Monday, March 30, 2009

A meditation on the Shrine of the Holy Breath

In October of 2008, I traveled with several other clergy to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage. My roommate was the Rev. Tom Plumbley. Tom meditates upon an experience he and I shared. I now share his meditation with you.

Jer. 31.31-34 3/29/09

A meditation on the Shrine of the Holy Breath.

It was surely an epiphany. My friend and roommate Charles Hawkins, a Duke-educated Episcopal priest from Louisville, Kentucky, was going with me to explore the Old City of Jerusalem. Searching for a shortcut out of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center where we were staying, Hawkins and I headed down a little-used stairwell. Little did we know what God had in store for us that afternoon. Near the bottom of the stairwell, next to a Jesus mural painted on the wall, on an appropriately “elaborate” plain white plastic pedestal, we saw a Plexiglas case, about 12-14 inches tall, the kind in which you might expect to see a small statue in a museum, or an elegant bracelet in a jewelry store, or a handful of stolen watches at the pawn shop. But we were in Jerusalem, the Holy City, and in Jerusalem you never know what holy thing you might see. In Jerusalem you can see two places where Jesus died; two different places where he was buried and from which he rose; a half dozen places where he may have wept; two dozen places where he may have slept—though, according to the Synoptic Gospels, he only spent maybe 4 or 5 nights there – ever. And that was after a week in Galilee where we had viewed place after place where this or that was supposed to have taken place in Jesus’s life—there, or maybe just down the road from there—you can’t be sure. Yet at each of these some entrepreneurial sorts have put up a sign and an offering box to assist pilgrims in their spiritual quest for nearness to the holy. And near the offering box there’s usually a rock encased in Plexiglas, with a hole in the Plexiglas so you can reach in and touch the rock—the rock on which whatever was supposed to have happened there is supposed to have happened.
It was after days of seeing such “holy” things, that Charles and I happened upon this Plexiglas display box – which, to the casual observer may have seemed merely to have been stored away in an unused stairwell, not containing really anything. But Hawkins and I were not casual observers. We are educated, priestly types, keenly attuned to special revelations from God. And God revealed to us, right there and at that moment, the true contents of that box.
It was, a voice from the stairwell whispered, The Last Breath of Our Lord! Charles thought the voice was mine. I thought the voice was his. So it must surely, then, have been the voice of God—Don’t you see? So right there and then, Fr. Charles Hawkins and I established the Shrine of the Holy Breath. We put up a sign to that effect, and an offering box to assist pilgrims in their spiritual quest for nearness to the holy. Pilgrims are asked to send $7 (American) either to his church or mine. (He must be getting all the offerings. I knew I shouldn’t have let him put his address at the top.)

Now, for those of you who are not absolutely convinced that the air inside the Shrine of the Holy Breath just may not actually be the air Jesus exhaled as he died on the cross, perhaps you’re just not sufficiently advanced in your spiritual walk. For you, Fr. Hawkins and I will be happy to send you a facsimile of an authentic first-century Kleenex in which you may blow your skeptical nose. It’s absolutely free, for only $19.95 postage and handling.

I could go on and on with this.
But my point is something that any visitor to the Holy Land knows, or should know. The Christian faith is a historical faith. It is based in and arises from real events in real places, in real time. Going to those real places, if we can pinpoint them, may (or may not) help us get in touch with the reality, but the places are not the reality.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (we’ve mentioned it before) is a good example. The actual sites of the Crucifixion and Resurrection were destroyed and covered over with trash and abandoned after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. They remained that way for over three centuries. Only with Constantine did someone go back and try to find them. They were simply not allowed to do so in the interim.
So, how accurate are the sites? The accuracy varies with the site. But the reality of the faith grew anyway. For the faith is something in the hearts and minds of real men and women. God has put the new covenant within us. It has been written on our hearts. Why hasn’t God preserved those sites? Well, why should God want to? Why isn’t the evidence for our faith more plain? Why does it take faith? Why bread only daily?
One day when the ancient rabbi Ben Jochai was teaching about the way God provided manna in the wilderness, a student asked him why God did not furnish enough manna for the entire trip or for an entire year all at once. The rabbi answered with a parable. He said, once there was a rich man who had a son to whom he promised an annual allowance. Every year on the same day his son would come, and the man gave the son the entire amount. It wasn’t many years before the man realized he only saw his son once a year. So the father changed the plan and only gave the son enough for one day. The next day the son had to return to receive the next day’s allowance. From then on, the father saw the son every day. As hard as it may be to grasp, God apparently loves us so much that God wants to see us … every day!
Consider the way you and I live. We live with unease almost constantly. If it’s not economic uncertainty it’s the threat of terrorism. If it’s not somebody doing something squirrely in Washington it’s somebody doing something nonsensical in Austin. If it’s not the kids making us crazy it’s our parents. If it’s not our knees giving us pain it’s our teeth. If it’s not a job security issue it’s somebody new seeking nuclear capability. Rotting in a Nazi prison, awaiting the hangman’s noose, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us resist in all the time of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone.” [Letters & Papers from Prison]
We cannot sustain our physical bodies on past meals or on promises of future ones. Likewise, we cannot sustain our inner life on past blessings or on promises of future ones.
C.S. Lewis preached at Oxford in 1939 days after Germany invaded Poland. To young people faced with war any day he said,
A more Christian attitude…is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. Never, in peace of war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by [one] who takes … long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.”It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.
This is all because – in the new covenant – God has put the law within us, written it on our hearts. We are not granted a lifetime of security, only day-by-day provision. We are not offered a book with all the answers, only a witness from people just like us. We are not assured by newsreels of the actual events from which our faith has grown, only stories spoken over the centuries or written in different ways by folks very different than we.
For we serve a living God that is never captured in stone or wood, never remembered in any relic, and never encased in Plexiglas or between the covers of any book. We serve a living God whose word is alive in our hearts and who is lived in glimpses and glances by real human beings, alive, not by ancestors from long ago. We live it, or it is not. Simple as that!

1 comment:

William said...

I have received an email from a potential visitor to the shrine. She refers to Tom Pumbley and myself as "Pontifical Proprieters" or PP for short. Which, as Tom points out to me, makes him TP the PP.

Also, the latest on the simmering controversy over the shrine--Is it Holy Breath or Last Breath? Let the slug festival begin.