Some Christians are prone to think that the Christian life is a series of spiritual “mountaintop” experiences. The Christian life must be radical and exciting, filled with inspiring supernatural encounters with God at every turn.
These believers listen with great relish to testimonies of miraculous healings and the spectacular successes of Christians who have accomplished “great things for God”. And they mistakenly conclude that this is the “normal” Christian life.
As theologian Julie Canlis has put it, for such Christians, “True religion is often associated with the extreme, the emotional moment, the passionate choice, the mountaintop experience.”1
In some important ways, all this mirrors what is already endemic in the wider culture.
The Reformed theologian Michael Horton has described our culture’s obsession with the exceptional and the outstanding as “the cult of extraordinariness”.2 This culture is so fixated with the high-flyer, the over-achiever and the game-changer that “ordinary” and “mundane” have become the loneliest if not the most despised words in our vocabulary.
That is why some Christians may be surprised to find that in the pages of the Bible, God is often depicted as being present and active in the commonplace of our earthly experiences.
To be sure, the Bible does describe God performing “extraordinary miracles” (Acts 19:11-12) such as the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14) or the raising of Lazarus (John 11). But to think that God is to be found exclusively in such events is to miss the Bible’s portrayal of his presence in the ordinary and the mundane.
Consider Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God.
Jesus did not describe the divine kingdom in lofty images of angelic choirs or celestial palaces or in highfalutin speeches. Instead, Jesus told stories using common everyday metaphors such as the vineyard, the mustard seed and the fishing net. The worldliness of the parables shows that the commonplace and the ordinary have the capacity to illuminate the deepest mysteries of the kingdom of God.
This truth that God is present in the ordinary and the mundane is seen poignantly in the sacraments of the Church which were instituted by our Lord.
The elements used in the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist—water, bread and wine—cannot be more common. As the Roman Catholic ritual has beautifully put it, they are “the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands”. Yet these everyday items are the means by which God’s grace is present and efficacious.
But it is in the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity that we find this truth presented to us in all its clarity and force.
The eternal Son of God, whose hands had “flung stars into space” (Graham Kendrick),3 was born in a humble barn in a town with a rather tarnished reputation. The Saviour of the universe remained in obscurity until he was thirty years old before commencing his public ministry which lasted for only three years.
The ordinariness of the incarnation implies that the dualisms and dichotomies through which we often perceive reality must be challenged. Because of the incarnation, the ordinary and the commonplace are no longer what they seem to be. Because God has become a man and because the holy has tabernacled in the earthly, common and ordinary things, actions and relationships can take on a new meaning.
It was the great reformer Martin Luther who understood this clearly.
The naked and awful majesty of God is often hidden in common earthly objects, veiled as it were by a mask (larva). And it is through the mediation of the larvae Dei (masks of God) that we encounter God’s presence and grace.
The same is true of our daily work and our ministry in the church. In the overall scheme of things, they may seem insignificant and without much impact. But as long as they are done for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17), our work and ministry are never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
For God can use our humble and common labours in ways that we can never imagine and perhaps shall never know. They can become sacraments, the means of divine grace, the channels of God’s blessings.
In a culture that valorises the exceptional, Christians must be careful not to become victims of the “cult of extraordinariness”. They must never despise the commonplace, the unremarkable and the mundane.
For the holy is often masked in the ordinary.
1 Julie Canlis, A Theology of the Ordinary (Sussex, UK: 2017), 23.
2 Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 2014).
3 Graham Kendrick, ‘The Servant King’, 1983.
Roland Chia is the Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine of Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg)