Creatures of the Borderland

Sermon Three in the series 'A Worshipping Life'

Epiphanytide 2018


If you go to Oxford's Ashmolean Museum you can see an exhibition called 'Imaging the divine'. Unlike 'Seeing Salvation', which caused such a sensation in London years ago, this exhibition, subtitled 'art and the rise of world religions' isn't strictly Christian in scope. You'll find artefacts of all kinds of religions from the first millennium, and from a huge reach across the globe: sacred bowls and statuary, what's thought to be the earliest know image of Christ north of the alps, and sacred texts in many media. All of it, from a visual angle, evidence that we human beings are 'creatures of the borderland'.[1]

That's an apt phrase today when we celebrate Jesus' first entry into the Temple in Jerusalem with his father and mother (Luke 2.22-24).[2] For there, bringing pigeons or doves, Joseph and Mary would make the 'poor man's sacrifice' to buy back their first-born son from the Lord. As we imagine the scene we unavoidably see the Holy Family at a 'borderland', in a space and engaged in an action where two places, two realities rub-up against one another: our creaturely world of space and time, of sensation and fabrication, on one side, and, on the other, an invisible world, the eternal beyond of the wholly Other, the God so holy that even his name could not be uttered.

But at the 'borderland' those worlds meet. And we are that borderland. We are, as our Christian forebears liked to imagine, the 'link' in and through which these worlds meet. For we ourselves are both spirit and matter. Actually, putting it that was isn't good enough. From the Bible's point of view, at least, we are soul, capable of relationship with our Maker, and the soul is the whole person, body and spirit, material and immaterial, visible and invisible, in a marvellous, artful integrity.[3]

It figures, then, that genuinely human worship[4] will take account of this integrity of matter and spirit. So spirit invests itself in matter, and matter expresses spirit. We're made that way, as every great religion testifies, and as our own tradition of faith bears witness. God's unseen divine action reaches us through and not in defiance of our humanity.

That's why we resort to ritual, to symbol (verbal and visual), to sacrament, and to sacrifice in our relationship with God--to sound, to image, to gesture and action, all of them engaging our bodies' senses and powers. We use these senses and powers of our bodies to act and react in ceremony and to make things of beauty in decoration, in art and architecture; to express ideas in the symbolic sounds and pictures of language and music. Speaking of all of that within the framework of the ritual of Christian worship, this is how Evelyn Underhill puts it:

                  Ritual weaves speech, gesture, rhythm and agreed
                  ceremonial into the worshipping action of man; and
                  thus at its best [ritual] can unite his physical, mental,
                  and emotional being in a single response to the
                  Unseen. The use of symbols and again
                  forced on him by his own psychological peculiarities;
                  the fact that all his thinking and feeling is intimately
                  related to the world of things in which he lives. It is
                  to the apprehension of these things [i.e. the world
                  of things] that his mind and sense are trained: it is
                  by the responses they awake in him that he becomes aware of an external world....

And beyond that, she reminds us, 'it is only by recourse to...the things that are seen that we can ever give concrete form to our intuition of that which is unseen'.[5]

But remember, none of what we use explains the God we adore; they merely mediate, signify or suggest some aspect of the hem of God's garment.[6] We, with all religious humility, must be content with that. We are, before and after all, only 'creatures of the borderland'.

Yet while we use this world in conformity with our bodily life and its sensory powers, we must remember that we are 'in, but not wholly of the visible world'.[7] So the key thing about the things, actions and opportunities that our bodies and senses offer us is that they act as a bridge, a gateway, a crossing-point from the world of sense to the world of spirit, from the world of knowledge to the world of revelation and faith.[8]

That's why the churches where we worship are important, and why worshipping in our churches is important. While such sacred spaces cannot and do not restrict to themselves the divine presence, yet they embody and contain in a concentrated way the numerous crossing-points by which God reaches out to us and we find access into his presence. Such places are here to help 'sensitize' us to God's transforming presence and power.[9] In their rich assemblage of signs, symbols and the sacraments celebrated within them, they speak.[10]    

Then there are things as simple as lighted candles. They too, in their uncomplicated way, speak to us, of God and what he has done for us in Christ.[11] As we celebrate and worship with them today they have no simple, clear-cut message. Rather, they gather to themselves layers of meanings which successively, intermittently, vaguely or clearly shoot across the dark sky of our understanding.

Think for a moment, as you behold the little flame, how it bridges the galaxy of meanings between your mind, heart and imagination, and the story of our salvation:

'And God said, let there be light...'

'Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light upon my path'.

'You are the well of life, and in your light we see light.'

'The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.'

'In him was life, and the life was the light of men'.

'I am the light of the world, whoever believes in me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.'

'All I know is that before I was blind, but now I can see.'

'While they we perplexed about this, suddenly there stood before the women two men in dazzling clothes'.

'Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us?'

'Divided tongues, as of flames of fire, appeared among them...'

'Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around.'

'Once you were darkness but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.'

'The same God who said let light shine out of darkness has caused his light to shine within us, to give the us the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.'

'It is I, Jesus...I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.'

'O gladsome Light, O grace of God the Father's face...'

Goodness me, how that little candle can preach!

None of us holds all that consciously in our minds. We don't need to, for the flame and its light holds it all before us, and speaks of it to us if we but behold the flame and listen. 'The candle is unconscious of what it does. It has no soul. But we can give it a soul by making it an expression of our own attitude'[12]--our faith, our hope, our love. It works with all that we have heard and seen and felt and imagined through the years of faith, and re-presents all that to us in its still, pure shining. No wonder it makes our faces glow!

How many other such things open a door onto God's truth about himself and about our life in Christ...bread, wine, water, flowers, incense, the banners, the oil and hands that anoint, tunes, melodies and harmonies, the coloured shafts of light, these hallowed stones and sculpted wood....all things of our world, the work of human hands, by which through our bodies and our senses we dialogue with the divine, because we are...

Creatures of the borderland. Two worlds are ours.

Since it's Candlemas, let our lighted candles prompt these final words, a morning prayer from the worship of our eastern Christian brothers and sisters:

                  Grant, O Lord, that I may give thee choice gifts:
                  three lighted and dazzling torches: my spirit, my
                  soul, and my body. My spirit to the Father, my soul
                  to the Son, my body to the Holy Spirit. O Father,
                  sanctify my spirit! O Son, sanctify my soul! O Holy
                  Spirit, sanctify my body! [13]          



Preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

January 28th 2018


[1] E. Underhill, 'Worship', in Collected Papers, p. 75.

[2] Jesus, of course, visited the Temple often, according to the Gospel records, and it is referenced at least one hundred times in the New Testament.

[3] See Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers, p. 19.

[4] Like any and every human apprehension of reality!

[5] Worship, p. 37, in the chapter 'Ritual and Symbol'.

[6] Ibid., p. 38; italics mine. See p. 45: God '...calling us to intercourse consistent with our condition....'(p. 45).

[7] Ibid., p. 45.

[8] Cf. '...we are concerned with an action and an experience which transcends the logical levels of the mind, and demands an artistic rather than an intellectual form of expression' (ibid., p. 33).

[9] See John Macquarrie in Paths in Spirituality, pp. 84-5.

[10] Roy Strong takes issue with a strict view of the church building as a 'sacred space'. I sound a strong caveat against his advocacy of 'multiple use' with worship as seemingly incidental (A Little History of the English Country Church (2007) , p. 234. Likewise against the Church Times 'Comment' of 6 October 2017 (p. 18).

[11] See Romano Guardini's discussion in Sacred Signs, pp. 41-3.

[12] Guardini, ibid.

[13] A Maronite prayer quoted by Underhill, Worship, p. 78; text slightly altered.