I recently had the occasion to be inside the sanctuary of another church. There were chairs in rows. There was a dais or platform with microphones, sound equipment, and a plexiglass lectern. I looked for a cross. No cross. I looked for an altar or communion table. Nothing like that either. To me, it just did not feel like a church.
The experience surprised me. I don’t consider myself “high church” by any means. I get just as lost in a Catholic or Episcopal service as someone who has never been to church. I have never been a fan of pomp and circumstance. So I have never thought of myself as attached to the symbols one often finds in a church sanctuary.
As for the cross, yes, I believe that Jesus was crucified on a cross, but I don’t believe that it was God’s plan so that we can go to heaven, or that this was the price God extracted to pay for our sins. These ideas are often associated with the cross, so I don’t think I was unsettled that there was no cross in the sanctuary of the church I visited.
After some thought, I concluded that what bothered me the most, was the absence of an altar or communion table. To me, the table represents community and sacrifice. We come together at the table, a table set before us in the presence of our enemies as well as our beloved friends. The table symbolizes the human family, all of whom need to eat and all of whom are provided with physical as well as spiritual food as part of the divine plan of creation. The sense of giftedness and oneness that the table represents is a core aspect of a church for me.
In addition, historically the altar is the place where people made sacrifices and brought their offerings. Today in church we put the offering plates on the altar as a sign of our making an offering, a sacrifice, to the God of love. This idea of sacrifice is not something bloody and morbid to me. It is a sign of our willingness to personally give something up for the greater good. It shows our commitment to something bigger than ourselves. To me, this is also a core aspect of church.
In this Advent season, we are thinking about Wonder-Full peace. We all want peace on Earth. We want peace in our homes and neighborhoods. We want peace in our schools and society. We want peace between nations and peoples. But, like everything else that is important and desired, peace has a price. Peace involves sacrifice. We have to be willing to give something up for the greater good. You can’t be selfish and spoiled and have your way about everything and still have peace with everyone. Maybe what we have to give up is an attitude, or a behavior, or certain language, or power, or control, or, yes, even some money or wealth. But to experience wonder-full peace, something has to be given up.
Jesus was always showing people how to give things up: their harmful ways and ideas, their assumptions and habits, their judgments and prejudices, their privilege and control, as well as their possessions and wealth. He shows people how to give things up so that they can have peace. When our sacrifice is truly for the greater good, there is deep joy in our self giving.
The altar and the cross are reminders of these truths of the way of Jesus.
Consider a time when you made a sacrifice for a greater good. Remember the joy of that experience.
Prayer: The divine intention for the cosmos is peace. May we see our generosity and self giving as but a small offering for the riches of wonder-full peace. Like Jesus, may we love peace so much that no sacrifice is too great. Amen.