A funny thing happened last Saturday during the Celtic service. During the sermon, the elevator doors in the chapel opened and someone stepped into the chapel. (Believe it or not, St Barnabas’ chapel has an elevator.) Thinking the service would simply carry on, the person began to act as if we were not there but actually we were all so surprised that for a moment continuation was not really possible. It was such a surreal moment that I imagined we were being filmed and that the recording would later appear on YouTube.
After the service I wondered how many chapels there are in the world which have elevators – I mean, you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand, and one of them is at St Barnabas! I imagined what an elevator would look like if it had been designed by a church. On the inside of the elevator there would only be one button with the letter “H” on it, which could stand for “heaven” or “hell.” You pressed the button and prayed to God, not knowing whether the elevator would take you up or down.
This thought was probably inspired by the small church of St Botolph’s church in Hardham, West Sussex, England, one of four in a rural benefice where I served for nearly three years. Inside the church there are wall paintings which date from the 12th century. In the original scheme, you enter the church and face either east or west. Facing east, you would see a scene from Revelation 4, with Christ on his throne surrounded by twenty-four elders, “dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.” Facing west, at the other end of the church, the scene is very different, with Satan shovelling into a hot cauldron those condemned to eternal damnation.
It is a shocking yet impressive depiction of the choice humans face between choosing the path of life (repentance) or the path of death (continuing in sin). Of course, few people in the twelfth century could read; the wall paintings were their gospel. (By the way, have you noticed 21st century Christians seem to be as attached to visual images as 12th century ones?)
These days, we tend not to put the choice between life and death so starkly. Our socially advanced Christian culture instead challenges inequality and advocates for social justice, and justly so. And yet, can we learn from the Christians of the middle ages, who saw life and death so vividly depicted, and who possessed a simple fear and awe of God? At the very least, the faith they held reminds us that the Church’s chief function is to save souls. The other good work the Church does always comes after the work of preparing people to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In a short space of time, my mind has gone from elevators in chapels to salvation and heaven and hell. But maybe that’s not so different from those who saw heaven in a hazelnut (Julian of Norwich) or saw heaven as like yeast in a loaf of bread (Jesus). Our imagination can take us in strange directions, but also it can give us a unexpected insights. To be honest, the elevator with one button isn’t one of those, but at least it did lead to thinking about the Savior who is Jesus Christ, whom we encounter in church, whether in word, sacrament, or in other places.
With love and prayers