12. Handling Things Unseen: Tactile Aspects of the Christian Faith
George D. Chryssides [+]
University of Birmingham and York St John University
The tactile aspects of the Christian faith serve to demonstrate friendship, to maintain tradition, and to make the invisible visible. The Eucharistic bread and wine is a tactile anticipation the future heavenly banquet which has not yet been made available to Christ’s followers. Roman Catholic popular piety employs sacramentals – objects such as holy water, crucifixes, medallions, rosaries, and scapulars – which can be used for devotional or protective purposes. Some objects are not available for touching, either because they are too sacred, damageable, or because they have been lost through time. The Protestant tradition, which has viewed tactile aids to devotion less favourably than other traditions, is more amenable to biblical-themed attractions such as Kentucky’s Ark Encounter. The liturgical calendar provides occasion for the use of tactile phenomena: the imposition of ash on Ash Wednesday, distribution of chrism oil, and foot washing on Maundy Thursday, veneration of the cross on Good Friday and the lighting of the Paschal Candle at Easter. The use of candles is less favoured by Protestants, although their use during Advent has become popular. Tactile objects, particularly oil, can be used for healing purposes, and the biblical practice of taking handkerchiefs to the sick is maintained in some Protestant churches. Touch features in initiation rites, notably baptism, confirmation, and ordination, and the presentation of tactile objects to the candidates is an accompanying practice. The advent of the Internet has given rise to some experimentation with substitutes for direct physical contact, for example Jonathan Blake’s Open Episcopal Church, which offers online versions of the Anglican Eucharist, and “Bishop” D. J. Soto’s VR Church. When Covid-19 prevented many Christians from physically assembling, some Anglican churches have revived the practice of “spiritual communion” in lieu of the more usual physical tactile form of the sacrament.