St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield
What is tonight about? What are we doing here, anyway?
We’re going to wash some feet. That, in itself, is pretty ordinary. Feet get washed all the time. I washed my own this morning. You probably washed yours too. But most of us don’t usually have somebody else wash our feet, and feet don’t ordinarily get washed even in public, let alone in church. In our culture, feet are not among those body parts that we consider most private and intimate. But neither are they the most presentable, like our faces. They’re somewhere in between. So we’re doing a very ordinary thing in a very extraordinary context.
Then, after we’ve washed feet, we’re going to take some rather tasteless wafers made from ultra-refined wheat, and some after-dinner wine, and say some prayers over them and then reverently consume them in token quantities per person, and just as reverently save the leftovers to be used in tomorrow night’s liturgy. Again, how utterly ordinary this is—eating bread and drinking wine. It’s been part of the everyday fabric of human life since there’s been human life. Yet, how completely odd it seems in this context. The bread is nearly devoid of taste, which is a good thing, because we’re not really eating enough of it to make what would be considered a decent meal.
Then, before we go home, while the choir sings a rather depressing 3000-year old poem set to a subdued minor key, and while the congregation just sits and watches, the clergy and the members of the Altar Guild will solemnly remove just about everything from the sanctuary that isn’t bolted down, or too heavy to move conveniently. How ordinary that is. We all do little bits of straightening and tidying up in our living environments nearly every day. And, from time to time, we redecorate those living spaces, and move furniture around. But how odd it will seem in this context, to just be moving things around for ritual purposes, without any practical end in mind.
What is tonight about? What are we doing here, anyway?
Many of you have no doubt seen the hugely popular film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you haven’t seen the movie, maybe you’ve read the book. The linchpin of the plot, of course, involves a musty old armoire, a free-standing closet, sitting in an unused room in an English country estate house. In that context, it’s a very ordinary thing. But four visiting children discover that, if they make their way past the fur coats that are hanging there, under the right circumstances, they never run into the back of the closet or the wall of the room. The wardrobe is in fact a portal into another world, a place that isn’t found on any earthly maps, a place where a great deal is the same as what they’re used to, but a great deal is also different, very different.
If you’re familiar with the story, it will strike you as no great feat of literary analysis when I make four observations about the magic wardrobe that leads to the land of Narnia:
- Something unremarkably ordinary was the gateway to something absolutely extraordinary. In the early 1940s, there were free-standing closets in country estates all over England. There was nothing obviously unique about this wardrobe. But it was the gateway to an unmistakably extraordinary world, where animals and trees talk and witches cast spells.
- Those who went through that gateway from rural England into Narnia were transformed from being passive victims of world events to central actors in cosmic events. The reason the four children were at the country estate in the first place was to escape the blitz—the intensive bombing of London by the German air forces. Thousands of other children were doing the same thing, scattered in homes all over the English countryside. But when the kids got to Narnia, they were stars. They were key characters in an unfolding drama. Eventually, they were kings and queens.
- When anyone returned from Narnia, time in the “real world” resumed exactly at the instant they had left it; to the “real world,” it was as if they had never left. Lucy, the little girl who first discovered Narnia, wandered into the wardrobe during a game of Hide-and-Seek. When she tumbled out of it, after what seemed like hours to her, her first thought was to reassure her siblings that she was all right. But they weren’t concerned at all, because, to them, it was as if she’d never been gone.
- Those who returned from Narnia were forever changed by the experience. When Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy all came back to their “real” world together, after being in Narnia for years, and, in fact, growing into young adults there, they were English children once again. But they retained a memory of all that had transpired. They were, in fact, wiser for their experience.
What is tonight about? What are we doing here anyway?
We’re doing a series of odd things that all come under the category of “liturgical action”—washing feet, celebrating the Eucharist, and stripping the altar. My suggestion to you is that, as the magic wardrobe was for Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy, liturgical action is for us. The odd things we’re doing tonight serve as our “wardrobe”—our portal into not only another place, but another kind of place. Sacraments, like the Eucharist, and quasi-sacraments, like the washing of feet, and even mere symbolic actions, like the stripping of the altars, bear the same four characteristics, and lend themselves to the same four observations that we made about the magic wardrobe:
- Tonight, we are doing ordinary things that serve for us as the gateway to participation in something truly extraordinary—the Paschal Mystery. We are participating in God’s redemption of the cosmos, his re-weaving of the fabric of reality. The dying and rising of Christ is the hinge on which human history turns, and these sacramental and symbolic actions transport us to the place where it’s all happening.
- Instead of being passive victims of all that makes us anxious and fearful, what we do tonight enables us to become principal actors in the drama of redemption, God’s work of making all things new. The gifts that Aslan gives the four human visitors to Narnia—Peter’s sword, Susan’s bow and arrow, Lucy’s magic liquid—these gifts stand for the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we are given in baptism, gifts that enable us to fight a battle just as real and just as significant as that in the final scenes of the Narnia story.
- When we return, out the doors of the church, to the “real world,” the world will not believe where we’ve been! Those in the cars and trucks driving up and down Second Street during this service take little, if any, notice that there’s anything going on inside these venerable walls. When we join that traffic ourselves, it will be just as if we’d never left, and the world will try to seduce us into believing that it is the only reality there is.
- Those who have visited the Celestial Banquet through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, are never the same, but forever changed. Eventually Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy went to live in Narnia permanently, as it is our destiny to live permanently where we now only visit.
So…this is what tonight is about. This is what we are doing here. This is why we are doing these ordinary but odd things—because they are at the same time more extraordinary and more real than we can possibly imagine. Amen.