The first time I realized a church could be beautiful was when I first watched Home Alone.
Halfway through the 1990 film, young Macaulay Caulkin seeks shelter from pursuing ruffians in the darkened sanctuary of an old Episcopal church. As he enters, a children’s choir sings “O Holy Night”; candles flicker in the sanctuary. As I watched, I gasped. I attended Sunday services in an evangelical megachurch that had once been a supermarket. I had never seen such things as these. Sweeping archways, abundant stained glass, statues—even the deep red of the choir robes astounded me. Here in abundance was something utterly missing from the church I had known: beauty.
Elaborate houses of worship are not currently en vogue. This summer, when a woman heard my husband was an Orthodox Christian, she shook her head. She had visited an Orthodox church recently and didn’t approve. “All those hand-painted icons and gold leaf,” she said. “It must have been so expensive.” She’d heard of a church that had sold all of its worldly trappings (including the building) and moved to a much humbler abode, giving the surplus funds to the poor. This, she thought, was the Christian thing to do.
Nobly intended, this attitude is one found all too often in modern Protestant circles: that our physical places of worship do not matter, and that religious symbolism is anathema, to be avoided at all costs. In college, I attended an emergent church that, after moving into an old Reformed building, took down the wooden cross that had hung in the sanctuary. Its crime? Being “too religious.”
This ideology often trickles down to matters liturgical as well. What’s the point of all this formality? Why bother with candles and incense and vestments? At the same emergent church, the pastor once strode onto the stage in a cardinal-red Reformed clergy robe—much to the amusement of his parishioners. A PowerPoint presentation paraded more formal ministers in various forms of vestmental pageantry. “Isn’t this ridiculous?” he said. “These people can’t experience God without fancy robes!”
These words could have come from the mouth of a teenaged Maria von Trapp, who, after rejecting Catholicism in her teens, organized a club in college to pull as many as she could from their flock. She, too, chastised the liturgically-minded for their reliance on candles and incense and vestments. Anyone who needed such things to connect to God, she reasoned, was truly weak in faith.
But, we know how the rest of Maria’s story goes: Not only did she return to the church, she became a novice, dedicating herself to serving God. After marrying Baron Georg von Trapp, she experienced Holy Week with a family of her own. The wonder of this experience led her to lament those who have no access to such things:
...They have dispensed with the liturgy. They don’t want any distracting ceremonies, no incense, no vestments, no music, no pictures and images, not even sacraments—only the service of the spirit.
The trouble is, however, that as long as we live here on earth, we simply are not spirits, but we have also a body, a very human heart; and this heart needs outward signs of its inward affections.
Matter matters. The Incarnation teaches us that it can even be sacred. This would not have been a new concept to the Hebrews, who had the benefit of the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant. But for those of us living in today’s throwaway world, where most of that which is not virtual is easily disposable, the concept of sacredness—of a place, a presence, a material thing—is novel indeed. Sacred places are hard to find.
Some would argue that the formality of a traditional church and its trappings make them inaccessible, particularly to the young. Maria von Trapp thinks otherwise. Hear what she says about Holy Week:
As a child you live through these days in an exalted state of mind. They are not like any other ordinary Thursday, Friday, Saturday; and young as you may be, your little heart is shattered by these tremendous mysteries you help to celebrate. When you come back from your visit at the Holy Tomb, you don’t feel as if you were coming from your parish church. You have just been in Jerusalem and Calvary and in that garden where they laid Him into the sepulchre.
Beauty—and formality, and ceremony—makes us sit up and notice. “Pay attention,” it tells us. “This is important.” Consider the inherent sacredness of the traditional wedding ceremony: We hush when the bride approaches; we rise to honor her presence. How sacred would this seem if the bride ascended the aisle in sweatpants, or if the groom came to meet her in gym shorts? But that is exactly what we have become: a bride in sweatpants, drinking her morning coffee in the great living room of the informal American church.
If beauty and formality tells us “this matters,” its absence tells us that “this doesn’t.” This summer, the Fixed Point Foundation released details of a much-quoted study analyzing the attrition of young people from the church. One complaint that emerged was that the young adults in question found “church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant.” (They have a point: If church sanctuaries are merely places to hear music, see friends, and enjoy our morning coffee, there are other places where the music is better, the coffee is fresher, and the fellowship less forced.)
What, exactly, is the Important Thing that the beauty of the liturgy tells us to notice? It is the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ among us. It is the Gospel, the story—our story—that has been handed down through millennia. It is the saints, millions upon millions who have lived out the same struggles as we do—and lived joyously.
The beauty of the liturgy entices and strengthens the faithful. But why, you might ask, does this matter to the rest of the world?
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)
Christ’s words to Peter were for us all: It is our job to feed the world. We take these words both literally and figuratively; homilies and soup kitchens are equally worthy ministries. But belonging to a sacramental church also means believing that paint, paper, and the stones of a church can be holy as well, that art can be fused with the goodness of God and change the world, that beauty can feed the faithful and the unchurched alike. When, like Maria von Trapp, I strayed from the church, I still listened to Wesley’s choral anthems and Benedictine chant. I could sense the grace of God in them. And for my part, at least, it was not podcasts or coffee bars or socially relevant sermons that brought me back to the fold: Instead, I felt myself drawn in by the glow of a Presbyterian church at Christmastime.
The gospel is a message of beauty and peace, but peace in the midst of the world, in the midst of pain. We do not gloss over the ugliness of the world: We acknowledge it and lend it meaning. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, my priest held a memorial service for the slaughtered. The incense and chanted hymns did not keep me and the other parishioners from weeping, but they did help us feel that the deaths were not in vain, that God acknowledged our sorrow. Seen through the eyes of the church, hallowed through the beauty of her liturgy, even the most horrific martyrdoms can become tales of love for the healing of the world.