Advent Afternoons: Because Sometimes Things Really ARE Complicate
My sister, Deborah Ruppe-Rogoff, sent me a link from the British Museum’s Waddesdon Bequest collection, last night and asked me to write about it. She was intrigued by the complexity of the Tabernacle’s artistry, and the obvious love, talent, and devotion of its creator. I agree.
I am also struck by a couple of other things.
First, this extraordinarily intricate and beautiful piece is Christian in its theme, but it came to the British Museum in the late 19th century as a bequest from a Jew. It had for centuries been part of private collections, but Baron Ferdinand Rothschild was not just a collector. He was also a philanthropist and realized that things of beauty should be shared as well as preserved. The medieval creator of this piece might well have hated the Baron for being a Jew. But a Jew and his family preserved the artist’s work and made a gift of it to the world. There’s a lesson there.
Second, in contemporary parlance, a Tabernacle is often a house of worship or a liturgical fixture which houses a sacred object (a Torah Scroll, the Reserved Sacrament, etc.) But in its origins the word described the place where the Shekinah/Presence of God dwelt. In fact, Scripture speaks of God living with, travelling with, in fact, “tabernacling” with the people.
So the word is not only a noun, describing the place where the Holy dwells, it is also a verb.
In a time when it is so tempting and so easy to objectify our faith, to remove it from the realm of action, or to permanently enshrine it in an object, a place, a person or an event, we need to remember that. Faith must never be static, it is active and mobile.
Third, this artifact is a thing of beauty, whose full glory is only revealed by opening it up, examining its intricacies and entering into its mystery. But that isn’t all. As the curator points out, you have to be able to put it back together again; and that must be done with care and attention to how the various parts fit and work together. Otherwise we do violence to it, and to its creator.
In Advent, we are invited to prepare a dwelling place for God. We set our crèches, and decorate our homes and churches. But we are also asked to prepare our hearts. Advent provides us with an opportunity to explore the divine intricacies of God’s presence in the world, and to open our hearts and minds to the miracle before us. We live in a world that desperately needs to be opened up, understood, and appreciated. But the task must be undertaken with the utmost attention to what we are doing, to whom we are doing it, and in whose name and on whose behalf we are acting.