Christianity, real and raw, is a hard sell to the modern man. The unfortunate truth is that the common modern man who assents to Christianity has either explained away the Biblical miracles and supernatural occurrences as a metaphorical or symbolic truth, or has been numbed to the powerful and incredible faith it takes to hold to the whole of Christian doctrine. To this man Christianity seems sensible, and he abuses the fruits of apologetics to believe the world is scientific, pragmatic, and secular.
This world is not secular – for it shouts of the glory of God and His marvelous and merciful will. It declares His nature and in its falleness reminds us of Christ’s sufferings. The world is upheld by His hand and will be revealed as itself, and as our blessing through Christ’s redemptive work and the mission of man as priest.
Plato – the lover of ideas and decrier of bodily loves – knows this more than modern man. “The world” is participating images that remind us of that deeper truth within: that there is something first, something before. It is the before that we know and love, some beckoning home, calling us throughout the world unto itself – the thing itself. These are the images of the world. And to the modern man the images became shapes, then fading colors, then perceptible molecules and atoms playing by “laws” of nature – and the shadowlands became a snowstorm of static and all was weary and one.
And I was anointed by oil. It was not, strictly speaking, the oil of gladness. This was reserved for those dear other next to me about to die in the form of baptism. It was the oil of my Christmation, and I, scared and with little faith, embraced what would seem to many a silly and unnecessary ritual. Anointed with the Holy Chrism all over my face, neck, hands and feet; I heard the priest repeat “The sign and seal of the Holy Spirit” and the people behind me echoed “SEAL!” This moment was pivotal in my life – and, though not in the moment itself, but closely surrounding the moment I heard a response other than the voice thundering the validity of an ancient and powerful Act. This voice was the voice of my friends, family, and my own doubt. It was the voice of the modern man and it told me that I was silly. Silly, not so much dangerously wrong or misguided as just silly. The voice told me that my concern for such ritual has revealed itself as petty, childish, foolish, and wrong. “Don’t you feel silly,” it said, “going around believing in Holy Chrism. You think you need it applied to your skin in some long and overly hyped ritual. I don’t even need to argue with you, your faith has revealed itself for what it is and it is simply and obviously silly.”
Do I think we are conjuring up the Holy Spirit? Do I think that we are limiting a member of the Trinity to our pseudo- pagan practices and faulty human institution? Should we be disappointed that heaven did not open up and visibly pour out the Chrism upon us?
Heaven forbid that we lack such faith. Heaven forbid that we demean the precious materials that God has given us to sanctify and doubt its good. This is not science, this is salvation. It is a cosmic act that necessarily occurs in the real cosmos, and to doubt it as such is to deny the reality of Christ and His good creation that is founded on Him. I was exorcised and I spat upon the devil. I was breathed upon and received the Holy Spirit. And as I knelt down and Fr. Michael put his stole over me and prayed the prayer of absolution I who was dead to sin was made alive in Christ – and my sins were nailed to the cross. This may look like magic to you, but it’s Christianity.
I understand it looks strange and perhaps even “phony” to perform the rites of the Church, it’s a normal response for modern man. But if you look askew at my death and life underneath the stole you must also look askew at Christianity and the Bible. If you look at the food of St. John of the Well and the lion of St. Zosimos then also look at the manna from heaven and the lions of Daniel. If you doubt the clairvoyance of St. Seraphim, the healings of St. John Maximovitch, and the vision of the Blessed Palamite then you should also doubt the dream-interpretations of Joseph, the works of the Apostles, and the vision of Christ’s beloved John. If you doubt that you doubt the Bible, the reality of the supernatural, and the redemption of the natural.
The rites of the Church affirm the pervasiveness of our salvation and the nature of our Savior. Individually they are powerful and important moments in our life, and collectively they manifest our faith and obedience. For the unchurched pagan my thoughts have very few points of contact, and the argument has little traction. But for Bible believing Christian the rites should convict them of the extent that one, and not the world, is secular.
Jesus instituted this Church and these Holy Acts, as seen in the Bible. It is not subtle that Jesus, the “pure and spotless Lamb” came to the Jewish culture to die for our sins. It should not be incredible to count Him as the proto-type of the animals slaughtered for our sins. “For there is not forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood.” Before Jesus our sins had been cleansed through actual animal sacrifice and now it is through a more spotless victim. Our participation in the shedding of the vicar’s blood has always been mysterious, and it has always be realized through liturgia (work). This is not new, and it isn’t pagan. It is our inheritance.