The Reason for Beauty in Orthodox Worship

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A Golden Bell and a Pomegranate

Back when I was attending seminary - this was an Episcopal seminary, in Virginia-every time I went to chapel I'd see this Scripture painted on the back wall around the window: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel." I had plenty of time to study those words (especially when the sermon was boring). As I read and reread that saying of Jesus, I thought about what it takes to spread the Gospel. What tools do you need?

First, obviously, you need to know what you're talking about. You must be thoroughly familiar with your faith, with its teachings and practices, with the Scriptures. You need information, knowledge stored up in your head. As St. Peter says, "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the faith that is in you" (I Pet 3:15).

You need something else, too: you need love. St. Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds "he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." A missionary-whether it's one who travels to another continent, or one who talks to a neighbor over a back fence-must have love and compassion for those who need the Gospel. It's no good to approach it like it's an argument you're determined to win. I knew an evangelical protestant once who believed that it was his job to tell every person he met about Christ. After that, it was up to them to act on it. If they didn't, he said, they'd go to hell, but it wouldn't be his fault, because he told them.

Well, he may have been conveying some information clearly (it might not be accurate information, but it sure was clear), but he didn't frame it with love. It didn't come from the heart, so it didn't have much chance of getting into someone else's heart. Without love, as St Paul says, we are nothing but "a noisy gong or a clanging symbol."

What does it take to be a missionary? You need to know your stuff, and you need to have a tender heart toward the people you are trying to reach. But there is one more thing that Orthodox Christianity would contribute to the ministry of evangelism: beauty.

You've heard of St. Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. It was under his reign that Russia became a Christian nation, in 988 AD. He would have been a challenging guy to evangelize. Vladimir was his father's youngest son, and born of a concubine, so he had to fight for the throne, and killed his brother in the process. He wanted to marry a princess but she rejected him because of his mother's low birth. So Vladimir killed her father and took her by force. Like many Asian princes he had a vast harem - 7 wives and 800 concubines - and built temples to his pagan gods, where he offered human sacrifice, including Christians. Now, picture yourself ringing his doorbell, armed with a few tracts and the Orthodox Study Bible.

But Vladimir eventually decided that his people should adopt a single religion, and representatives of Judaism, Islam, Western and Eastern Christianity came to the court and presented their arguments. After that he sent envoys out to visit their countries and observe each religion firsthand.

When these delegates returned, they told Vladimir first what they saw among the Muslims in Bulgaria. The 11th century chronicle reports that they said, "There is no joy among them, only sorrow and a great stench; their religion is not a good one." They spoke of the Western Christian churches they saw in Germany, and said, "We saw many ceremonies in their temples, but of beauty we saw none."

Then they said what they had seen at the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople:

"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among humans, and their worship is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.

"And we cannot forget that beauty. Every man who has partaken of sweetness will not afterwards accept bitterness, and so we can no longer remain apart from it."

That convinced Prince Vladimir. He was baptized in the Crimea, and ordered that the pagan idols be dragged from their temples and thrown into the river. The Orthodox Christian faith that spread through Russia grew deep and strong. It sustained the Russian people so well that, when Communists persecuted them with torture and imprisonment, some 20 million Orthodox believers died for their faith.

Our Orthodox worship is strong on beauty. We fill the walls and even the ceilings of our churches with icons, the stories and heroes of Christian history. We illuminate these images with candles and oil lamps, and the light shimmers from the glossy paint and gold backgrounds. Our clergy and altar servers wear vestments of different colors of brocade, highlighted with gold and embroidered.

People who visit an Orthodox service are immediately struck by the visual beauty, but that's not the only sense affected. The whole service is sung and chanted, so the words of our prayers are framed with music. Incense rises from golden pots of incense. We taste the Eucharistic bread and wine, venerate icons, touch the hem of the priest's vestment, and greet each other with a holy kiss. This is a very rich sensory experience, touching every one of the five senses. It's very similar to what Prince Vladimir's envoys saw at Hagia Sophia, because we are members of that very same world-wide, timeless church.

Although beauty can help bring someone like Prince Vladimir to Orthodoxy, in our current culture some people mistrust it. They think it might lead to idolatry, and we might worship these beautiful things instead of looking through them to God. (I got an email once from a Baptist who had visited a Divine Liturgy, and noticed when the priest went by during the Great Entrance that some people bowed to venerate the hem of his garment. He asked me, "Why are they worshipping the priest?")

A few years ago I was being interviewed on an NPR (National Public Radio) 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: he said that the rings and poles for carrying the ark should be golden as well, and that a mercy seat should be placed on top of the ark. Two cherubim, also made of hammered gold, would face each other above it. And that's just the ark and mercy seat; there are also the table, the lampstand, the tabernacle, the veil, the altar, and the priestly vestments. All of these were likewise adorned with gold, silver, embroidery, and precious stones. The Lord is specific even about small details: he says that around the hem of the priests' garments there are to be embroidered pomegranates of purple, blue, and red, interspersed with golden bells: "a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe" (Exodus 28:34).

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 you picture this lavish worship space taking shape you can identify with Prince Vladimir's envoys: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth." Once that beauty had been tasted, they said, they could never be satisfied with anything less.

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.


Frederica Mathewes-Green