When it comes to weddings, beautiful churches often have a long waiting list. There’s a reason for that. Weddings celebrate something sacred and beautiful.
Yet there is a growing sentiment that beautiful churches are unnecessary or even wasteful. Some reject the whole idea of church buildings because they have been wrongly informed that house churches were the norm for New Testament Christians. Let’s look at the myths behind some of these sentiments and the truth about beauty in worship.
Jesus put to rest the idea that things of value are wasteful when Mary poured expensive oil on Jesus feet. “Why this waste?”, Judas chided indignantly. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor! Jesus reprimanded Judas and commended Mary’s extravagance. “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Judas’s accusation veiled as compassion for the poor is an example of the zero sum fallacy. The fallacy claims that if one person gains a beautiful or valuable thing that means another person loses something. But that’s man’s fallacy, not God’s truth!
There isn’t a finite set of wealth, art, and beauty that we are all grasping to get. Man has the God-given talent to produce, create or cultivate all three. Its not the cultivation or production of wealth that is wrong. It is failure to share what is produced with those in need that is the sin!
Matter matters to God. Worship of God isn’t merely spiritual-even our very salvation involves physical matter. How are we baptized into Christ? With water. Prayers for healing involve anointing with oil. Jesus used mud to heal the blind man. People would take handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul’s skin to those who were sick. Their sicknesses would be cured, and evil spirits would leave. People were healed by Paul’s shadow. Jesus death on the cross was a physical death and he said unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have no life in us. God came to us in the flesh. He became a human. That’s why matter matters.
During the reformation, iconoclasts (literally, “icon smashers”) stripped churches of material items used in worship. “When Reformation states and mobs destroyed or suppressed those alternative cultural forms, they were in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story” and “the loss of paintings, murals, sculptures, architecture were irreparable.” –The Breaking of Images, Phillip Jenkins
The reformers ” claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints, despite the fact that in the Bible, God had commanded the making of religious statues (Ex. 25:18–20; 1 Chr. 28:18–19), including symbolic representations of Christ (cf. Num. 21:8–9 with John 3:14)” – Th Great Heresies, Catholic Answers
To hear some tell it, God himself would oppose elaborate churches and anything material used in worship . Joe Heschmeyer, dispels that myth in this blog post. God’s instructed the Temple of Soloman to be “elaborate, beautiful, even extravagant”!
…to take just one example, the statues of the cherubim are mounted on chariot made of gold. The priestly vestments were equally extravagant (see Exodus 39) as was virtually everything associated with the worship of God. All this remains true in the New Testament and for all eternity.” –The Worship of Beauty and the Beauty of Worship
Heschmeyer points out that “this extravagance is true for all eternity”! “The heavenly Jerusalem, for example, is described in this way (Revelation 21:18-21):
The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
And the Liturgy described in Revelation is an elaborate affair, too (Revelation 8:2-4):
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” –Joe Heschmeyer
The Myth of the Vow of Poverty
This meme misses a few key facts. A curator doesn’t own the museum, just as clergy don’t own the church. The Vatican doesn’t own the art-it is a curator of art for the public. The person who takes a vow of poverty doesn’t own the building.
Churches are public and beautiful church buildings provide beauty for the poor.
Do the poor need beauty? Yes, maybe even more than other people do. The poor need beauty to ennoble them, to raise them up out of the morass of this fallen world. We see the desire for beauty and tradition expressed in the parishes and schools built by poor immigrants in previous centuries. Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness.
-Duncan G. Stroik Beauty is for the Poor Too
“Their own houses may have been simple, but their communal home sought to be a work of art, full of iconography and richness”. And it was the poor who wanted them!
Why? For the same reason that we want art and beauty in museums.. As a penniless college student, I went to the Philbrook gardens to study. Why didn’t I just study outside on campus? Because Philbrook offers food for the soul, not just a place to study. Take a look and see:
150,000 people from all walks of life and socioeconomic situations get to enjoy Philbrook each year. To sell if off and give the proceeds to the poor would actually be robbing the poor of the treasure that it is available to be enjoyed day after day, year after year.
The myth also fails to discern that every mass is a wedding celebration where our Lord, the King of the Universe is encountered in a real, tangible way.
A beautiful church building, gracefully proportioned, drawing the eye up to the altar; windows in plain or stained glass, letting sun-beams in; beautiful vestments worn by the priests and deacons, colorful choir robes, reminding us that we are at no ordinary gathering, but at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb;… All this says ‘here is the place where we have come to meet the Bridegroom.’
Our incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is his Bride. And every Eucharist is a wedding celebration: when the priest elevates the Host, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
A marriage supper! A wedding!
—Dr. Holly Ordway, WORSHIP AND IDENTITY: THE ROLE OF BEAUTY IN THE CHURCH
Don’t get me wrong. Certainly a beautiful church isn’t necessary for mass! Our Lord does not limit where he meets us in the Eucharist, as this picture during World War II attests:
Last week, mass was even said on a turnpike with an altar made out of snow for travelers stranded in a blizzard in Pennsylvania!
Beautiful churches aren’t necessary to worship God or even to participate in the mass. God was with the Israelites when they wandered in the desert. But he later commanded building Soloman’s Temple.
But Wait. Weren’t the New Testament Churches Informal Meetings in Homes?
The idea that New Testament churches were simply informal gatherings is a myth that has been recently disproven by archeologists. The earliest church documents show that the liturgy was very similar to the mass we celebrate today.
This drawing of a house church demonstrates that a house church wasn’t just an informal gathering without any structure as some people envision:
“At Dura Europos, where the extensive discovery has yielded not only abundant examples of Iconography throughout the house church structure and also some fragmentary manuscripts in the Hebrew language that show a continuity with the Eucharistic liturgy of the first century Didache and the more developed Apostolic Constitutions.”
Throughout history, Christians have typically met in homes when the church was forced underground and it was illegal to meet in churches. The New Testament describes the fact that church meetings were in homes , but it doesn’t prescribe it as a model of what a church should look like. Even during periods when it was illegal to build a church, early Christians still built church buildings, as this discovery shows.
Now, getting back to beauty in churches. Our beautiful churches are available to young, old, rich, poor, from all walks of life. The architecture and stained glass lifts the soul and instructs the educated and illiterate alike.
Marc Barnes makes the case that beauty in the church is beauty for every man and to to steal from them is to steal from the poor.
“Faulting the Cathedrals and Basilicas of the world for containing “too much” wealth is an awkward denial of the fact that the cathedrals and basilicas of the world are explicitly for the use of the poor, and to steal from them is to steal, not merely from the Church, but from the poor themselves.”
being built in Greenville writes,
“We’ve got prostitution, gangs, drugs and crime. We’ve got broken homes, broken hearts and broken lives.
In the midst of this we are trying to build a beautiful new church…
The poor will see a beautiful church rising in their community–amongst the flophouses and drug dens–and know that the Catholics here chose to stay here. We didn’t sell up and move to the suburbs where the money was. We stayed here to be a lighthouse in the dark…(with) a community center where we hope to offer subsidized child care for single mothers and a drop in center for old people is part of the vision too.” -Beauty and Poverty Read more here.
“The poor will see a beautiful church rising”. What does that say? Duncan G. Stroik sums it up well.
A church for the poor should not look impoverished. It is one of the few public buildings that those without status or money are always welcome to enter. The poor may not often visit the art museum, the symphony hall, or the stately hotel. However, a worthy church can give the poor the experience of art, fine music, and nobility that the rich and middle class are happy to pay for. And in this way the Church acknowledges that high culture should be even for those who have nothing. – Designing a Church For the Poor, Crisis Magazine Article here
Bishop Barry Jones of Christchurch, New Zealand outlines resource for building churches that includeds:
A place for worship and prayer in the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments as well as private devotion.
Beautiful; in that beauty reveals the nature of the church building in its deepest theological realities. House of God
Science Reports even recently revealed that science shows that beautiful churches are good for our health! “Beautiful urban architecture boosts health as much as green spaces”, writes Sarah Knapton. A stroll around St Paul’s Cathedral could be just as benefical to health as a walk in the countryside, say researchers at the University of Warwick”. -Science Reports
So the next time I hear “we should sell our churches and give the money to the poor”, I will agree that we need to care for the poor. But I will challenge the sentiment that stripping beauty out of churches is not the right way to do so. In fact, I may point out that we should be building more magnificent churches to give glory to God, to reveal the deepest theological realities and to give beauty to the poor.