Several years ago, I began to think more about beauty. No, this isn't going to be a "Confessions of a Middle Aged Woman" piece! I am not talking about the type of beauty that is flashed in front of us hundreds of times a day, making us discontent with how God made our bodies and wanting more than anything to be a size 2 (okay, I'd be thrilled with a size 10). I have done some thinking about beauty in our local churches.
I am still making this incredible journey from Evangelicalism/Protestantism to the Orthodox faith and encountering so many areas to reconsider and revisit. During the Reformation, the anger and resentment toward the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church was so intense that many were eager to completely purge the church buildings of any reminders of the greed and opulence that was so visible in the cathedrals of the day. Statues were destroyed, icons disfigured, vestments and liturgical elements were removed. Protestant churches became very austere inside. After all, the important thing was "hearing the Word of God". These other things were not deemed necessary for salvation, growing in the faith, or worship. Sola Scriptura - all we needed was the Word of God. The altar was replaced with a pulpit. Crosses (especially those depicting the crucifixion) were taken down or relegated to less conspicuous corners. It was important to remove anything that would be a distraction or that would keep one from listening to the pastor's sermon or message. Colors, stained glass, items made of gold, beautiful wood, richly painted icons, exquisitely carved statues, rich tapestries, candles and candelabras, incense, pew cushions of red velvet - all these could possibly interfere with our ability to concentrate on what is being said. Our thoughts would be turned to material things and not the spiritual.
The reasoning sounds good. But these sensory elements were not originally embraced in order to flaunt the wealth and power of the Church. They were used to be reminders of the beauty and attraction of heaven in a world that was full of sin, corruption, death and suffering. God insisted on such beauty in the tabernacle of the Old Testament. The tabernacle was to be a reminder, a representation, a model, of what is going on in heaven. On a smaller scale, this perspective was later incorporated in the synagogues where the Jews worshiped. Likewise, when the early church became established in the first thousand years after Christ, the liturgy and surroundings were modeled after the Jewish synagogues. These elements were considered very important because they helped to engage all the senses in worship - not just the brain. It enabled worshipers to, just for a portion of their week, enter into the beauty, majesty and wonder of what occurs in heaven continually.
A month ago, Frederica Mathewes-Green posted an article in Touchstone magazine. In Lettuce Pray, she ponders the impact of the multi-media on our children (e.g., even Christian media such as Veggie Tales) and makes this observation:
. . . there was once a time when the most astounding experience a child had each week was worship. It began as he entered a building uniquely designed and beautified to glorify God. There he would hear music unlike anything he encountered in daily life. There would be (in many of our traditions, anyway) bells and candlelight, vestments and sumptuous fragrances, and images of Christ and the saints which would greet his eyes wherever he looked. He would hear stories of the lives of the saints, and those would be some of the most exciting stories he ever heard, providing daily examples of real-life heroes whom he could emulate. All in all, going to church would be the most sense-flooding experience a child had all week.
What have we gained by removing so much beauty from our churches and making them multi-purpose facilities which can be changed from worship service, to youth group rally, to concert hall? Where can you go to be reminded of the beauty of God, his transcendence, his power? Many evangelical churches have limited worship to one sense - hearing; hearing the music and hearing the Word of God. The surroundings and decor are without excess or ornamentation. There is little to observe up front or in the surroundings. What about the other senses which God has given us and wants us to use - seeing, touching, tasting, smelling? Are these not as deserving as the one?
I believe that God intended us to use all of our senses in worship. He created them for our good and to use them for His glory and adoration. Think about it next time you worship on Sunday.