Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe
by Caroline Walker Bynum
Zone, 408 pp., $32.95
Christianity is a material religion. Its central tenet is that in the man Jesus the eternal God united himself to human nature and human flesh, and thereby opened both humanity and matter itself to the possibility of divinization. So Christians place their eschatological hope not in the survival of a disembodied soul, but in the resurrection of the body, the transformation into another order of being of the whole person, flesh and spirit. In heaven Christ himself retains his body, glorified and transcendent, but bearing still the physical traces of his human suffering. “With what rapture,” says Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “gaze we on those glorious scars.”
Perhaps the most unabashedly materialist form of Christianity is Catholicism, centered around the sacraments, and making material things—bread, wine, water, olive oil, the touch of human hands—vehicles of divine power. In the Mass, Catholics believe, Christ himself is made present in the elements of bread and wine, to nourish and transform those who eat and drink them. Catholics venerate the relics of the holy dead, they bless material stuff—water, salt, oil, wax, medals, holy pictures, palm branches—and the formulas traditionally used in such blessings more often than not implied that those objects, called sacramentals, thereby became objectively holy, changed in themselves, and capable of effecting change at the material as well as the spiritual level. So every year on Palm Sunday Catholics commemorate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem by carrying olive, willow, or palm branches that have been blessed. Until the 1960s, the prayers used insisted on the material as well as the symbolic agency of those blessed branches. “Bless and sanctify this creature,” ran the words, “…that whoever receives it may find protection of soul and body: and may it become, Lord, both a remedy for our well-being, and a sign of your grace.”
But times have changed, clerical nerve has failed, and modern Catholicism appears to be in two minds about the spiritual potency of even sanctified matter. Palms are still blessed and carried each year, but the formula currently approved avoids any suggestion that blessing the branches has any objective effect on them, or on their bearers. So now the celebrant prays, “Lord, sanctify these branches with your blessing, so that we who rejoice to follow Jesus as our King may attain through him to the heavenly Jerusalem.” In this account of what is going on, the palm branches are little more than a pious prop in a ceremony that is simply a metaphor for following Jesus, the blessing of the branches a ritual gesture that is assigned no instrumental value at all.
It is tempting to see the influence of the Protestant reformers in this novel Catholic coyness about the objective power of sanctified matter, for sixteenth-century …