In keeping with our reflections on beauty, here is a powerful reflection which comes from Frederica Mathewes-Greene. Today she wrote: “A year or so ago I was invited to speak at a conference on Apologetics, as related to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Peter Kreeft got “Goodness” and William Lane Craig got “Truth.” Here’s my presentation on “Beauty,” with the title “A Golden Bell and a Pomegranate.”
Here is the conclusion to her beautiful essay on beauty:
A few years ago I was being interviewed on an NPR program, and the host asked me, “All this fancy stuff you do in church, the icons and candles and incense, doesn’t it get in the way? Doesn’t it distract you from worshipping God?”
I said, “Imagine that it’s your anniversary, and your husband has taken you to a nice restaurant. There’s a white cloth on the table, roses and candles, a glass of wine, and violin music is playing in the background. Does that distract you from feeling romantic?”
Now, it’s true, you can have all this beauty and just take it for granted. You can go to church every Sunday and just yawn your way through it. But that’s not the fault of the church. A married couple could plow through a fancy meal without once looking each other in the eye. But that wouldn’t be the fault of the restaurant. They did everything they could. Beauty is not enough, all by itself. It’s not the goal, just a way toward the goal, which is life in Christ.
Yet beauty in worship is not an option; it is something God commands. After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, as they were wandering in the wilderness, God told Moses how to furnish a tent to be their place of worship. He told him, for example, that there needed to be a box to hold the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Now, today we’d say, “Oh, sure,” and run out to the mall and buy a clear plastic storage unit with a snap-on lid. But God did not ask for something merely functional. He told Moses to make this box, the Ark of the Covenant, from acacia wood, and to overlay it with gold—not only on the outside, but the inside as well. Even though the inside of the Ark would not be seen, it should be beautiful and costly, because it was being made for God.
The Lord gave Moses further instructions . . .
Think about it: even though the children of Israel were refugees, wandering in the desert and living in tents, God still commanded Moses to use extravagant resources in making worship beautiful. Beauty matters. . .
As missionaries, at home or abroad, we must prepare ourselves to do the work God gives us. We must know the Scriptures well and have a good understanding of our faith, so that we can present it clearly. And we must have love for those we speak to, so they will feel welcomed and invited into God’s household.
But when a visitor comes to join us for worship, the focus is no longer on us, on our knowledge or our loving character. In worship, it’s about God, and all signs must point in His direction. An atmosphere of beauty teaches wordlessly about the nature of God. It teaches that He is not just a concept to be endlessly discussed; that at some point our capacity to grasp him intellectually fails, and we fall before him in worship. Beyond all we know and cannot know about God, he reigns in beauty. Beauty opens our hearts, and stirs us to hunger for more, to hunger for the piercing sweetness of the presence of God.
A visitor may not at first see what we’re seeing, but he can see that we see something. When I was a child I was near-sighted, but no one realized this and a number of years passed before I got glasses. Till then I kept having the frustrating experience that my parents would want to show me something, but I couldn’t see it. They would point, for example, at a bird in a treetop, and say, “There it is, do you see it?” And I would squint and try to follow the line of the pointing finger, and just see a greenish blob that was probably a tree. Sometimes I would say, “No, I don’t see it;” sometimes I would pretend I had, just to get it over with.
But you know what? I never said, “There is no bird.”
When a visitor comes into our worship, he might not see what we’re looking at—in this case, not a bird in a treetop, but God in His heaven. But the visitor can see us. He sees us worshipping with awe and gratitude, hears us singing ancient and Scriptural hymns that Christians around the world have offered for millennia. He sees candlelight flickering on the gold of icons, and hears the bells on the censer. He tastes the antidoron, smells the incense, and is greeted by other worshippers with the kiss of peace. Every one of his senses is affected. Maybe he doesn’t yet see the Lord we worship, but he see us, and sees that we see something; that we are being held rapt by the presence of something awesome, terrible, beautiful. He can tell that something is going on. And that mysterious beauty is a hook that pulls people further in.
Any missionary needs theological education, as well as love for those in the mission field. But we Orthodox know of one further element of missions: beauty. We worship in beauty because it is what God commanded. He instructed Moses to provide elaborate beauty in worship—gold, incense, embroidery, carved wood, vestments, “a golden bell and a pomegranate.” But not because God needs these things – as the psalmist says, he already owns the cattle on a thousand hills. No, it is we humans who need such things, and their use in worship empowers mission in ways that, literally, can’t be conveyed in words. Beauty sets the heart aright, and opens it to God.