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Introduction: A History of the Church in 100 Objects

  • MIKE AQUILINA & GRACE AQUILINA

"A fascinating, unique spiritual feast." - Rodney Stark


aquilinahistoryIt was Palm Sunday, and for once our family had arrived early for Mass — so early, in fact, that we saw our pastor as he was leaving the rectory.  We exchanged our hellos and made small talk.  I marvelled that the parking lot was already full.

"Everybody comes to church on Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday," he replied drily.  "It's the two days they get free stuff."

Catholicism is indeed the religion of "stuff."  Ours is the church of ashes and incense, icons and statues, bread and wine, water and oil, incorrupt bodies, and bones encased in glass.

None of this is incidental to the faith.  We're not just about spiritual life.  We're about the whole person.  So matter matters, too.  To an amazing degree, matter makes the faith as we live it day to day.

And it's always been this way.  In the year AD 383, St. Gregory of Nyssa noted that all through the Old Testament God had saved his people by means of stuff:

Moses' rod was a hazel switch — common wood that any hands might cut and carry and use as they please before tossing it into the fire.  But God purposed to work miracles through that rod — great miracles beyond the power of words to express [see Ex 4–14]. . . . Likewise, the mantle of one of the prophets, a simple goatskin, made Elisha famous throughout the whole world [see 2 Kgs 2:8]. . . . A bramble bush showed the presence of God to Moses [see Ex 3:2]. The remains of Elisha raised a dead man to life [see 2 Kgs 13:21].  (St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Baptism of Christ)

The God of Jesus Christ is the God of Israel — the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  And it is his custom to get mixed up in the lives and history of his people.  In the ancient world, Jews and Christians were unique in having no patience with myth.  God appeared to Israel at specific times — datable by genealogy and dynastic charts — and in specific places.  Biblical religion dares us to check its facts.

If the Israelites had a religious claim to make, they provided the provenance along with it.  Within the Ark of the Covenant they kept the tablets of the law along with Aaron's staff and some samplings of manna.  The early Christians, in their turn, kept St. Peter's bones hidden in plain sight in Rome and gradually accumulated a shrine around their treasure.

In the ancient world, Jews and Christians were unique in having no patience with myth.

Others may call us a "religion of the book," but we're not.  We're a religion of the Word, the divine Word, who is utterly unlike our spoken or written words (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 108).  Words are made of warmed-up breeze and most of them pass away as soon as they're let loose.  But God the Word is "living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword" (Heb 4:12); and God the Word has assumed the material of our world by taking flesh.  He has dwelt among us.  We call that fact the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the heart of the Christian creed and the point of every Mass.  It is the definitive revelation of God.  When the Son took flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, he revealed God's eternal fatherhood.  This is how the world came to know God as a Trinity of divine persons and share the inner life of the Trinity through the sacraments.

In Jesus Christ, God "worked out my salvation through matter," said St. John of Damascus in the eighth century.  "Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! . . . God has filled it with his grace and power" (St. John of Damascus, On Holy Images 1.16).

The earliest Christians thought of salvation as something tangible and historical: 

What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life —
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us.
(1 Jn 1:1–2, NABRE)

In fact, the "incarnational principle" extends through all of history as individual Christians — and entire nations — come to share divine life through the sacraments.  The life that is invisible is "made visible" for us to see.  Our Christian forebears give testimony in the things — the material culture, the "stuff " — they left behind. 

So when we Christians tell our story, we don't just write it up in books.  We preserve the memory in memorials, monuments, and museums.  We build grand basilicas to house tiny relics.

So when we Christians tell our story, we don't just write it up in books.  We preserve the memory in memorials, monuments, and museums.  We build grand basilicas to house tiny relics.

This book attempts to tell the Christian story in an incarnational way — through the examination of one hundred objects.  Some of these are ordinary household items, and some are priceless works of art.  Some are worthless by earthly standards, while others have become industries in themselves, tourist destinations drawing pilgrims by the thousands every year.

Salvation history is history, not myth.  It doesn't occur in moments shrouded in mists before time.  It doesn't take place on the heights of Mount Olympus, invisible to us mere mortals who live at sea level.

Salvation history is the story of God entering our world, sometimes with flash and dazzle, but most often through ordinary stuff amid the mess of centuries.  And salvation history did not end with the close of the biblical narrative.  It's not even over yet.  The end of the Bible opens out onto the beginning of our age.

God makes himself known and accessible through material things, always accommodating himself to our condition.  It is, after all, the condition he created for us — spiritual and material — and the condition he assumed for our salvation.

Since most people tend to think of history in eras, we have divided the chapters of this book into seven groups.

The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs
The Church and the Empire
The Dark Ages
The Middle Ages
Renaissance and Reformations
The Age of Revolutions
The Global Village

We recognize the problems inherent in chopping history up this way.  So keep in mind: every era's beginning is arbitrary and artificial, and so is every ending.  Scholars debate endlessly about how to frame the narrative of that period.  The poet Wisława Szymborska noted that every beginning is a sequel, and the book of events is always open at the middle.  That's true.  But history is betrayed by its etymology.  It's a story, and every story is itself an artifact — the product of artifice.  So artificiality is unavoidable, and divisions are inevitable — and helpful.

The history of the Church is, moreover, your story.  The artifacts you find in this book are your family heirlooms, locked in an attic till now, each a revelation of something in your character, something in your heritage, something in the faith you share with millions alive today, millions who have gone before, and millions, presumably, still to come.  As Catholics we profess belief "in the communion of saints."  In the original Greek, the phrase means the "communion of holy things" — yes, the blessed souls in glory, but also the things of the earth that are made holy by their contact with Christ, in the touch of baptized Christians.  This is the stuff of our story.  This is the stuff of our salvation as it plays out through the centuries.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

mikegraceMike Aquilina & Grace Aquilina. "Introduction" from A History of the Church in 100 Objects (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2017): 1-4.

Reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.

The Author

aquilinasmaquilinahistory2Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author or co-author of fifty books including A History of the Church in 100 Objects, Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our WorldGood Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life, Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, The Way of the Fathers: Praying with the Early Christians, and Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With St. Thomas Aquinas. With Cardinal Donald Wuerl, he is the author of The Church: Unlocking the Secrets to the Places Catholics Call Home, and The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition. See Mike Aquilina's "The Way of the Fathers" blog here.

Grace Aquilina is a freelance editor who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Copyright © 2017 Ave Maria Press
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