Some would argue that the formality of a traditional church and its trappings make them inaccessible, particularly to the young. Maria von Trapp thinks otherwise. Hear what she says about Holy Week:
Beauty—and formality, and ceremony—makes us sit up and notice. “Pay attention,” it tells us. “This is important.” Consider the inherent sacredness of the traditional wedding ceremony: We hush when the bride approaches; we rise to honor her presence. How sacred would this seem if the bride ascended the aisle in sweatpants, or if the groom came to meet her in gym shorts? But that is exactly what we have become: a bride in sweatpants, drinking her morning coffee in the great living room of the informal American church.
If beauty and formality tells us “this matters,” its absence tells us that “this doesn’t.” This summer, the Fixed Point Foundation released details of a much-quoted study analyzing the attrition of young people from the church. One complaint that emerged was that the young adults in question found “church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant.” (They have a point: If church sanctuaries are merely places to hear music, see friends, and enjoy our morning coffee, there are other places where the music is better, the coffee is fresher, and the fellowship less forced.)
What, exactly, is the Important Thing that the beauty of the liturgy tells us to notice? It is the Eucharist, the very presence of Christ among us. It is the Gospel, the story—our story—that has been handed down through millennia. It is the saints, millions upon millions who have lived out the same struggles as we do—and lived joyously.
The beauty of the liturgy entices and strengthens the faithful. But why, you might ask, does this matter to the rest of the world?
Christ’s words to Peter were for us all: It is our job to feed the world. We take these words both literally and figuratively; homilies and soup kitchens are equally worthy ministries. But belonging to a sacramental church also means believing that paint, paper, and the stones of a church can be holy as well, that art can be fused with the goodness of God and change the world, that beauty can feed the faithful and the unchurched alike. When, like Maria von Trapp, I strayed from the church, I still listened to Wesley’s choral anthems and Benedictine chant. I could sense the grace of God in them. And for my part, at least, it was not podcasts or coffee bars or socially relevant sermons that brought me back to the fold: Instead, I felt myself drawn in by the glow of a Presbyterian church at Christmastime.
The gospel is a message of beauty and peace, but peace in the midst of the world, in the midst of pain. We do not gloss over the ugliness of the world: We acknowledge it and lend it meaning. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, my priest held a memorial service for the slaughtered. The incense and chanted hymns did not keep me and the other parishioners from weeping, but they did help us feel that the deaths were not in vain, that God acknowledged our sorrow. Seen through the eyes of the church, hallowed through the beauty of her liturgy, even the most horrific martyrdoms can become tales of love for the healing of the world.