January 22, 2021
Becoming Convivial Christians
Little is more fanciful than a medieval bestiary. It’s illustrated with bright, colourful illuminations of animals with detailed descriptions in fine gothic script. Each entry exhibits a rich imagination that draws theological and moral lessons from the animal described. For example, in the Aberdeen bestiary, one finds the following:
The lion is the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none … If it happens that the lion is pursued by hunters, it picks up their scent and obliterates the traces behind it with its tail … Thus our Saviour, a spiritual lion, of the tribe of Judah, the root of Jesse, the son of David, concealed the traces of his love in heaven until, sent by his father, he descended into the womb of the Virgin Mary and redeemed mankind, which was lost … [W]hen a lioness gives birth to her cubs, she produces them dead and watches over them for three days, until their father comes on the third day and breathes into their faces and restores them to life … Thus, the Almighty Father awakened our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; as Jacob says: “He will fall asleep as a lion, and as a lion’s whelp he will be revived.”
Isn’t that lovely? The author tries not only to understand lions in and of themselves but also relate that knowledge to his Saviour. Although we may now think his conclusion fatuous (if charming), we shouldn’t be blind to what it reveals. There’s nothing here of the division between science and religion that we’re so familiar with today. Creatures exist in their world as much as they do in ours, but because they are part of a divinely ordered creation, each of them also relates to its Creator morally, even sacramentally, in its own right. Thus, the lion isn’t just an animal, it’s also a bearer of divine truths.
In fact, the Aberdeen bestiary sees the lion connected to Christ as much as any human being is. While there’s no sense here of the lion being saved from its sins, its meaning as a lion has been sanctified by Christ’s coming, which has transformed lions into living icons of Christ’s Incarnation, Resurrection, and our redemption.
Similarly, in the ancient Ascension Day hymn, “Hail thee festival day”, nature itself shares in Christ’s triumph over the “devil’s dominion” and proclaims that victory through its own beauty:
Christ in his triumph ascends,
who had vanquished the devil’s dominion;
bright is the woodland with leaves,
brilliant the meadows with flowers.
Daily the loveliness grows,
adorned with glory of blossom;
heaven its gates now unbars,
flinging its increase of light.
Here, beauty isn’t simply an aesthetic value; it’s also a response to Christ’s cosmic crowning. As with the bestiary’s lion, the beauty of the world has been sanctified and now has the capacity to raise faithful hearts and minds with Christ to heaven.
Even something as horrific as the cross wasn’t beyond redemption. An ancient hymn often sung on Good Friday declares:
Faithful cross, above all other:
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight is hung on thee.
Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
for a while the ancient rigor
that thy birth bestowed, suspend;
and the King of heavenly beauty
gently on thine arms extend.
This isn’t the dead, cruel cross of modern-day sermons but an active personality imbued with nobility, beauty, and even motherly tenderness. One is put in mind here of the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood” in which the tree retains its natural nobility even after it’s turned into gallows. It may have been “hewn down” and “dragged off by strong enemies” to be violently used as a “hoist for wrongdoers,” yet it refuses to be anything less than the unshakable throne of “mankind’s brave king.”
Images such as these abound in medieval literature. While we may think them scientifically ridiculous, we should also appreciate them as products of rich imaginations taught to see the world as creation: the theatre of God’s glory and an integral part of Christ’s commonwealth. Every creature plays its part within their sacramental world, relating to each other (as in our own “circle of life”) but also to God’s saving acts; in turn, this allows each creature through its very own nature to be a revelation, an icon, of Christ. Medieval scholars so believed in the reality of Christ’s redemption that they found signs of it everywhere. They even portrayed creatures through their beauty and dignity sitting in judgement on our own failure to be images of God. They push us to open our eyes to the dignity of all creatures, contemplate God at work in them, and so learn wisdom.
Since the dawn of modernity, we’ve lost much of our capacity to imagine our world this way. Creation has become Nature, a morally-neutral space subject to limitless exploitation and tinkering. In this new world, we’ve gained tremendous insights into the observable nature of things, but we’ve also robbed creatures of their own spiritual dignity apart from us. No longer able to relate to their Creator, each creature has simply become an object, even a commodity, to be admired, studied, experimented on, exploited, eradicated, or conserved. Creatures can no longer relate through their own nature to God (never mind to Christ) or to contain within that nature fundamental lessons about God from which we can draw wisdom. They’ve become objects of examination rather than contemplation; their meaning reduced to use and function instead of reverence. As we’ve striven to banish God from his creation, we’ve also abandoned creatures to the whim of science and industry whose authority in that realm now reigns supreme. Instead of a temple of God’s grandeur, creation has become a factory, a laboratory, or simply a backdrop to human self-promotion.
Although we Christians may think of the world in some nominal way as creation, we’ve long lived within that creation as tyrants and consumers rather than as servants, students, contemplatives, and fellow creatures. Consequently, we find it hard to recognize the traces of God within creation or to appreciate the way that all creatures share in and potentially reveal his divine purposes. God no longer strolls in our world in the “cool of the evening” as he did in Eden.
The transformation of the imagination that separates us from the Aberdeen bestiary exemplifies Wendell Berry’s oft-quoted line, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Inasmuch as our world has been disenchanted, it has also been profaned. Insofar as we continue to think of this world as our own to use as we please, we continue to desecrate it. To the extent that we profane and desecrate creation, we fail to be Christians.
Much of this has happened because we accepted a lie evoked by empire, unrestricted industrialization, cheap labour and the promise of technology. That lie is a false and destructive gospel that pays lip service to God while treating humanity as possessors of potential divinity. Over the past couple of centuries our increasingly frantic struggle to overcome our mortality has led to the impoverishment of all other life. Only now, we’re discovering that the Anthropocene is a high price to pay for human transcendence.
But like the father in the Parable of Prodigal Son, God longs for us to come home and rejoin the glad company he enjoys with creation. I think the climate crisis, the pandemic, and social polarization are compelling us to rethink how we’ve fashioned our world. They’re pushing us to truly live well within God’s creation. The word, I think best captures this new way of life is one used by the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry: conviviality.
Our word conviviality derives from the Latin word convivium, which refers to the kind of spirit present at a good banquet. Literally, it means “to live together” and implies generosity, gratitude, community, and health. Berry uses conviviality specifically to describe a way of life that heals or improves the land on which we live rather than diminishes it.
Theologically, I think conviviality allows us to discern how we should imagine the world in which we live. If our way of life connects us with the God we worship, the creation we inhabit, and the people to whom we belong, then we can confidentially say the Kingdom of God is nearby. If it encourages us to live well with God, creation, and each other, then we can be assured it draws its sap from the Gospel.
So, what might this convivial Christianity look like? I’ll begin with the first two strands—living well with God and creation—and then describe how this might shape how we live better with each other.
One of the things about our faith that’s often overlooked is its earthiness. Christianity may turn hearts and minds towards heaven, but its feet are planted firmly on the earth. Our rituals may communicate a sense of the divine, but they do so through the ordinary materials of the earth: bread, wine, water, gold and silver, wood, beeswax, textiles, fire, incense, flowers, and greenery. These remind us that we approach God in the company of creation rather than by escaping from it.
The sacraments express this conjoining of heaven and earth most clearly. If you want to be part of God’s family you must first be bathed in water; if you want to be united with Christ you must swallow bread and wine; if you want to be filled with sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit, you must have oil smeared on your forehead. The sacraments teach us that we dare not approach heaven by leaving behind creation. They make us rely on the simplest objects of creation: water, grapes, grain, and oil. Alongside the wood of the cross, these are four earthly elements of our salvation. Without them we’re lost.
Sacraments also insist that we trust creation. Our faith demands that we trust water, grapes, grain, and oil to convey us to heaven. Stop for a moment and think how ridiculous that idea is. Even the high and mighty must confess that their salvation rests on a splash of water, a thin wafer of bread, and a sip of wine. God seems to be saying here that to be saved we must set aside our ego and trust the earth to take us to him. That’s simply astonishing when you consider it.
Like the lion in the Aberdeen bestiary or the tree in the “Dream of the Rood”, the sacraments demonstrate that even the simplest objects have the potential to be God-bearers, drenched with his divinity, and sharing in God’s overflowing generosity. The sacraments encourage us to see that heaven enthroned on earth is the basis for any Christian understanding of reality. “God’s home is among mortals” declares Rev. 21. If that’s true, then we must treat all of creation as deemed worthy by God for his enthronement. That’s essentially what the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant when he declared the world to be “charged with the grandeur of God.”
As Augustine of Hippo argued, creation is covered with the “footprints” of God that can lead us to him, if only we have the faith to perceive them. Paul declares at the start of Romans that God lurks everywhere around us and the Psalms remind us that even the hills can dance for joy and all living creatures praise their Creator. That Eden was adorned like the Holy of Holies in the Solomon’s Temple and the heavenly Jerusalem will descend to earth compels us to recognize that all of creation bears a divinely-given holiness. In this sense, the Blessed Virgin Mary is symbolic of creation’s vocation to receive into itself the one who infinitely transcends its capacity to do so.
Behind all this lies Scripture’s first moral statement: “And God saw that it was good.” This is among Christianity’s most revolutionary claims. “Educated” people in the ancient world considered the natural world either evil or a distraction from the superior world of intellect. For many Greeks and Romans, the idea that God freely and generously created both heaven and earth out of nothing, and that this meant everything is inherently good, was both an intellectual stumbling block and utterly foolish (1 Cor. 1:23).
So, at the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that redemption involves creation—the two are inextricably linked together. This also means that creation can never be secondary, as though it were only a backdrop for our redemption. That’s one of the reasons why the Bible begins with Eden, the Holy of Holies of creation, where Adam and Eve are given the job of tending to God’s creatures. Indeed, the reference to their “cultivating and keeping” the garden is the same phrase that’s used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe priests “tending and guarding” the Temple. Essentially, Genesis teaches that creation “tends and cares” for itself through us: that part of itself that’s soil enlivened by the breath of God and formed in his image. We’re all simply soil turned into priestly stewards in order to share in God’s generous love for his creation.
Reflect on that idea for a moment. So much of Christianity for the last two hundred years has been presented as a private affair that’s mainly about doing what’s necessary to escape this world and get through the pearly gates. But the Bible teaches that salvation involves our living together as communities in ways that glorify God and enable creation to flourish. Conviviality and redemption are inextricably interconnected: the very fact that we strive to live well with God, creation, and each other demonstrates that we’re being saved—that we’re the ripening fruits of Christ’s redemption.
In one of his most brilliant essays, Rowan Williams explains it this way:
Humanity, in the Genesis story, names the animals; the calling of the human person is to name the world aright, that is, to acknowledge it as God’s gift and to work so as to bring to light its character as reflecting God’s character, to manifest its true essence. Thus it is common to describe the vocation of human beings in this context as “liturgical”: human beings orchestrate the reflection of God’s glory in the world by clothing material things with sacred meaning and presenting the world before God in prayer. Worship is not only a matter of words, but is a foretaste of the God-related destiny of the world, that longed-for state of creation in which everything can be clearly seen as bearing God’s glory and love. And one signal and important aspect of sin is the refusal of human beings to undertake this calling, to refuse to act in a “priestly” way towards the environment – to refuse to bless and give thanks, to refuse the right use of material things.
“Clothing material things with sacred meaning and presenting the world before God in prayer” are our shared calling: to bless and give thanks for creation, to function as the mouthpiece of all God’s creatures by raising their praises to the Father from whom all good things flow. This is being what the great poet-priest George Herbert memorably called “secretaries of God’s praise”:
Of all the creatures both in sea and land
Only to Man thou hast made known thy ways,
And put the pen alone into his hand,
And made him Secretary of thy praise.
Beasts fain would sing; birds ditty to their notes;
Trees would be tuning on their native lute
To thy renown: but all their hands and throats
Are brought to Man, while they are lame and mute.
Man is the world’s high Priest: he doth present
The sacrifice for all; while they below
Unto the service mutter an assent,
Such as springs use that fall, and winds that blow.
This is what it means to live well with God and creation.
I come now to the hard part, if I’m to believe half the reports coming out of America during the past few years. How do we live well with each other? Let me begin with one of my favourite prayers:
Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in…
What a theologically rich post-communion prayer this is! One scholar described it as the “most remarkable summary of doctrine found in all the formularies of the Prayer Book.”
It begins by thanking God for giving us Christ’s Body and Blood as guarantees of divine favour. The proof of his goodwill is that we’ve been incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful believers. In other words, we know God favours us by the fact that we’re part of his Body, the Church, and the pledge of his favour is the Eucharist.
I love the line blessed company of all faithful believers. In Cranmer’s day, company still retained its original sense of intimacy. It comes from the Latin for those who share bread together, com-panis, and denoted a gathering of intimate friends. It’s equivalent to the Greek word we translate in the New Testament as “at table”, such as when Jesus was “at table” with tax collectors and sinners. So, here we declare ourselves to be a joyful fellowship united by the breaking of bread.
This should remind us that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ not just to benefit our individual souls but also to share in the communion of all faithful believers. Its stress is on the Body and the benefits we gain by the fellowship we enjoy through our communion with Christ. The prayer draws us away from ourselves and into the Body of Christ, in which we have become “heirs through hope of God’s everlasting kingdom.”
But Cranmer doesn’t stop there. He next entreats God to assist us with his grace so that by continuing in this holy fellowship we can do all the good that he’s preparing for us to walk in. Only after this prayer are we ready to be sent out into the world to perform those good works. The prayer grounds our ministry in good theology by declaring that anything good we achieve is due to God’s grace (rather than our own ingenuity) and in holy fellowship with each other.
A blessed company of God’s faithful people. A holy fellowship. That’s what we’re called to be. One of the beauties of the old prayer book is how it constantly drives worshippers away from individualism and towards fellowship and communion. The prayer of thanksgiving is wonderfully counter-cultural. In it, we declare that we can achieve nothing that’s any good without God’s grace and without each other. Essentially, by living well with us, God enables us to live well with each other. Only then can we be the good stewards he created and redeemed us to be.
The prayer evokes Acts chapter 2:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through
the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common…And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people.
What is this but the essence of living convivially?
Having told you about one of my favourite prayers, I’ll now confess to an example of “church-speak” I despise: collaboration. Anywhere else but the Church being a collaborator isn’t virtuous. In fact, it was popularized during World War 2 to describe the French who cooperated with Nazi occupiers. I often wonder if we think these words through before we adopt them.
We’re not, in fact, called to collaborate. Well, okay, we are, but not in a straightforward way. We are called to “love one another as Christ loved us”, to “love our neighbours as ourselves”, and “to serve Christ” by pursuing “what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” When we do this, we are united with each other in Christ by the Holy Spirit who then makes us (1 Cor 3.9) God’s fellow workers.
In other words, the New Testament image isn’t of a bunch of individuals working together in holy partnership. Its image is far deeper: we are literally one—the Body of Christ—enlivened by the Holy Spirit to manifest Christ Jesus by word and deed to the world. Individually, we minister by God labouring through us as “members incorporated in the Body of Christ.” This is why Paul’s favourite metaphor for the Church is a body.
What does this mean? Take a look at each other. Turn around a take a good look at those sitting around you. What do you see? It shouldn’t primarily be another Christian whom you may or may not like, a priest or layperson whose ministry you may or may not respect. That’s the sinner in you looking. What you should see is yourself; what you should really see is Christ. That’s what it means to have been united with him, and in him with each other. Galatians 3: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Our ministries are entirely one even if we may be separated geographically and temperamentally – to pretend otherwise is to fall flat on our face before we’ve even left the starting gate!
In John’s Gospel, just before his arrest, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer that ends with the appeal that we may be one just as he and the Father are one. Like Cranmer’s Prayer of Thanksgiving, this prayer for unity and communion comes after the Lord’s Supper. It’s a commissioning prayer in which Jesus sanctifies his followers so that through them “the world may believe” that the Father has sent Christ to the world. The prayer is a reminder that all that we are and all that we do begins with God’s love building us up in fellowship with each other.
If we can’t live with each other, if we can’t live for each other, if we can’t together live in Christ, then we can’t even begin to be who we’re called to be within creation. Separated from the experience of God’s love and each other’s love, our only experience of ministry will be frustration. A channel blocked from its source provides no water. A branch cut off from the vine bears no fruit. A ministry conducted alone withers.
Building up our local ministries through meaningful fellowship is therefore essential. Southerners like to say that “a family that prays together stays together”. Well, a church that worships together, learns together, rejoices together, mourns together, labours together, is a church that stands every chance of doing the “good works that God has prepared for us to walk in”. A church that works as one to “cloth material things with sacred meaning and present the world before God in prayer” is one in which God’s grace abounds. And the proof of that abounding grace is that we are, in fact, living well with God, creation, and each other.
A blessed company of faithful believers: that’s what we’re called to be in our churches and in our dioceses. That’s the basis for everything that we are and everything we do. Only by being one in Christ – not just theologically but in the reality of our lives and ministries too – can we be “secretaries of God’s praise.” The unity we share and exhibit with each other expresses the unity God enjoys with his creation. Being at one with God enables us to be at one with his creation and with each other. And the passionate, joyful, uncompromising love for such unity is what it means to be convivial Christians: men and women who seek always to live well with God, his glorious creation, and with each other.
In this age, and at this time, my friends, that is our highest calling.
+Rev. Mark Clavier