Feb 18, 2008

Beauty and the Church

This morning as I was waiting for the Divine Liturgy to begin at our Eastern Orthodox Church, I took great delight watching various parents bring their little ones up to the front to the iconostasis. The time before and after the service is a marvelous opportunity to bring the children closer to the beautiful, life size icons up front and allow them to light a candle before the icon of Mary (Theotokos), Jesus, St. Basil or St. Nicholas. If you are familiar with Orthodox churches, you are already aware of the beauty that resides inside. There are bright colors everywhere, candles, and various pieces edged or covered with gold. Such a feast for the eyes!

Having come from an evangelical background, I am not accustomed to such dramatic beauty in a place in which I worship. Most of the churches I have grown up with are fairly neutral in colors and architecture is usually without ornamentation. I suppose the thinking is that those elements can be a distraction to worship. Or perhaps we have had negative associations with churches that spend inordinate amounts of money on such extras. I'm not really sure. I do think we have become impoverished by focusing exclusively on functionality and practicality when it comes to worship and communing with God and the saints.

Tradition has it that when Prince Vladimir was looking for the best religion for the people of his new country (which would later become Russia), he sent ten "good and wise men" to various nations to observe different religions and ways in which to worship. These men returned with various reports of the different religions, practices and their places of worship. Of their visit to the Orthodox churches in Constantinople they said,
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty... 1

I can certainly understand a little bit of their observation now that I have seen some of that beauty myself.

What a joy it is to see the children slowly approach the front of the church with wonder and delight in their eyes, carefully lighting their candle from a candle that is already burning and gently placing it in the sand before the icons. The very young must be lifted up by a parent or grandparent in order to place their special candle among the others. A prayer of thanksgiving is said as the child's face is radiant from the small and quiet flame that burns. Such a short moment but it is filled with love on many levels - love of the parent for the child, love of the child for the beauty before him/her, love for the person whom the icon represents, love of the child for the parent who cares enough to share such an intimate moment. Yes, the church is beautiful but the activities that take place within that beauty are equally breath-taking.

1 Russian Primary Chronicle: a history of the Kievan Rus' from around 850-1110 originally compiled in Kiev about 1113.

1 comment:

CAL said...

It's true---I often find myself thinking about services I've attended long after I've gone. I heard it said before I really dove into my inquiry of the Orthodox Church that the whole of Orthodoxy is one continuous song. And being a musician, I thought that was wonderful. The singing is also breathtaking.

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