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In the course of Morning Prayer, Anglicans often read or sing together a canticle (a liturgical hymn) called the Venite (“Come”) – named after the first word in Latin of Psalm 95.
Although the Venite is mostly Psalm 95, it also contains the following curious words of Scripture from Psalm 96:
“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”
What does it mean to worship God in the beauty of holiness?
How often do groups concerned with holiness seem equally obsessed with is beauty? How much of what the world calls beautiful would we call holy? What does beauty have to do with holiness?
The Beautiful Holiness of the Triune God
Quite a lot, actually, according to the Scriptures. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that the Triune God alone is holy, and that his Triune holiness is beautiful.
I, like many evangelicals, came from an environment which rightly prized the clarity of the Gospel. Even as a child, I understood to fear God as holy, and to speak of Him accordingly. The vast majority of Christian reflection, however, has gone even farther than this. The blessed Trinity is to be feared, of course, and yet within this reverent fear, He is to be delighted in as sublimely beautiful. According to Jonathan Edwards, there is perhaps no clearer sign of a person’s being born again than his delight in the beauty of God’s holiness.
This is entirely consistent with Edwards’ wonderful Trinitarian line:
“God has forever known Himself in a sweet and holy society as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
God finds Himself delightful. The unity of Persons within the Godhead is beautiful. And the joy of the Christian is to be brought into God’s divine communion.
That God would send His Son to assume our nature, in order to forgive, heal, and restore us to the inner life of the Trinity is sweetly beautiful. That God would do this for us while we were yet sinners, is shockingly beautiful. Though we have each gone our own way, refusing the glory of God and stubbornly persisting in lifeless idolatry, God has sought and found us, by the sacrifice of His Son, by the pouring out of His Spirit. The eternal, Triune God, who forever receives the perpetual adoration of terrifying, heavenly angels, assumed human flesh and blood, broke bread with sinners, and breathed his dying breath, bleeding and suffocating on a cross.
The Gospel proclaims the beautiful holiness of God. If the Gospel is received as true, it is thereby acknowledged as possessing an ineffable holiness and beauty. Anyone who believes this Gospel finds God uniquely beautiful.
The Beautiful Holiness of the Church?
Yet, we often assume that “the beauty of holiness” which befits the Church is ordinary, mundane. Or even worse, we assume that discussions of “beauty,” are a distraction from more important matters of truth and justice.
And yet, in a world that does not know the beauty of holiness, the Church is uniquely equipped and called to worship God in the beauty of holiness.
Beauty is not pragmatic. Beauty serves no utilitarian purpose. Why do we like beauty? An atheist might pose a different answer, but a Christian answer would run something like what I have provided. For the Christian, therefore, beauty, is an article of our faith, an attribute of God, an aesthetic of our worship.
Beautiful Holiness vs. Liturgical “Necessity”
Though what I have said thus far is obvious, it contains far-reaching consequences which I do not believe are taken quite seriously enough. Namely, that the question, “Is this necessary,” is utterly out of place regarding the liturgy.
Are candles necessary? Are robes necessary? Is the collect for purity necessary, in which we ask God to “cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” necessary?
Perhaps not, but if the Lord of heaven and earth, adored by Seraphim and Cherubim, proclaimed by the prophets, and preached by the apostles, comes on a Sunday morning, is “necessity” really fitting?
Is all this formality really necessary on a Sunday morning?
From a pragmatic standpoint, of course not. By the same measure, however, wedding dresses are not necessary at weddings. From a pragmatic point of view, no ritual is necessary in life. A somber demeanor is not necessary at funerals. Laughter is not necessary at children’s birthday parties. Yet we intuitively consider all those things necessary.
Are we wrong?
No. We are the kind of people who believe life to be more than a merely material series of chemical reactions. We believe that communal rites are more than an arbitrary expression of superficial feelings. We believe that some things are far weightier than what their immediate, tangible benefits suggest.
The weightiness of life is too heavy to be communicated in words alone. Life is not a mere chemical presence, mathematically quantified. If the Gospel is true, than the beauty of God which animates and pervades creation is far truer than all of our sinful perversions and imitations of it. We believe that the commemoration and celebration of love and truth should be beautiful, because love and truth are beautiful.
If pragmatism alone is true, then worship is useless.
Why is worship useless? Because of all the things in creation to be used, God is not one of them—He is the Creator, and he will not be used.
Worship is not a useful exercise. It is the unforced love of the Trinity manifest locally in Christ’s romantic union with the Church.
God is truer than pragmatism, and the celebration of His presence contains a glory which cannot be compared to football games, pop concerts, or comedic routines. Since the beauty of God’s holiness is incomparable to anything else, perhaps beautiful rites, colors, wardrobes, melodies, and smells should be used on a Sunday morning that would simply feel too extravagant anywhere else. Perhaps heaven does manifest its own holy beauty on earth as a gift – in order to receive it back as beautiful, holy praise.