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The Beauty of the Church: Its Place and Purpose

By The Right Rev. Anthony Michaels, Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest

When you have your wedding photo framed and hung in your home, you put that picture in the most expensive and elaborate frame you can afford. You do not think of the cost so much as the event it preserves and the feelings experienced. In this way, and with all family pictures, something more than paper and ink and color prints are present for us. It is the sacrament of the moment that counts. Material things become the conveyer or vehicle for an invisible and spiritual reality which is far more precious to us than the expense demanded to express it. Yet, if these special times in our lives are not adorned with the beauty and expense of frames and colors we would cheapen them, turn something that for us was wonderful into a common, forgotten and ordinary thing. The beauty of the material package attracts us to the lasting value of the experience which that package holds. 

The icons we see in Church are material things: wood, paint, lamination, etc. But in them is the presence of the wonder-working saint. Material things deliver the presence of the person. Our material bodies, following our baptism and chrismation, carry our immortal and beautiful soul, which is invisible to the naked eye. St. Paul has written of this: "Do you not realize that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is in you?"[1 Cor. 6:19-20] Do we not ask the Holy Spirit to come down upon the bread and wine and make it the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Church? Do we not need the material church in order for the priest to say those words? Is not the Church the Body of Christ? Should we not clothe the Body of Christ in beauty? Is not the vested priest the presence sacramentally of the glorified Christ when the Divine Liturgy is served? Can we ever tolerate seeing Christ is street clothes? 

We should read the scripture which talks about the anointing of Jesus before His Crucifixion: "Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, `Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.' But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, 'Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me."'[Mat. 26.6-11] Did Jesus ever condemn the beauty of the Temple or comment on the wealth it contained? No, He knew that the beauty of the material Temple produces the presence of heavenly worship. He even praised the poor widow who loved God so much in His material sanctuary that she gave all her money to keep it beautiful: "He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she has."'[Lk. 2.1-4] 

When the Hebrew slaves left Egypt after the plagues, the Egyptians gave them enormous wealth — as if paying them reparations for all that slave labor that built Pharaohs' monuments. "Speak now in the hearing of the people that they ask, every man of his neighbor and every woman of her neighbor, jewelry of silver and of gold."[Exod. 11.2] We know that this wealth was used exclusively for the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, for the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat and the furnishings of the Tabernacle (see Exod. 25. 1-9, the rest of ch. 25 and all of chs. 26-31) Also, see the chapters 35 and 36 in the book of Exodus to see the generosity and expense of the Old Testament Tabernacle and how the people understood the purpose of their private wealth: it was for sacred and public worship! The building of Solomon's Temple in the books of Kings also makes this point.

Most of all the depiction of paradise after the Second Coming of Christ in the book of Revelation describes the beauty of the New Jerusalem — which we claim is already here, in anticipation, in the Church, the Kingdom of God on earth, according to our theology (Rev. 21.9-21). 

If we are receiving the most important person we know, the person we love and need the most for dinner, wouldn't we put out our best china and utensils and table cloths and seat them at the polished dining room table? Don't we want to give Jesus our Savior, who comes to visit us in His Church and to give us His Holy Body and Blood, the best we have, our very best? It cost Him everything He is to save us. Shouldn't it cost us something — much less than He gave for us — to receive Him? Doesn't love demand that? 

The following reflection was first published in the Winter 2014/2015 edition of DIAKONIA, the newsletter of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Women of North America.