Our most recent foray into experiential worship was held during what Anglicans call “Holy Week” (all weeks are equally holy in my opinion). “Journey into Easter” was a series of ten prayer stations se up in our church hall, based on Jesus’ journey from the Last Supper to the Resurrection and ending with Pentecost. Each station involved doing something – smashing a plate, planting a seed or sticking a Band-Aid on your hand.
About 65 people went through over two days. From the reflections in the visitors’ books, it was clear that it made for a powerful time of worship. Comments included: “An assault on the senses that reached me to the core”; “I honestly felt closer to God”; “Touching the heart of Good Friday”; “I truly felt more about the journey than ever before”; and “A wonderful chance to reflect and strengthen our faith”.
If you look at the photos from the Journey, you’ll see it looks more like a modern art exhibition than a traditional worship space. But while beauty is a vital part of art, it has also traditionally been a part of worship – especially Anglican worship.
Sometimes we are suspicious of beauty in worship – we fear it may distract us from God. This can be the case – especially if we are concerned to possess beautiful (or luxurious) things, rather than appreciate them for themselves. Yet “every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father” (James 1:17) and thus can lead us back to God.
As St Augustine writes (in Confessions):
I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new! … I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. The beautiful things of this world kept me from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have had no being at all.
We are familiar with calling God Father or Lord, but Beauty? Surely that’s a bit frivolous for the Creator of all? But when God made the world and proclaimed it “good” (see Genesis 1), I suspect God wasn’t just making a judgement on its moral qualities, or how well things fitted together – God was glorying in creation’s beauty, just as an artist admires a finished painting. And as beings made in God’s image, designed to fit perfectly into this “good” creation, we humans are made to appreciate beauty – just as we are created to worship God.
Let’s skip forward from Genesis to Revelation. In 21:10-21 we see a picture of the New Jerusalem, symbol of the eternal dwelling together of God and humanity. Made of precious stones, gold and pearls, the place is so outrageously beautiful it’s almost over the top. Here, our God-given love for beauty is satisfied as we fulfil our ultimate purpose – to give God the glory.
We aren’t living in the New Jerusalem – yet. And there is plenty of ugliness around us – in our lives and in our neighbours’. Yet there is also a surplus of beauty, to celebrate, to thank God for, and to use as a starting point for worship of our God – “Beauty at once so ancient and so new”.