Relics of a Dying Age

Have you ever kissed a statue? I have. As a boy, I attended St. Andrews Catholic Church in Abilene, Kansas. I also attended its school from the third to the eighth grades. A part of the school’s routine was to attend Mass. The interior of St. Andrews church building was quite elaborate. High on the north and south walls were the Stations of the Cross, a devotional where one would stop at each image (I forget the number, maybe twelve) to offer prayers and meditate. The windows were stained glass, very beautiful, with each mosaic-like segment encased in lead. Toward the front were devotional candles, some gently fluttering flame, while others awaited a monetary offering and a match. And up above, on the wall of the sanctuary, a large candle continually burned, always replaced when burned to the final pool of wax. The latent scent of incense and burning candles gave the interior an olfactory patina that seemed heady with solemn service to God. And of course, in the center of the sanctuary stood an elaborately fashioned main altar with the repository for communion wafers, called the tabernacle. There were two minor altars at the front of the sanctuary, one on the right and one on the left. In front of the right altar, to its right, was a life-sized statue of the crucified Christ. At a certain time of the year, we children would file in line and kiss the nailed feet.

I do not write this to ridicule. I am forever grateful for the loving upbringing of my mother who raised me in the Catholic faith. I also am aware of many decent people, honorable and honest good neighbors, who are a part of this religion. I write this in the hope that some who read might walk away from this scene and never look back, just as I have walked away with the hope never to look back. Also, I write with anticipation for those who are not involved with, or who marginally entertain religious imagery and sensory stimulation, that they will beware and not go that way.

The world of sensory stimulation is exciting. It lifts us out of the austere and drab. It makes us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Isn’t this why we like movies? For a time, we take a trip into something bigger, thought provoking, and immediate. It is like being immersed, for a little while, into another life. I think this is the allure of religious imagery and sensory stimulus. It sort of dresses up our sense of spirituality. It seems an enhancement to ourselves. Like going to the movies, it provides an escape from ordinary perception. But the world of sensory stimulation is just smoke and mirrors. Just as celluloid degrades and technology crashes, so cathedrals burn, tattoos of Jesus get smeared and bruisey with age, stained glass gets broken, candles burn out, and incense gives way to decay. We might groom ourselves with deodorant, scented lotion, and other toiletries, but isn’t it a bit strange to try and apply similar earthly embellishments to our spirit?

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

Our bodies are earthen vessels, a part of the external world. They are set in contrast to the good of God in Jesus Christ. For example, an elderly sister in Christ was facing death, yet through her cheerful spirit she magnified Christ. The earthen vessel was dying, but her spirit gave courage to the living. It was unvarnished, real. There was no need for any enhancements because Christ was living in her.

The very sacrifice of Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow him.

“Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach”(Hebrews13:12-13).

Jesus was crucified without phylacteries on his head and forearm, he had no fringed garment. His service to the heavenly Father was without religious regalia. Isn’t it ironic, that man has made the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion into a religious decoration? An item of devotion has replaced the new and living way. We are called to follow Jesus “without the camp.” It means we can’t take with us a Temple made with hands, an Aaronic priesthood with ornate vestments, altars, incense, lamps, and the like. Likewise, we can’t include contributions from the religious cultures of the Gentiles; statuary, ceremonies, the mayhem of recycled paganism. We have no great religious display other than the meekness of service in vessels of clay. We have no Christian nation other than the church – those called out from the world who are recessed among every nation of mankind. And there is no banner other than the figurative idea of glorifying “Christ and Him crucified.”

Having been a catholic, I can say Catholicism has taken religious sensuality to the hilt. But Protestants do follow after in their meager ways; plain crosses instead of figured ones, portraits of Jesus with devotional radiance, logos and emblems, religious décor, flags, ceremonies, etc. Even those of us who are trying to worship in spirit and truth sometimes feel the need of some religious sensibility in our accoutrements — cruciforms tastefully applied here and there. If such things gave glory to God, He would have given us inspired artisans to prepare the divine motif. Like Bezaleel and Aholiab who crafted the Ark of the Covenant and the tabernacle with all its furnishings, such artisans would have been appointed with a display of heavenly power.

So, is zeal for the Lord defined by iconoclastic behavior? Should our faith cause us to sniff at every religious device? How dry and austere. Our faith should cause us to develop behavior that is of Jesus. The application of ourselves in the way, truth, and life of Jesus should cause us to beware of religious display. Even more, it should cause us to examine ourselves that we might walk more closely to the Master, that we “may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.” It is a matter of focus, the spiritual world versus the world of the flesh.

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints (Revelation 19:7-8).