January 8th, 2021

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As living stones be yourself built into a spiritual house

I’ve been watching a video series by Francis Pryor on Britain before the Romans. The ancient Britons built in circles. They had round houses, round burial mounds, round ceremonial enclosures. Some were primarily places for the living and some primarily places for the dead, but the ancient Britons thought those were largely interchangeable ideas. Their graves were like their houses, their houses were like their graves. Their places of worship were like their houses and graves. A circle of standing stones was a circle of ancestors; the processional ways were also lined with standing stones, so that the living would process into the circle between lines of their ancestors.

The peoples of the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean built in squares and rectangles, but they saw things in much the same way. Graves and tombs were rectangular because houses were rectangular. A temple was rectangular because it was the house of God/the gods. Christians first met in houses; when they came to build churches, they called them kuriakón, “the Lord’s house.” Christian worship centered around a household meal in which they feasted with Christ – and the saints in heaven were as present as the saints on earth. When larger buildings were built, they used columns to hold up the house, which were interpreted in church architecture as people. Christian dead were not buried in the fetal position, as if being reborn, but laid out in full extension with their faces to the east, aligned with their churches, as a vast congregation assembled to meet Christ.

Modern churches are more and more built or employed like theaters, places of entertainment. The congregation doesn’t enter into the service and participate so much as sit outside the experience as spectators. The clergy and other leaders have gotten impatient with a liturgy that requires movement and participation: they prefer an audience. And so the songs become less singable, the sermons more performative, and the rest drowned in the blather of announcements and chit-chat. In order to jazz up all this dull stuff, the preacher-performers turn to electronic jiggery-pokery, especially video. These would-be rock stars would add lasers and smoke effects if they could figure out how.

But spectacle is not the point. Meeting God is the point -- in his house, together with others who are also part of our company, living and dead. You shouldn’t have to struggle with the worship service to keep your mind on that. Everything you do, everything that is said, the very walls and furnishings, should facilitate that. Nor does every symbol and action require explanation, as if they had no meaning but what the commentator pours into them. We need to talk less, and let God speak more.