Steadfast in Society: Aesthetics as Catechesis

October 18th, 2012 Post by

“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)”






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  1. Carl H
    October 18th, 2012 at 10:59 | #1

    “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

    “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
    What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
    Did not my hand make all these things?’”

    (Acts 7:48-50)

  2. NathanG92
    October 18th, 2012 at 11:14 | #2

    @Carl H #1
    But the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And He still comes to us in Word and Sacrament. Communicating this via architecture is important. What does it tell people, even without words, if the church architecture involves auditorium-style features and theater style seating? It automatically communicates that this worship service is a performance in which we are merely spectators. False doctrine, even if nothing of that sort is said. Our government dumps money into memorials for everything (and rightly so), and the design is treated with such importance that they’ve actually been the cause of national controversy. What does it say about our faith if we refuse to put thought into church architecture?

    I know congregations these days can’t afford a St. Peter’s Basilica. But there’s a difference between saying “I can worship God with just a table and chairs in a shack” when that is all you have, and saying the same thing as an excuse to not put money or thought into your worship space.

    I remember going on a road trip with my family through the deep south. Some churches we saw on the road were beautiful. Some were just awful. At one moment, one of us actually said, “What kind of church is that? Oh wait, that’s actually a warehouse.” When you can’t distinguish your church from an aluminum-sided warehouse, there’s a problem.

  3. Carol Broome
    October 18th, 2012 at 12:01 | #3

    There is an excellent treatment of this in a ULCMN newsletter from about a year ago:
    http://www.ulcmn.org/Files/Newsletters/Newsletter%20-%20Winter%202011.pdf

    A relevant excerpt:
    ‘…Lutherans are, like the patriarchs and the saints who have gone before us, a sacramental people. We believe that the Father’s will, the Son’s mercy, and the Spirit’s grace are all given and accomplished through means. We know that God does not conjure faith in us out of thin air, but that He works through Water, through Word, and through Supper to do this. We know that the reason that God established the Church on earth is so that we might have access to these sacramental means of grace and by them have access to Him.

    Sacramental Christians value the sacred place where this encounter with God happens. They build altars, and buildings to house them, to mark the places where they have met and continue to meet Him. In a way, the church building itself becomes a sacramental sign; not that it delivers grace itself, but that it proclaims that God is present and at work in a particular place. By its very existence it preaches something to the community and to the people of the Church. Its stones cry out, “turn in here if you seek wisdom, if you seek knowledge, if you seek brotherhood, if you seek forgiveness, if you seek Christ.”’

  4. #4 Kitty
    October 18th, 2012 at 12:48 | #4

    it is obvious that the focal point of the chapel and the focal point of our Theology is the Altar of Christ!

    Well, then why is the altar pressed up against the back wall instead of in the very midst of the congregation? And if a church were really concerned about catechesis as aesthetics then why don’t we find the baptismal font at the entrance?

  5. Pr. Don Kirchner
    October 18th, 2012 at 13:23 | #5

    “In a way, the church building itself becomes a sacramental sign; not that it delivers grace itself, but that it proclaims that God is present and at work in a particular place.”

    Goodness, why is Rev. Kind being so shy? Of course the aesthetics of a church building or chapel can be a means of grace! A crucifix, a stained glass window, and other forms of art can be means of grace. As stated in the article:

    “So, we see that aesthetics have much to teach us concerning the forgiveness of sins and the proper proclamation of the Gospel.”

    In fact, it can proclaim the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins.

    Pr. Don Kirchner
    “Heaven’s OK, but it’s not the end of the world.” Jeff Gibbs

  6. Jason
    October 18th, 2012 at 13:35 | #6

    @#4 Kitty #4

    For good order. Until recently, with microphone technology, doing church-in-the-round was difficult in that some people would be at the pastor’s back and could not hear him so well.

    And I have seen some congregations that have a baptismal font towards the front. In the church I grew up in, the last pastor (now retired) brought the font out on hiding and placed it at the front of the sanctuary (a.k.a. communion rail) so that all the congregation could see every week both sacraments. I have been in different churches where it is at the beginning of the nave (pew area), so that when people entered they would be reminded of their baptismal vow as they entered God’s presense. Some of them even made a sign of the cross, like Catholics do.

    So does your church make the altar and font noticable and the center of attention? If not, why?
    And would you press your pastor and elders for explaining its negligence, and encourage them to place somewhere appropriate?

    And no, my church does not have the font in view. But when the pastor reads the Gospel lessons he does come down the aisle, so the Word is in the midst of the congregation.

  7. #4 Kitty
    October 18th, 2012 at 14:06 | #7

    @Jason #6

    So does your church make the altar and font noticable and the center of attention? If not, why?
    And would you press your pastor and elders for explaining its negligence, and encourage them to place somewhere appropriate?

    I brought up moving the baptismal font to the entrance of our church a few years ago before an LLL meeting. The pastor was in attendence as well as many of the elders. I argued that it would not only remind us of our baptisms but that it is also a physical symbol of how one enters the assembly of “those who are called out”. When I got to the part about using the water to make the sign of the cross I got laughter and stupid jokes. Mission failed.

  8. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 18th, 2012 at 14:41 | #8

    @#4 Kitty #4

    Well, then why is the altar pressed up against the back wall instead of in the very midst of the congregation?

    It’s not pressed up against the wall. It’s freestanding.

  9. #4 Kitty
    October 18th, 2012 at 14:44 | #9

    @Pastor Gaven Mize #8
    Sorry, I meant Kramer Chapel. It’s not only pressed up against the wall (away from the congregation) but it’s also behind bars.

  10. Jason
    October 18th, 2012 at 15:11 | #10

    @#4 Kitty #7

    I am sorry for your ridicule. That is truly sad. I have always hoped that the seminaries have gotten better, and that newer guys coming out would be more churchy, and that these true shepherds would start teaching their congregations giving our best to God. If pictures are worth 1000 words, then altars and fonts, stain glass windows, wood cuttings… I would hope we would want to be in a holy and sacred place, not some who-gives-a-s*** generic warehouse. I commend you for trying.

  11. #4 Kitty
    October 18th, 2012 at 15:48 | #11

    @Jason #10
    I partly blame myself; I never should have referred to it as “holy water”.

  12. Rev. McCall
    October 18th, 2012 at 17:23 | #12

    I have found though that we quickly fail to appreciate such aesthetics if they are not taught and explained to each generation. The minute people begin to not understand why something is in the church and what it teaches is the minute they begin clammoring to replace or remove it.
    Now I know some on here do not like a childrens message per se, but when I did them I often tried to use them as a chance to teach the kids something about the aesthetics and what was going on. Why do I wear different colored stoles? Why does the pastor preach from the pulpit? Why do we stand for the Gospel? etc.

  13. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 18th, 2012 at 17:35 | #13

    @#4 Kitty #9

    Kramer Chapel’s Altar is also freestanding.

  14. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 18th, 2012 at 17:39 | #14

    @Rev. McCall #12

    Rev. McCall, I think you it the nail on the head. The is exactly these things get lost in the land of, “who cares,” or worse “it’s just in the way.” Take the catchesis out of the church and the church goes also.

  15. Robert
    October 18th, 2012 at 20:54 | #15

    Yes, I believe in Jesus because of hardwood floors.

  16. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 18th, 2012 at 21:30 | #16

    @Robert #15

    That is a ludicrous and condescending statement that misses my whole point. But thank you for your “contribution.”

  17. Pr. Don Kirchner
    October 19th, 2012 at 08:43 | #17

    No, Rev. Mize, I think Robert did get your point; he simply disagrees with it. He does not think things like nice, new hardwood floors in the chancel and perhaps other aesthetics are as important to the Gospel as you and I do.

    Robert’s point is not ludicrous at all. Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps somewhat condescending. The two of you simply disagree.

    Pr. Don Kirchner
    “Heaven’s OK, but it’s not the end of the world.” Jeff Gibbs

  18. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 19th, 2012 at 09:14 | #18

    @Pr. Don Kirchner #17

    There are more appropriate ways of disagreeing.

  19. October 19th, 2012 at 09:19 | #19

    The article raises good points.

    It has always struck me as interesting that the chapel at the seminary in Fort Wayne is rather stark and devoid of the visual arts; whereas, a short drive south and you find yourself in one of the most elaborately ornamented church buildings in The LCMS, St. Paul, Fort Wayne, and then to the southeast, you have Zion, with an altar that is stunningly ornamented.

    There will be various styles and tastes.

    Of course, the most humble of worship structures in Africa, with mud walls and sticks and straw for roofing is the Holy of Holies on earth, for indeed, there as well the Lord Christ deigns to dwells among us via His Word and Sacraments.

    I think when and where it is possible, it is a wonderful thing when the people of God do their best to prepare a worship space that confesses the Faith as beautifully as possible.

  20. Ben Dose
    October 19th, 2012 at 11:42 | #20

    I love this article. Being a pastor myself we were through a remodeling project last fall and winter. One of the great things about the remodeling was being able to talk theology and catechesis with the congregation members! Check out the pics from our facebook page.

    Blessings,
    Ben

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.256625461075418&type=1

  21. October 19th, 2012 at 12:21 | #21

    Beautiful, amazing how well things can be done, with even some new paint!!

    Beautiful

  22. Rev. McCall
    October 21st, 2012 at 07:46 | #22

    @Pr. Don Kirchner #17
    I beg to differ. The point was not that people believe or will believe in Jesus because of aesthetics. The point was ‘can we use aesthetics to teach people more about Jesus and what is going on in church?’ Big difference and one that is clearly missed by the comment.

  23. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 21st, 2012 at 08:50 | #23

    @Rev. Paul T. McCain #19
    Rev. McCain, I agree. One of the most beautiful things I have seen was a child being baptized in an old tub with a Tupperware container in Africa. That was what they had to use… so they used it to wash clean an infant. The point of liturgical aesthetics is to teach Christ to His people. When and where we are able we should strive to beautify our sacred spaces to catechize our flock. When done correctly and with care people are instructed by what they see, just as they are by what they hear, smell, feel, etc.

  24. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 21st, 2012 at 08:55 | #24

    @Rev. McCall #22
    Rev. McCall, once again we agree. The article was to point to aesthetics as catechesis. In other words, instructed in the Gospel of Christ in their sight. This, I’m afraid, is where Robert missed te boat.

  25. Pastor Gaven Mize
    October 21st, 2012 at 09:02 | #25

    @Ben Dose #20
    Ben, what a beautiful sanctuary you have! It is also in the act of remodeling that we are afford a great teaching opportunity for our people to learn. “Where should the baptismal font go and why?” “What colors should we use?” “How can we emphasis the means of grace in our sacred space?” Etc. I’m sure your flock will be greatly enriched by the recent remodeling.

    A side note: one thing that always stuck out to me at St. Paul in Fort Wayne (as Rev. McCain brought up) was their use of gold flake on the ceiling. Every line of it points to the altar of Christ. It’s such a small detail yet, speaks volumes!

  26. helen
    October 21st, 2012 at 21:18 | #26

    @Ben Dose #20

    Pastor Dose,
    What remodeling did you do? It looks as if you already had one of the magnificent old Danish style altars (which “modern” churches frequently give away and replace with a stark “table”). [or a band] :(
    Are you meaning paint primarily, or have I missed something obvious?

  27. helen
    October 21st, 2012 at 21:29 | #27

    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

    A church down here, rededicated last month after extensive remodeling, also carried out your concept of hardwood floors in the chancel. The present Pastor brought the baptismal font to the head of the aisle, from the corner it was parked in between baptisms. To establish its place there, a niche repeating the shape of the font was made in the chancel floor, in the middle of the altar rail, when the floors were redone.

  28. Ben Dose
    October 21st, 2012 at 21:45 | #28

    helen :@Ben Dose #20
    Pastor Dose,What remodeling did you do? It looks as if you already had one of the magnificent old Danish style altars (which “modern” churches frequently give away and replace with a stark “table”). [or a band] Are you meaning paint primarily, or have I missed something obvious?

    @ Helen #27

    Yes you are correct. I should say it was redecoration rather than remodeling. There was some remodeling that happened, but is hard to see in the photos. We heard the same things from the redecoratoring company that a Roman Catholic Church had an altar like ours and they threw it out in the 70’s and now wanted to rebuild one. The company we bought pews from was actually given the job to build a new ornate altar like the one we have…what a project. This is where the discussion of theology and catechesis came in as many people “heard” we were going to do something similar to our pulpit…no that was not the case. The Sanctuary is a place that reflects our theology.

  29. helen
    October 22nd, 2012 at 08:00 | #29

    @Ben Dose #28
    The Sanctuary is a place that reflects our theology.

    And it’s a beautiful expression of “Glory to God”!
    Thank you for the pictures.
    God bless the work!

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