Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40)
A couple of weeks ago I was in Trieste and entered Santa Maria Maggiore church. I sat on a bench and stayed a little while. I was all alone in the big church. There was no-one there. An empty church – a symbol of our time.
That’s what we’re always talking about, the numbers, isn’t it? How many people belong to the church, how much the percentage is dropping? We make statistics and read them carefully. I have been talking with some of you about the recent survey of religious attitudes in Western Europe. Finns don’t go to the church, the numbers are alarming. When we file in reports, we never fail to mention how many people attended each event. Among the colleagues, we rejoice if there were more people at the Sunday service than usually. And then we complain if there was only a handful of people in some event. Numbers matter to us. At least they nourish our own vanity: look, I managed to lure here so many people!
Statistics reveal how many people were present but they don’t tell us how meaningful the moment was for those people. Perhaps they were there out of duty and felt the whole time that they were in a wrong place. Or maybe there was a sense of belonging, and they left the church feeling nourished and strengthened. We are a church of masses, but God doesn’t search for masses. He’s after one sheep instead of one hundred. A Sunday service with just a handful of participants is not an embarrassment or a failure although we may feel like that when we produce annual statistics. It only means that we measure wrong things.
There I was, sitting on a bench in an empty medieval church in Trieste. I remembered suddenly what my former teacher from the University of Helsinki, Pauli Annala, once said: Don’t be afraid of the wilderness. When churches become emptier it does not mean that Christianity will vanish. Empty churches are the beginning of something new. A desert, a wilderness has always been an important symbol in our tradition, a scene for the encounter between God and human beings. New things only emerge from emptiness and silence.