The Work of Our Hands – Br. Mark Brown
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Rogation Day II
This Thursday is Ascension Day: forty days after Easter, always on a Thursday. On Ascension Day the Church remembers the culmination of Christ’s resurrection appearances and ponders the mystery of his ascending into heaven. The mystery of Christ being all and in all, sustaining all things by his mighty word, filling all things with his own fullness, grace upon grace.
But today is a Rogation Day. The three days before Ascension started out as a kind of mini-Lent with fasting and praying and processions. Prayers were offered especially for good weather and bountiful crops. Over the centuries things have evolved a bit. In our 1979 Book of Common Prayer the three Rogation Days are devoted to prayers for fruitful seasons on Monday, for commerce and industry on Tuesday, and for the stewardship of creation on Wednesday. Today is Tuesday, so it’s commerce and industry day.
The reading from Ecclesiasticus is about the work of artisans and craftsmen. “All these rely on their hands, and all are skilled in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live they will not go hungry.” [Eccles. 38:31-32] My focus this evening will be on the work of artisans and crafts-men and women—without them there would not be much commerce and industry to pray for. I remember my homiletics professor, O.C. Edwards, saying once that the purpose of preaching was to help the people of God acquire “a Christian construct of reality”. So, what would a “Christian construct” of the work of artisans and craftsmen be? What’s going on in human handiwork that has to do with Jesus Christ? If Christ is with us always, as he says in Matthew, and if “Christ is all and in all” [Col. 3:11], how is he known to us in the work of human hands? In one of our prayers, we ask the Lord to “open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” [Eucharistic Prayer C] And, so, we ask the Lord to open our eyes.
As human beings evolved, at some point our ancestors began to make things. Creatures became creators. A huge step. The earliest artifacts were most likely functional and enhanced survival—hunting weapons and cooking implements and such. But at some point our ancestors not only made functional things, but went a step further, another huge step further: necessary things were made beautiful or charming or delightful. A step was taken beyond what was strictly necessary for survival.
The making of pottery, for example, represents a huge step in human creativity. The original purpose of pottery was to store and carry water, oil and food—things necessary for survival. But at some point it occurred to our forebears that these functional objects were opportunities for beauty, for grace, for charm, for delight. Things not strictly necessary.
Or, take the weaving of baskets. We can imagine how it all got started: you have to have something to carry those nuts and berries or whatever back to where the kids are. And then, at some point someone realized that these useful objects could also be lovely or fun or just curious. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has some amazing Japanese basketry–there’s a reason why it’s in a museum.
Or, take the preparation of food. We’ve gone far beyond what is strictly necessary for survival to something of visual beauty, charm, playfulness, nostalgia, cultural identity, and just plain yumminess. Even the simplest meal can have a certain graciousness about it.
Or, take the building of buildings. The first structures were built to get us out of the rain or heat or cold. Eventually—well, look around you at this beautiful chapel. The proportions didn’t have to be so elegantly worked out. The ceiling didn’t need to be so high. The floor didn’t need to be such beautiful marble fit together just so. The altar didn’t need to be graced by this magnificent canopy. The columns didn’t have to be so exquisitely carved.
In all these things the creature has become creator. God is creative, generative; so, why not the human being made in God’s image? Creation has its source in God; and God is the creator of more creators. I think it’s fair to think of our creative work (good, bad or indifferent) as an extension of God’s.
When we human beings make something which is necessary or utilitarian, we are already participating in the divine activity of creation. When we take it one step further so that what is useful is now also beautiful or charming or delightful in some way, I think we are participating in grace. God’s grace working in and through us, even in the works of our hands.
I think of grace as the impulse to go beyond what is strictly necessary; grace is gratuitous. So we speak of God’s forgiveness of our sins as being grace—God is not compelled to forgive human sin, yet offers us forgiveness as a free gift. God’s forgiveness is gratuitous, it is grace.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we read that grace comes into the world through Jesus Christ, that is, through the Living Word of God. And not only grace, but “grace upon grace”—multiple graces. Grace, like love, is a “many splendored thing”—as the old song puts it. The possibility of beauty, of charm, of delight are surely among those graces. Grace has its source in the heart of God; grace is manifest in this world in countless ways—including in the work of human hands, the work of craftsmen and artisans. “Lord, open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” The impulse to go beyond what is strictly necessary to the place of delight in beauty is grace at work—grace, the source of which is the heart of God.
Although the work of artisans and craftsmen has been very much part of the Church’s life down through the centuries, the Church has had little to say about it. Some of the most magnificent works of art, architecture, metalwork, weaving, decoration and music have been brought to life within the Church, yet not much has been said about the origins of all this beauty; little has been said about the source of all this grace. But I think we’re missing a great opportunity if we do not allow our eyes to be opened a bit more.
God’s hand is at work in the natural forces that created the beautiful green marble of this floor. God’s grace is at work in the human hands that cut it and arranged it and polished it, so that those who come to this place may take delight in it. God’s hand is at work in the natural forces that created the silver of the sanctuary lamp overhead. God’s grace is at work in the hands that fashioned it into a thing of beauty. God’s hand is at work in the natural forces that created the iron of these gates and grills. God’s grace is at work in the hands that wrought such beauty from the primal elements.
To see such grace at work in the world about us is to know something of God; it is to know something about ourselves; it is to know something of that abundant life which the Savior came to offer us. To see such grace at work in the world about us is to awaken to new possibilities, new possibilities to recognize the One who lives among us so intimately, even in the works of our hands. Not only grace, but grace upon grace. We live in a vast ocean of graces—we might as well come to see it for what it is.
He is all and in all and sustains all by his mighty word. May we come to see him in all his fullness. He who is himself the overflowing source of all grace, the superfluity of all beauty.
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