On Poverty and Decadent Worship

Cody Warta’s thought-provoking reminder of ‘the need to worship lavishly’ continues our timely series on the ‘art of poverty’. 

I was raised in the Nazarene church, where the first Sunday of the month is Alabaster Sunday. For those who are not familiar with this practice, it involves individuals using a small, functional piggybank in the form of a brick-shaped cardboard box. Throughout the month, participants would put their loose change in this box, then, on Alabaster Sunday, donate the contents in a special offering. The funding from these boxes would ultimately be used for building materials throughout the denomination.

In reflecting upon this practice as an adult, I have found it to be somewhat ironic in light of the narrative after which it was named. The use of the term ‘alabaster’ is meant to refer to the jar of nard used to anoint Jesus in the gospels (see Matt 26, Mark 14, Luke 7, and John 12). And yet, the purpose of this scene is to depict an act so excessive that it borders on wasteful. In the gospel of Mark, we learn that some of those who witnessed this anointing became indignant since they judged that the costly perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor (14:4). The effect of this narrative is to create a similar reaction when the alabaster jar—a treasure which, prior to this scene was likely saved and cared for over the years—is broken and its contents poured out onto Christ in an act of sheer extravagance. In this scene, the reader of the gospels is confronted with an exuberant form of worship that feels both comforting and terrifying. It speaks to a devotion that is natural to the human condition—the tendency of wanting to give ourselves fully to our beloved. Yet, as a Nazarene practitioner of Alabaster Sundays, I know that the contents of the piggybank boxes typically came from spare change found in one’s couch cushions and were donated for the purpose of meeting the practical needs of struggling congregations. In many ways, this practice seems more akin to the concerns of the onlookers in the scene (those who suggested that the nard should have been used for the poor) rather than the gospel writers.

I should be clear, although I am no longer Nazarene, I am not criticizing this practice itself. I am sure that much good has come of those boxes, and the custom of almsgiving is laudable. But, I do find that connecting this type of offering with the alabaster narrative is telling. It supports a mindset that has become somewhat common in contemporary Western (especially evangelical) churches, where lavishness that is not directly connected to some practicality is often looked upon with suspicion—a perspective with which I trust the reader will be familiar. According to such sensibleness, the use of offerings should be closely tied with good stewardship in that they should be useful (that is, practical) and well-implemented. If a given offering does not yield a significant return on investment, its purpose should be scrutinized and perhaps used elsewhere.

Indeed, the inclination to spend resources wisely is not a new one in Christianity (cf. Matt 24:45-51). However, much like the alabaster narrative, the importance of resourcefulness has always stood in tension with the heart behind giving offerings and sacrifices to God. This tension stands not only in the Christian religion but also Judaism. Take, for example, the excessive ‘wastefulness’ that would have been produced by the Levitical sacrificial system in which a staggering number of offerings were consumed entirely on the altar. Such sacrifices served many purposes, but in nearly all circumstances, there was an underlying understanding that they were given out of excessive love.[1] And yet, it is clear that ancient Judaism did not value wastefulness nor contempt for the poor (cf. Jer. 22:3; Micah 6:8).

In Christianity, this tension is perhaps most evident when we reflect on the practice of adorning the Eucharistic altar. On the one hand, since the source and summit of the Christian life takes place within the walls of our local parishes,[2] it is natural to desire that they be filled with beautiful art, costly fabrics, and precious metals. On the other hand, how can we dare to spend money adorning the altar when we could be using these funds to support those in abject poverty?

Indeed, just as the act of adorning the altar comes naturally out of Christian theology, so, too, does care for the poor. If the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church, then poverty is the soil into which this seed was sown. Since her birth, the Church has always maintained a mutually dependent relationship with the poor. Those in poverty not only constituted a large portion of the early Church,[3] but their presence also served to influence the way that she grew. The organization of the diaconate arose out of a concern for widows,[4] and liturgical practices were altered to accommodate individuals without the ability to participate themselves.[5]

Thus, I suggest there has been a historical tension between lavish worship and disciplined frugalness woven into the very tapestry of the Christian religion. Certainly, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that Christians have always agreed on how to balance these priorities. But, it does seem clear that there has been a tendency to hold these two goods simultaneously. It is right to be excessive in our worship of Christ, and it is good to care for our poor even if each parish and diocese works this out slightly differently.

However, in recent years, this conversation has subtly morphed away from a tension between two goods and into one about the practicality of how local parishes are to use their funding. One reason for this change may be due to shifting ecclesial needs whereby consumerism plays a larger role in how we orchestrate our liturgical services and construct our houses of worship. This propensity is perhaps most evident in denominations that have historically leaned towards simplistic decorum and deemphasized the practice of adorning the altar. Historically, the emphasis of such traditions has almost entirely focused on the external wings of their ministries (ignoring the above-described practice of adornment). However, with the increasing usage of expensive technology in such environments, these parishes are now needing to balance their ministerial focus with the taste for flashy musical worship and largescale gatherings. Rather than a tension between lavishness and careful stewardship, such expensive technology provides churches with the opportunity to invest in the experience of the worshipper—an investment that often fosters (in turn) higher attendance numbers. Somewhat surprisingly, the simplistic tent revivals of the 19th century have morphed into the megachurches of today with arrays of smoke machines and intelligent lighting.

Whereas previous generations grappled with whether or not to adorn the altar as an act of worship itself, many contemporary churches are asking whether such expensive technologies might be useful investments that will yield a more dramatic worship experience for the participants.

One might object that this development is not really a shift at all; perhaps the process of excessive decorum is akin to the contemporary desire to incorporate fancy technology which can stimulate a worshiper’s experience. After all, are smoke machines really that different from incense? Might intelligent lighting parallel with stained-glass windows?

Perhaps there is a point here. I would not deny that traditional features are a helpful means of encouraging an individual to enter a certain headspace, not unlike the concert-like atmosphere of many non-denominational churches in the US today. But it becomes clear that the two tendencies are manifestations of different theological priorities when we notice some of the outlying features of the traditional adorning practices. Take, for example, the Eucharistic tabernacle or the marble altar—both of which are extraordinarily expensive and yet traditionally covered with a veil. Consider, too, the practice of altar screens in which the view for the laity was often impeded if not completely obstructed. I suspect that most contemporary evangelicals would find such features wholly unjustifiable since their motivation for investing in the ‘worship experience’ more naturally relies upon encouraging some euphoric state—not on providing expensive features which will go unnoticed by the average worshipper. Yet expensive instruments of worship that are hidden from plain view provide little benefit to the participant.

Thus, there is reason to affirm that conversations around church decorum have shifted away from prioritizing two goods (care for the poor and excessive adoration) and instead shifted towards discerning the ‘usefulness’ of such investments—where the way that we invest in the sanctuary is expected to produce an intended result in the experience of the laity. We have reduced our alabaster offerings to their functionality.

From this perspective, it would be hard to find any justification for using gold and silk to decorate the church. Special effects may encourage awe and wonder, but it is hard to see such practical use for marble altars—at least not to the extent that would justify their expense.

I see a great irony in the ways that we have begun reworking this issue. Namely, by focusing on ‘usefulness,’ we have forgotten that the act of balancing our care for the poor with our desire to make extravagant offerings need not always be at odds with each other. One key example is how the recent ‘multi-purposing’ of ‘sacred spaces’ has removed from the poor the ability to participate in extravagant worship full-stop.

By the term ‘sacred space’, I mean to describe a location set aside for a limited purpose. This concept shows up across various human activities but is particularly prominent in the context of religion.[6] The designation of ‘sacred space’ serves to emphasize the significance of what occurs there. It fosters an atmosphere of extravagant and extraordinary worship that I would describe as rich. ‘Sacred spaces’ are set apart as a way for a community to remain faithful to their most holy practices. The designation of a ‘sacred space’ as such intentionally commands a particular way of being present and heightens one’s sense of respect.

But, the shift towards ‘usefulness’ has spurred a focus away from designated worship spaces in recent years. Especially in Protestant churches, it is not uncommon to see the central sanctuary designed as a multipurpose room.[7] Here, there seems to be a clear emphasis on the functionality of the physical spaces of a parish. These multipurpose rooms provide more area for ministry and perhaps save churches money so that they might invest more practically.

But, in doing so, I worry that we are overlooking the very human need to participate in lavish worship. We risk forgetting about the spiritual needs of our communities, including the very individuals who are supposed to benefit from our now stripped-down houses of worship. One of the more striking consequences of our robust practicality is that those who have grown up in the last forty years have received significantly less exposure to such reserved areas. As a result, it can be easy to overlook the role that these spaces play in our sense of belonging and our ability to worship well.

Let us remember the very human need to worship lavishly; as we scrutinize church funding, we should not forget that there is value in decadence.

It may be worthwhile for the reader to conduct an experiment. Go and find a center of worship (perhaps a church or synagogue) whose sanctuary is open to the public for prayer but not intended to be used for activities beyond religious ceremonies. Spend an hour or so there. Notice how these buildings feel; notice how—even without a bit of instruction—there is a natural inclination against doing something that might alter its palpable sanctity. It is as if the bones of these buildings have learned how to facilitate the contemplation of those who enter.

I see it as unfortunate that our tending towards a focus on ‘usefulness’ has caused such spaces to become more and more infrequent. And yet, even individuals in abject poverty need such spaces. Notice that the woman in the alabaster narrative—whom John identifies as Mary Magdalene—was clearly not a person of financial means. It is unknown where she received the nard (although some have speculated that it may have been her dowry), but it is clear that this would have been an act of extreme worship for her. Adorned churches allow us to partake in such excessive worship communally. Ironically, by eliminating such spaces, we remove the ability for communities to participate in the excessiveness of alabaster.

This is the simple warning that I wish to emphasize: as we have conversations about how to care for those in poverty and those who face disproportionate degrees of injustice, let us remember the very human need to worship lavishly; as we scrutinize church funding, we should not forget that there is value in decadence. To lose sight of this, and to cease offering such opportunities of rich worship, may be to overlook the needs of those very people we are aiming to serve.

[1] See Scott Shauf, Jesus the Sacrifice: A Historical and Theological Study (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2022).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 1324.

[3] Peter Lampe and Marshall D. Johnson, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries, 1st Fortress Press ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 65–66.

[4] Acts 6

[5] Lampe and Johnson, From Paul to Valentinus, 94–97.

[6] https://www.deseret.com/2016/10/2/20597275/why-sacred-spaces-matter-in-the-21st-century#basilica-di-santa-croce-in-florence-italy

[7] https://www.multibriefs.com/briefs/exclusive/church_building_design_trends_21st_century.html#.Yzw9WezMI-R

Author

  • Cody C. Warta is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, where he is studying the nature of sacrifice and the metaphysics of the Eucharist. His research digs deeply into the writings of Thomas Aquinas and tries to put Thomistic metaphysics in dialogue with contemporary philosophy. He is a father, husband, and life-long catechumen.

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