As I lead this reflection, you might like to hold the Palm Cross in your hand and just be aware of its shape, its texture, how it feels.
It must be 20 years since I watched the Star Trek film ‘First Contact’, but for some reason one particular scene has remained in my memory. In the film the spaceship crew have travelled back from their futuristic time to the 21st century. They find an experimental rocket craft which, with the benefit of hindsight, they know is destined to play an historic role in opening up space exploration. Captain Jean-Luc Picard reaches out his hand and touches it
He says: ‘It’s boyhood fantasy there, I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian but I was never able to touch it.’
His robotic colleague, Cmdr Data stands nearby, puzzled as he always is, by human emotion:
‘Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of things?’
‘Oh yes, for humans touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. Make it seem more real.’
Robot reaches out: ‘I’m detecting imperfections in the titanium casing, temperature variations in the fuel line, but it’s not more real to me now than it was a moment ago.’
But Jean-Luc Picard was right. Touch can connect you to an object in a more personal way. Make it seem more real… Or is it that we appreciate its reality, existence more deeply? That something we know to be true is now felt to be true – that understanding makes the journey from our head to our heart? Maybe we can identify with that sacramental understanding of reality, where the physical is truly significant, and the tangible and spiritual combine.
Something like that was happening when I knelt under the altar at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reaching my hand into a hole in the floor through which you can touch the bedrock of Calvary. Thousands of pilgrims have done so, as close as one can be to the most likely place of the crucifixion.
Surrounded by hundreds of glittering golden lights and silver encrusted icons, it was perhaps an odd thing to do for someone with an evangelical background. But it was clear to me that it was only possible to understand the tradition fully by being part of it. You couldn’t think about touch. Analyse it academically while standing at a distance and observing. You had to do it.
And it was deeply moving. Yes, it happened. On that Friday so many years ago Jesus died on a cross. It really happened. And yes, it was for me. Millions have touched that spot, millions of men women and children for whom Christ died just as truly as for the billions who will never afford the air fare. But in these few seconds only one person can squeeze under that altar – and he died for me! And yes, I respond, with tears and gratitude.
Perhaps it was not at that spot that Jesus died. For there are other possible locations for Golgotha. Maybe it was somewhere very nearby – the evidence in the tradition is much more ancient than I had assumed. Whether it was certainly the place or not did not seem to be critical – centuries of devotion ensured that space had a sacramental character and power.
We are physical beings. God has made us spiritual and physical. In the incarnation our physicality is affirmed as Christ takes physical humanity into the Godhead. His sufferings in Holy Week were real.
We are incorporated into his body through the waters of baptism, nourished by the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Our future is physical, not as disembodied souls in a purely spiritual heaven, but as a resurrected new humanity inhabiting a new heaven and new earth.
Jean-Luc Picard was right. The physical matters. Indeed we find it can be a pathway to God.