Just the other day, as I was pulling into the parking lot near the church building, I saw a man do something I have not seen in a very long time. He was apparently walking his two dogs, both of whom were on leashes. He stopped right in front of the church doors, faced them, as if facing the altar and tabernacle, made the sign of the cross, and said a short prayer. Years ago many Catholics used to do that every time they passed a Catholic church, although my husband told me that his grandmother used to do it in front of a Baptist church, too. That delights me to no end! Why? Because all houses of worship are where God dwells. Any house of worship in which people praise, bless, and thank God is a holy place because it is filled with the prayers of God's faithful, holy (but not perfect) people.
Another sight I witness with great regularity at my church is people coming in during the day to say a prayer in front of the tabernacle. Once, I saw a young couple come in holding hands, and together they knelt and prayed for quite a while. Then they silently left, again holding hands. I could not help but wonder if they prayed for blessing on an upcoming marriage and the start of a new Christian family. Couples that base a marriage upon prayer are less likely to have their marriage fall apart according to statistics, (and common sense). This must be because they have built their marriage on solid rock, so that when the winds blow and the storms come, they have a firm foundation. (Paraphrase of Matthew 7:26-27)
I have seen men and women come into the church for brief prayers many times. What it leads me to understand over and over is that the church is not a building, but a living organism. The Greek word translated as "church" which appears in Scriptures is ecclesia and it is used to describe a community of believers. Hence the book of Ecclesiastes derives its name from a word which represents a community of believers gathered for like purpose. In the New Testament St. Paul used a different Greek word to describe the church: Koinonia. This word means "a Spirit-filled community of believers." That is what church really is: it is a community of believers, filled with the Spirit through the sacraments and prayer. They are holy, though not perfect, and they are living, not static. The church is its people...all its people. Not just the clergy. Not just the laity. All of us are church. Indeed we are very much alive. If you "hang around" my church, this is very obvious, and I dare say this is true of other churches as well. One only needs to pay a little attention to see this.
We are a people of faith. God did not call us to be individuals, thank....well, thank God. He created a people. None of us can go it alone. Even Adam realized he needed a companion and so God created Eve. Thus the family was born, so to speak. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the family is called the domestic church. This means the family is a mini-church, a community of believers who are the members of the larger Church. Therefore, we need to recognize that we need the larger community for support, love, fellowship, service, and continuing education and growth in our faith. We need to do more than simply receive these: we need to give them also. As in any family, all the members need to give and take. Mostly we need to spread the love. That is, we need to live our faith so as to preach it with every action. If we desire others to come to know God, Father, Son and Spirit, how do we expect them to do so if we are not inviting? If we are poor witnesses to the love of God which we profess to believe, how do we expect to attract others to Him? It does not take "rocket science" or an intimate knowledge of theology. It does not take perfection. It takes love and sincerity of heart, pure and simple.
Maybe as this liturgical year comes to an end we can make an extra effort to live our gratitude by being conscious that we are church and we are the ambassadors of love. It would be good if we could make an extra effort to welcome everyone to the table, not just the people we see week after week. It would be good if we could make it our lived understanding (not just an intellectual understanding) that our church is not somewhere we go because of obligation, but that they (remember, church is a people) are our true home where we can truly be ourselves. It would also be good to be reminded that because our church is a family, it is has many dimensions and has many needs to which we have something we can offer. We do not just show up to dinner all the time, we often have to contribute. Maybe we contribute through our prayer, and maybe in a more concrete way. But like a family, we do not come with our hand out all the time, expecting to do nothing but receive. We offer our unique gifts and our unique selves. That is what family is all about.
This time of Thanksgiving can be a time of more deeply recognizing that we are the people of God, a family of faith. Let us be filled with gratitude for many good gifts, including the gift of our family of faith as well as our families of kin, no matter how flawed, near perfect, (or somewhere in between), they may be. Truth is, they are probably a little bit of both, but they are still ours. Maybe we can think about this as we pass by a church, whether it is the one at which we worship or not. Let the buildings be a reminder of the realities they contain. We are God's people, we are His children, and we are a family of faith.
May we be ever grateful for the gift of family! May we be grateful for the gifts of love that the Lord gives us through the people who are in our lives, both those we know and the stranger! Let us reach out in some form to someone who may be needy in any way this time of year when it gets colder. Let us turn our hearts to others in order that they may bless us with the gift of who they are in turn. And may our hearts be ever open to the Lord who is present in all our brothers and sisters. And when we leave the buildings where we worship, may we bring the love with us, recognizing that the only walls to our churches are the ones we take with us. Let us continue to meet both at worship and in the church of the world, surrounded by the Heart of Christ, the King. Peace....and Happy Thanksgiving!
The photo above is of a church in the Cape Breton area of Nova Scotia, Canada. Again, the photo is mine.