The Greek island of Mykonos is the home of opulent hedonism. If God made the elements (the island says) then it was so that we should enjoy them. And people do. On the other hand, if you join the passeggiata of beautiful people wandering through the town at 1a.m, you will notice an interesting thing: along with the bars and expensive shops there are many chapels open at the side of the streets, and people drop in to them and light candles.
Greece is, of course, Greek Orthodox. But on the way back from the beach one Sunday evening I passed a small building near the harbour. It was a Catholic church. Mass was in just over half an hour – too long a time to wait, too short a time to get back to the hotel and come out again. So I carried on walking.
On the other side of the harbour I changed my mind and came back.
The tiny church was packed and I was squeezed somewhere into the porch. The Mass was in a mixture of Greek and Italian. I can understand the liturgy in Italian but I can’t make the responses in it, and my Greek is pitiful, so I compromised by using Latin fairly quietly, adding to the overall volume of sound without confusing or irritating my neighbours.
(At the end of the Mass one of my neighbours congratulated me in Italian on choosing to make the responses in Latin. We switched to English, and he turned out to be a Bavarian with a suspiciously detailed knowledge of central London parishes. All very confusing to the geographical sense.)
As we shuffled down the already sardine-packed church to receive Communion and then shuffled back again to approximately our original places, I was reminded how insistent Christianity is about giving value and significance to matter.
The Pope, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speculated wistfully (I can’t at the moment track down the reference) about how much easier things would have been if Christianity had been a refined, spiritual religion on the Eastern model. Matter, though not evil in itself, would have been seen as an imperfection to be regretted and eventually transcended. We would have replaced all those undignified rituals – washing people’s feet, pushing through crowds to have a piece of bread stuck in our mouths – with more elevated symbolic representations. More elevated and less prone to embarrassing accidents, when one of the people whose feet are being washed can’t get his shoe back on or when the priest sprinkles the entire congregation with holy water and has to go through the rest of the Mass in sodden vestments.
But Christianity obstinately does not spiritualize. God made matter deliberately. It was not an accident or a mistake. God took on flesh and became embodied in matter. That was not a mistake either. When we are resurrected we will be resurrected not as disembodied spirits but as complete beings with real bodies. Bread, wine, salt, water, oil and ashes form indispensable parts of our spiritual lives.
And this is as it should be. It seems superficially attractive to “become more spiritual” as an antidote to the sins of the flesh – but only if you forget that the sins of the flesh are inherently self-limiting whereas the sins of the spirit are invisible and can grow without limit. Spiritualize still further and you end up with the dualistic world-view of the Manichees and the Cathars, who believed matter to be evil and the creation of an evil god and were led to perverse practices as a result.
So when a Mass that has being going at a reasonable pace grinds to a halt as too many people try to crowd into too small a space in order to receive Communion, don’t start wondering why we can’t have a single member of the congregation, up front, symbolically receiving the Host as a proxy for us all. Matter and its positioning in time and space is an essential part of the ritual, even when it is inconvenient, because matter is an essential part of our lives, even when it is inconvenient. It is not a mistake; it is not evil; it is not an illusion. It is good, and holy, and part of us; and it must always be respected, because God chose to make it.