Steadfast in Society: Aesthetics as Catechesis
“These are not floor plans but explorations of forms that distinguish relationship between congregation, presider, and the transcendent.”
–Father Gilbert Sunghera
Ahhhh, the sweet sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste of liturgics! How wonderfully important it is that we receive the truth in a blissful, heavenly, and sacred space. Liturgics gives us a fantastic platform from which we receive the proclamation of the Gospel every single Sunday. Never should we just shrug off the importance of a beautiful sacred space in which we receive God’s gifts which are given to us so freely from our Lord Jesus Christ. Being from the Bible belt and growing up in that environment I have seen the attitudes of the so called evangelicals toward the Holy space from where God gives us His most Holy things. I have seen the disrespect of the altar, of the chancel, of the sanctuary, and of course the body and blood of our Lord. The deeper problem here regarding the evangelicals is not that of the aesthetics but of teaching, but why would we ever separate the two? Aesthetics are catechesis!
So, the question must be asked, “What are we teaching God’s people in their sight?” The beauty of God’s house and of His throne, which is the Altar from which we are fed His body and blood, should bring our minds to the Holy things of God. What are we teaching the flock when we remove the Baptismal font, Altar, Paschal candle, crucifix, etc.? We are teaching that it is not only, okay but efficacious that we remove Christ from our eyes! Where the font and the Altar goes, so goes Christ! Thus, we should take much time in considering the functions and importance of beautifying God’s own house.
Father Gilbert writes and quotes Rudolf Schwarz the German liturgical architect in Father Gilbert’s lecture in Tampa, Florida in his paper, “Liturgical Architecture and Participation,” “For Christians, the Christ experience remains paramount. Schwarz links sacred body and human body through Incarnation, God’s revelation of God’s self through the human form of Jesus. ‘The Architect must believe that God has revealed his own being in the sacred history and he must believe that therefore even God Himself is not something or other but rather a clear form, and also that, glorifying him, one gives him back his own message when, in the building of a church, one forms creation to sacred body.’”
Now, while I am not a huge fan of Father Gilbert’s manifestations of his imagination into reality, he and Schwarz are correct in the importance of the sacred space of God and His Son Jesus Christ. When we walk into the sanctuary we should see heaven it’s self here on our own tiny piece of earth. When we look at the first picture above of Kramer Chapel, designed by Eero Saarinen, it is obvious that the focal point of the chapel and the focal point of our Theology is the Altar of Christ! It is from the Altar that forgiveness flows freely and we are fed the merits of Jesus Christ the crucified. Now could we convey that wonderful truth in the middle of a Doctor’s office waiting room? No. So, we see that aesthetics have much to teach us concerning the forgiveness of sins and the proper proclamation of the Gospel.
For this reason, Divine Savior Lutheran Church added beautiful hardwood to our chancel. We did this to embody the sacred space and to bring into focus the holy and free gifts that God gives us and to underline the point that in the Word, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper we truly have heaven on earth. By laying hardwood only on the chancel we have been given a unique opportunity to teach and proclaim God’s perfect Law and His Holy and saving Gospel. Where do we seek God? We seek Him in the Holy of Holies and central to that is the Altar where the life giving blood is shed and fed to we poor beggars! Separating the chancel also teaches that we as Christians who live in the Word are in the world and yet are not of the world and that even in the midst of despair and sin in this world there still stands the Redeemer (not far off, but in the midst of us) who rescues us from every and all evil.
If presented to us, would we miss an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to another person? No, of course we wouldn’t! We would proclaim the Gospel in love, truth, and in boldness. We have that opportunity each and every Sunday, not only in sound, touch, and taste but also in sight! Aesthetics, done properly, proclaims everlasting truths about Christ our Lord. Therefore, take time and care in teaching the faithful the importance of symbolism and aesthetics. Let us instruct rightly and in accordance with the truth of the Word of God and proclaim that all of God’s good things are gifts that build and benefit His own people, or as the Psalmist writes, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psalm 34:8)”