I was far off in the choir loft, desperately trying to sightread alto notes and decipher the copy of a copy of a copy of phonetic Greek–all these things without the benefit of coffee-when I noticed the lovely greenery that adorned the iconostasis at a sister parish. Lime green hydrangeas, wispy ferns, and unidentifiable floral beauties atop the arch, heralding the Feast of Pentecost.
Off to the side was a table flanked by ornate silk flower arrangements. My eyes wandered along with my mind, looking for more silk arrangements, the type that needs dusting and replacing, but always looks ready to be seen and ready to be admired. The type that isn’t real, but is convenient. The type that can be closeted, then brought out again.
It was then I remembered something that long ago drew me to the Orthodox church–the appeal of the real. Early on, a priest emphasized that the things we use and see in the Church are real: real flowers, real candles, real oil, real wine, real bread, real water. All these things are touchable and common. All these things are transformed by an encounter with the Divine. All these things remind us of Christ’s reality, His coming to earth, His taking on flesh, His becoming real.
The real things that we see, taste, smell, and experience in church not only remind us of the power and mystery of the Incarnation, they also remind us that we too are called to be real. Like the wax candles that bring light to the darkened church; like the holy chrism that bestows the power of the Holy Spirit; like the wine and bread that co-mingle, becoming the body and blood of our Lord; like the water that joins us to the body of Christ–all these real things transforming us into who Christ calls us to be: real human beings.
When my kids were little, one of my favorite books to read to them was The Velveteen Rabbit. Without fail, I teared up when Rabbit meets Skin Horse, who tells him a beautiful truth:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Perhaps because we are surrounded by so much that is not real and not true, these real things, these simple things, seem primitive and almost silly. It is, however, through the small, humble gifts, that God comes to us–starkly real–and calls us to also be real and true in response to His own reality.