Worship and Identity: The Role of Beauty in the Church

A church service may look like a gathering of very ordinary people – with all our sins and weaknesses – but that is just what it looks like, not what it is.

Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, he is there present — this is his promise. But it runs deeper still. We are gathered to be fed by him in Word and Sacrament, transformed by him, sent forth to bring his light into the world. And so the way that we worship is both an indication of what we know about God and a way by which He operates to transform us more and more into the men and women He made us to be.

God is the Creator, the ultimate Artist. Every bit of natural beauty comes from His hand; our own ability to see and respond to beauty comes from being made in His image. Responding to beauty in the here-and-now, the world that God made (and called good), is a foretaste of how we will rejoice in the eternal, dynamic, unfading beauty in the redeemed creation.

The experience of worship can orient us toward that divine beauty; everything from architecture to vestments to music can preach to us something that we need to hear: that our Father loves us extravagantly and pours out His grace on us in joyous abundance, if we will but turn to Him.

Certainly, all the money used to build a church and make it beautiful could be given to the poor instead — but that would not be feeding the poor in their complete hunger. Yes, we must care for the physical needs of the weak, the poor, the helpless, but we must also care for their hunger for beauty and meaning, for nourishment for the heart and soul. And as we do so, we should be reminded of our own genuine poverty of spirit. We come to God with empty hands. To be moved by beauty in worship, beauty that is intentionally oriented toward the living God, is a gift that cannot be used up. It is a vision into the very nature of God, who is the source of all that is good. It can open up a window in the heart for the light of Christ to shine into.

But the beauty says even more. We are not spectators, but participants. We are part of the Church who is the Bride of Christ.

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; music, or sacred silence; candles; icons; gold and red and blue, rich colors for our King; beauty in proportion and graceful design even if there is little ornament. 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!

Beauty reminds us of who we are in Christ.

We are the Bride, made beautiful for our Bridegroom.

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

The header photo, “beauty”, is copyright (c) 2008 sanberdoo and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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