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Hallo again to all.

Today while celebrating the ninetieth birthday of a relative—not an every day occurrence to be sure—we found ourselves in a conversation concerning architecture. Our discussion turned to how off-putting overly 'flat' architecture could be, especially in those buildings we culturally expect to have some depth—a cathedral's richly architected façade compared to the Disney version of a castle. This conversation called to mind the linguistic tendency in English for 'flat' to be a word with many negative connotations. A joke falls flat, for example, or someone's flat affect leaves us wondering if we caused some offence. We, at least in our language's tics, like things with depth and perspective.

Unrelated to the birthday party, we thought of the way our earliest Christian forebears used depth to convey their faith through, of all things, funerary sculpture. As Christianity became more socially acceptable, and burials moved out of the shadows of catacombs and adopted the tastes of the upper class, the sarcophagus—already 'trendy' among the elite in the Roman world—became popular among Christians. They put their own stamp on the conventional motifs, of course. Images of traditional Roman funereal respect—the inscription to the dis manibus (the 'ancestral shades') and scenes from Greek mythology—gave way to the chi-rho and the Good Shepherd. Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Lives of Saint Peter and Christ (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain)

What, we fear, is lost in how we experience these objects in the modern world is their physicality. A photo, however good it may be, does not give a sense of the presence and depth of an object. We have had the pleasure of seeing one particularly fine specimen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating from the early fourth century AD, it shows scenes from the lives of Saint Peter and Christ lengthwise, and then scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures on its ends that recall Adam and Eve, as well as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  A photo or text can describe its narrative threads, Peter's arrest in Rome or Christ's entry into Jerusalem, but they cannot replace the presence of the object itself. Large enough for the remains of its occupant, the relief sculptures make an impression in three dimensions. Some sculpture is carved in deeper relief, some cannot be seen standing from one side or the other. Perhaps the overall themes of the work do not change when reduced to photos in an art history text (or a website), but they do lose something from the physical object. When standing next to it, one cannot help but think of the person for whom it was intended—and perhaps hope to meet him or her in the great cloud of witnesses one day.

As we consider the risen Lord and Thomas' need to feel the physical wounds of the crucifixion to believe, we cannot help but think about how profoundly human that moment must have been. Thomas needed to feel depth. A mere image of the Lord was not quite enough.  Christ met that human need for him, and used it as a moment to speak to all of us.

The sculptures, facades, rood screens, fonts, and buildings in which we worship are a part of our faith, and they can keep it from being 'flat', as it were. We hope that, in a world where there is rightly an urgency felt for mission as a vital, active part of communities, this memory of the faith made tangible is not forgotten either. A building is not a sacrament, nor yet a sacramental, yet it is the culmination of many little acts of worship made tangible. As are, we might add, the works of art, worship, charity, and concern the members of the church engage in throughout the world.

Regardless, at least in this bit of virtual depth, see you again next week.

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21 May 2017

A thin blue line
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