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Hallo again to all.

Life recently has put us in mind, and presence, of boxes. Stacks of them, in fact. Actually, we write this while surrounded by stacks of boxes of varying sizes with varying purposes.

Boxes have become a cultural idiom in contemporary English—we are exhorted to 'think outside the box' and often express the decision to keep separate different concerns as 'compartmentalising'. Certainly we use metaphorical 'boxes' to separate ourselves from the Other, whether that separation be one of religion, race, gender, occupation, sexuality, or any category in which to enclose ourselves. Conversely, we keep many things in boxes to show how very much we esteem them. Jewelry in its own box; display cases for trophies and heirlooms. In the Christian tradition, a Medieval reliquary for the remains of a saint often takes the form of a box, which in turn mirrors the shape of a sarcophagus. A tabernacle—for all the grandeur of Christ's presence in the Eucharist and the lit candle that reminds us of what is kept inside—is in its Platonic sense still very much an example of the idealized concept of 'box'.

The practise of preserving the relics of martyrs and saints in beautifully adorned containers reflects the importance early Christians put on touching physical objects as reminders of spiritual reality. It also perhaps speaks to why we so commonly use boxes as metaphors. Part of what makes them excellent tools to express an abstract concept is their very ordinary concreteness. Even the wood of the True Cross, the heart of devotion for the Christian community in Jerusalem, was kept in a box to be taken out (carefully) for its veneration:

Thus the bishop's seat is placed for him in Golgotha before the [liturgical] Cross that now stands there. The bishop takes his seat; a table covered in linen cloth is put before him; deacons stand around the table and a small casket adorned in silver is brought out, in which is the holy wood of the cross. It is opened, brought forward, and the wood of the cross is put on the table along with its label.

When it has therefore been placed on the table, the bishop holds the edges of the holy wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons, who stand around it, keep watch. It is so watched because the custom is that the people, both the faithful and the catechumens, come one-by-one, bow at the table, kiss the holy wood and then pass through.†

Egeria continues to explain that the careful measures were necessary because some soul had, she had heard, once taken a bite out of the holy cross and carried away some of the wood.

Ultimately, as human beings, we know boxes. We know containers. And so, when we relate them to an abstract concept, it makes the abstract real. In a way, the expression of the sacraments as 'visible signs of invisible grace' (to quote Richard Hooker) is a means of putting them in a box we can understand, touch, feel and know.  The love of God, as an abstract concept, embodied in a physical 'box' as it were, tangible to human senses. We talk about the space surrounding a parish as a 'close', again remembering the boundaries between the secular and sacred world

The miracle of the incarnation was also the miracle of a box. God consented to box himself up as a human being (though remaining fully human and fully God in the way of divine mysteries, lest we manage to slip into some sort of heresy related to the Trinity, thus saddening the heart of St Athanasius).

What are some of your favourite or least favourite boxes, real or metaphorical? Drop us a line and let us know.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

19 June 2016

Itinerarium Egeriae 35.1-2.

A thin blue line
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