On Friday I was driving through a village in Kent. Growing up, I knew its church very well, despite never leaving Lancashire. I used to assemble card models of buildings to go with my railway set: Ann Hathaway’s cottage, Bletchley railway station, a little row of shops from Bury St Edmunds, and this particular church. Sadly, it has been closed for decades, no longer needed for reaching within walking distance, now that people can easily drive elsewhere. Still, for years there were signs up, about the need to retain it in community use. I keep thinking that the best way to keep it in community use would have been to attend its services. It was once well attended; now the affluent villagers will neither sustain it as a community venue, nor use it for its true purpose.
They are not alone in this disconnection from spiritual living. People currently tend to think that faith in God’s existence and authority with regard to human beings depends on our opinion. It needs to serve personal priorities, and it should accommodate our conduct and values. It is reckoned to be a “belief system” that has evolved out of human design, and what is nowadays called spirituality is simply one aspect of being a human among many. Thus the closure of a significant church results from a community of people coming to a judgment about God that he either did not exist, or that He does not matter. The Christian worldview becomes one of a number of options; and to all intents and purposes most people have adopted a belief system that does not require Christ as the key to explain the world, and where worship – orienting humanity to lift its heart and mind to adore God in His Kingdom – is unnecessary, hardly relevant to contemporary living.
It is easy for Christians to absorb these same assumptions that God and His world are all about “me”, or they are about nothing. I once had a rather bossy colleague who once inadvertently mixed the words of morning prayer: “Bend Your heart to my will, O God,” he proclaimed (cf. Psalm 40.8); and we all laughed. Yet if God is the servant of our aspirations, like some candidate appealing for our vote, He is not God. His existence does not depend on our assent, and His authority does not rely on our moral permission. Indeed, God has been comprehensively abandoned before, and history preserves the ruins of His Church which dissolved away (e.g. North Africa, Central Asia). So there is nothing new as, this time, secularity takes hold of the western imagination and dulls it, no longer to conceive of what the reign of God on earth might look like in human hearts and souls. The Christian, nevertheless, holds the vivid realisation that Christ is not only about me and my life, but about all humans and all life and all creation - or He is about nothing at all. My personal sanctification makes no sense without Jesus Christ’s work in and for all those with whom I and He share humanity. As we sing in today’s Kontakion: “You arose in glory from the Tomb, and with Yourself You raised the world.” (Sunday of Tone 1)
And this work of Christ’s, for all and in all, is not only a past event to cling on to, but now a fact of existence that provides the universe with its inner meaning. As St Paul says, “Even though our outer nature wastes away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4.16) It may be difficult to perceive; but this rhythm of God, as He lives among us, the very Son of Man, is all the truth there is. First He is abandoned, secondly He is destroyed, and third He is raised again. The pattern of the endless self-pouring-out of God is how the Persons of The Trinity are with each other, and it is how the nature of God plays out when it is united with humanity in the Person of Christ. The same cycle of pouring out, wasting away, death and dying, sacrifice and Cross, and of emptying tombs and resurrection, renewal and God’s power re-asserting itself, of seeds cast away and germinating into full grown plants and trees (cf. Matthew 17.20 & Matthew 13.31-32), of a Cross of destruction turning into a Sign of Victory (Hebrews 12.2. Colossians 2.15), is now how creation is, too.
Thus Prince Volodymyr was baptised into Christ’s death and rose with him to new life; not just for himself, but for all his people, such that the Gospel came to the whole of the east of our continent. And, even after three quarters of century in which God was pronounced non-existent and His Church a social menace, both our Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is experiencing the pattern in life of the resurrection of Christ, and the Orthodox Church in Russia, too, is being rebuilt and renewed. This is as St Paul foresaw.
His words are why we do not lose heart, even while landmark certainties are disappear and new givens take shape. We are not merely persevering, with our “Keep calm and carry on” attitude. For, when the Lord speaks of persevering, it is with an eye to the fruit that will be borne. So there is divine purpose and process to it all. Its roots lie within the nature of God in Christ, and it provides the means for us to be faithful to Him and for His work still to take effect, not just in individuals but even in the midst of whole societies.
People say “I am spiritual, but not religious”. This is because they imagine that Church people are judgmental, self-serving, or creatures of unthinking habit. The example of the Christian martyrs of the Islamists in recent years would suggest otherwise. But we should accept the implied criticism, and avoid the snare of being “religious, but not spiritual,” of thinking that our faith and Church are just about suiting our tastes and outlook. For there is genuine curiosity about God from people and we are struggling to make the connection for them. Their outlook and lifestyle are not attuned to worship and following Christ. But they are kind, good-hearted, virtuous and moral, as well as struggling, flawed, selfish and bad at times, as we all are. Here are none other than the marks of the image of God in humanity, and the sin that mars it which God would rather wipe out so that we can see and sense ourselves for who we more truly are. Thus they have an inkling that spirituality is not just the reflective or ethical side to being human, but the space where the Divine and the Spiritual come and make their impression. Pope Benedict has often said that the mutual bearing of belief and the realities of life, of religion and human society, upon each other is vital, because only faith has the answers to our deepest questions and longings. When the connection is made, it is not first by condemnation, or imposing propositions and rules. The truth about humanity and the universe binds us, and turns round our entire sense of direction, always because it attracts. It attracts because it is trusted. And it is trusted because it can be loved. It is thus seen not only in the beauty of holiness, or by pointing to a better Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but visible in none other than the person of Christ - Christ on His Cross, Christ pouring out his life in sheer unbounded love, and giving the truest account of what God is and who the human is to become.
Our Popes speaking tirelessly of Christ who is light and truth, hope and love, and mercy itself. But we should know that this Christ we make visible by embodying: not only in these attributes, but also in the pattern of constantly dying away and rising again that is in the reasoning behind the purpose of God and the existence of all things. While we live, we are always like our Lord being “given up” - as St Paul puts it - so that the eternity of the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortality. Or to put it St Paul’s other way: Death may be doing what death does: but so is the life of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4.11-12).