Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Something Beautiful for God

One of the historical origins of the Presbyterian Church is the Reformed Church in Geneva Switzerland, begun in the middle of the 16th century by John Calvin and the Genevan Elders. On the crest of the hill in the old city of Geneva stands, to this day, the Church of Saint Peter, a massive stone edifice constructed by the Roman Catholics. Inside one can view all the apses and alcoves where the Roman Catholics had placed paintings and statues of saints for veneration. At the front of the sanctuary is a high vaulted ceiling which had been adorned with angels and a crucifix-still de rigeur in Roman Catholic sanctuaries worldwide.

But when the Roman Catholics were ousted from Geneva, Calvin and the Genevan Elders stripped St Peter's bare of all images and adornments. Since that time the sanctuary has presented only the stolid grey of cut stone to the entering worshiper: no votives, no statues, no gilding.

In October of this year I helped officiate at the wedding of a member of our congregation, Jordan, and his bride. They chose to celebrate the wedding at her home church, St James Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City, New York.
I had the pleasure of working with Father Joe O'Connor, an energetic young priest who returned to this, his former parish, at the bride's request. I had never before celebrated a wedding with a Catholic priest. In spite of the historic theological and sacramental disagreements between our branches of the Christian family tree, I had no compunction about doing so. In fact, it was refreshing to celebrate our common discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ with a hybrid of liturgy. (The congregation was not quite so hybridized: apart from the members of the wedding party, almost all the Catholics sat on the left, and the Presbyterians sat on the right. But our voices were one in song and prayer.)
The verbal content of the Roman Catholic liturgy of the wedding allowed me to hear new chords in the symphony of our faith. I got to hear and speak different phrases than the typical patterns of the Reformed tradition. Behind and above all the words, however, I was struck by the worship space--perhaps in a way similar to how John Calvin, John Knox, and so many other Reformed pastors have been struck by this aspect of Roman Catholic tradition.

The sanctuary of St James is decadent, perhaps opulent (though I say this having seen much more wealth on the walls of Italian basilicas). I had a thought so frequently quoted that it's almost embarrassing to write again here: What if all the money that had gone into this sanctuary had gone into serving the poor and the needy?

Let's be clear: the sanctuary of Nineveh Pres has stained glass windows, chandeliers, embroidered paraments, and a brass cross and candlesticks. Unlike the Moravians, with whom I spent more than a few of my Sundays growing up, American Presbyterians do not believe in complete austerity of decor. There is a sense, in all but the most rigorous of iconoclast traditions, that our worship space should present something beautiful for God.
But a few hours in a Roman Catholic sanctuary returned me to an important question: with what kind of beauty is God pleased? In the letter to Timothy Paul rather bluntly instructs women to abandon all tools of physical beautification and to let their good deeds be their adornment. I think the same instruction could just as well go for men. And, by extension, for the Church. The brightest gilding on the Church is her pursuit of justice; the finest braid is her following Christ in every mundane detail of life. Her opulence should be found only in the lavish grace of Christ which she offers to the world. By doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, the Church makes the most beautiful things for God.

I wonder if, even in our humble sanctuary in Nineveh, the smallest sum spent on physical adornment is not a distraction from the work that is the Lord's pride and joy.

~ emrys