is a time to sing together, Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king… so that the world may become a crèche too.