Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
Follow the runner through the storm doors and then through the inner doors into the atrium where your path forks; either hall will take you around the center room hung with the chandelier before meeting again at the back wall of glass that faces the sanctuary. The lights are off; sunlight refracts through the columns of stained glass that punctuate the brick walls. Walk through the center doors. Walk the blue carpet down the soft decline and turn right just before you reach the step-up in front of the stage and the podium. Take a few steps in that direction and kneel. You no longer need directions once you’re in the sanctuary, of course. The doubled form of the woman in front of the pews is visible through the glass of the back wall, and her crying is audible before you open the center doors.
In the sanctuary of the church I attended through high school there was a short wooden rail on either side of the stage, and at intervals below this rail sat simple boxes of tissues. They were purple and rose-colored and I never saw one empty. Though I often had allergies and morning sniffles in church, I was never tempted to walk to the front to claim a tissue for myself. They were obviously holy: set aside.
Cheryl has a need for a couple. Today is a weekday and she would normally be at work, but last week she found her adult son facedown on the linoleum of the bathroom and she hasn’t been to work since.
Grant, her husband, will pick her up when he gets off work. First he will kneel with her awhile and pray. Above them and to the left, the modernist-looking cross hangs above the apex of the sanctuary suspended on cables so thin as to be invisible from the back, but Grant and Cheryl do not look up.
When else have these tissues come out of their boxes? Once when all the lights were on and the altar call went out and the full band was on stage and the room was hot; it was a summer Wednesday night and the emergency doors were propped open with floor fans and how could a lost soul resist the call of God under such conditions? Tears of joy freely fell across his graphic tee before he scooped them with a freely-given tissue, his heart all hot with the knowledge of his forgiveness and a sense of all things being possible like, for real, and for the first time in his teenage life. He was Jason, who swore he’d never go online after bedtime again; he’d superglue his Ethernet port shut and pee on the Wi-Fi router, so help him God. He would do it. He would pee on the router, he thought, his eyes clouded with tears.
On a Sunday in the preceding autumn, the kids had marched in carrying the flags of every nation in the world, even a couple that didn’t exist anymore, and because Tom had slept on the couch Saturday night he’d needed a coffee to wake him up before service that Sunday and wow was he not used to caffeine, and wow did both sticks on the hi-hats sound cool and snappy, and whoa did his own son Branson trip to that accelerated tempo and fall hard on his cute face, and oh jeez did he barely avoid impaling himself on South Africa and instead bounce his nose off the raised heel of Todd in front of him (Somalia), and holy cow did he ever require a mound of tissues to stop up the blood and absorb his tears and screams. The music went on sans drums as Tom loped out, bloodied kid in his arms whose nose was dammed up with soggy tissue cloth, and a tambourine was hitting the “on” beats, which was wrong.
Many others have availed themselves of those super-absorbent and inconsistently lotioned sheets over the years: parents dedicating their babies; girls in huddled threes recounting into the podium microphone how awesome God had been for showing up on their mission trip to Philadelphia; the brave mother of a boy who’d died of cancer just before his commissioning as an officer in the Air Force; the 26-year-old divorcee bitterly claiming his new hope in Christ and his medium-aged hope in seeing his baby boy again.
For all the skull’s durability, it’s remarkable just how fragile a brain turns out to be. Stray too far from an emotional baseline and the stoppers will fall out in a cascade of saline to announce that this human has been struck, has been overcome, has suffered, is grateful, or just has some very serious feelings about some things. Tears are like a steam release valve for the spirit; building pressure demands an open aperture or it threatens to burst the whole machine. So the emotional exhaust puffs and hisses, and we again find ourselves in a bad way with the makeup and the idea of composure.
Is it a coincidence that tissues derive from wood pulp? The cross could have been planed into thin, flexible sheets to mop up the sorry faces of Christ’s disciples after He’d been cut open and unpinned. But His material comforts had to be withdrawn for a time. Sometimes hitting the dry floor of the well with your arms is just what the doctor ordered.
But back to church. Cheryl slumps over the rail this Wednesday afternoon in front of empty rows of pews and surrounded by clumped balls of paper. They don’t stop her tears or the thin mucus her tickled nose is dispensing; they just take these liquid signs of unrest away for a moment or two before a new heave wets her face again.
She cries six feet away from where Jason stood triumphant and spiky-haired, twenty feet from where Branson planted his face into Todd’s New Balanced heel, ten feet from where three girls wept for God’s providence over three days in a homeless shelter, and zero feet from where the departed officer’s mother wept over her own boy only a few months earlier after everyone else had gone. Across time there are tissues everywhere, pinched and crumpled and soggy and crimson-stained and totally gross.
And here in this temporal cross-section we also see Christ, the great high priest who knows every reason in the world for needing a tissue. He sees the sentimental and the heart-shocked, the selfish and devastated and grief-stricken and bloody-nosed. Can we drink the cup that He drinks? Before we drink anything, we may need to get a few fresh boxes to put under that rail. In God’s house these boxes only appear full on Sunday mornings for being constantly restocked by the saints.