Like most congregations, the church that I attend has our Sunday hymns projected onto the screen at the front of the building. This has been very helpful for several members who struggle with eyesight problems. But unlike some congregations, we’ve kept our hymnals in the pew as well. I always like to hold the hymnal in my hand and sing along that way—usually because the projected songs don’t have shape notes, which is the only way I can read music, but also so I can reflect on the words of the songs we’re singing.
On a Sunday morning a couple of weeks ago I took the hymnal from the back of the pew in front of me in preparation for the opening of our corporate worship. Like always, I opened the hymnal to the correct song number, but something made me flip to the front of the book. There I found a memorial plate to a member of our church who had gone to be with his Lord many years before. My mind was flooded with memories of the man as I read the words, “This hymnal is given to Holland Street Church of Christ in loving memory of…” He was a good man, a good husband and father and grandfather, and he had lost his battle with heart disease suddenly. My brother, our minister, the worship leader/youth and family minister, and I stood around his hospital bed and sang hymns over him from these very hymnbooks as he passed from this life. I read the plate again and tears filled my eyes.
I flipped through the hymnal, letting my gaze rest on several hymns, and ultimately the one that caught my eye was O Sacred Head. And then it struck me: what an amazing thing a hymnal is. Brothers and sisters in Christ have sung this hymn in some form or other since Bach. And the words are attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux! How many millions of other Christians joined me in singing that song that morning—sisters and brothers near and far in space and time.
Suddenly I became aware of the fact that this hymnal, the one in my hand, had been held by others from my own congregation who had also fallen asleep in the Lord. I gently felt the cover and moved my fingers across its pages as I stretched out my mind to remember—who had sat in the pew in which I was sitting? Who had taken this hymnal from the rack and opened it? With whom was I connected at that moment in grasping this book, this artifact of the church?
Human beings are captivated by artifacts. We find a connection to the past in them much deeper than mere memory. This is probably most clearly illustrated in grief. A scent of perfume carries us away for a moment, as we experience—not merely remember—the person with whom it is connected. Clothes which once lay upon our loved one and now hang in the closet become artifacts through which we can sense the one now absent in body. I have passed on Jennifer’s rings and a necklace to Madison, and while we watch old home movies I have seen how these artifacts provide her connection to her mother. We need artifacts—things of human creation and affection, things which connect us with the past.
As a friend and colleague recently pointed out to me, Christianity is a religion of “stuff.” It is the practice of water and bread and wine. I once heard a lecture by N.T. Wright in which he asked a question I’d not thought about before. Why, as his last teaching to his disciples, does Jesus offer a meal? His last teaching prior to his death is not a theological disquisition, an exploration of proper doctrine or even practice. No, the final teaching before the cross is the offering of something through which his disciples—and by extension the church—would remember him: bread and wine. Food. The stuff of daily life which may be broken and shared and eaten and drunk. Christianity doesn’t offer an escape from the world and its daily life. It invests the day-to-day things of life with deep and lasting meaning. It creates artifacts which may be preserved and passed down through the generations.
This coming Sunday you’ll join your brothers and sisters as you gather for corporate worship. Take a moment to remember that you’re not only joining those you can see (Heb 12). Pick up the artifact of faithful Christian life there in front of you as you sing and bring to mind those who have held it before and who now join you not in the pew (or seat) next to you, but in the throne room of God. Remember them and bring them near in mind and spirit. Commune with them as you worship, and thank God for hymnals and “stuff” you can hold in your hands.