Sunday, September 28, 2008

Greek To Me

Went to the big annual Greek Festival at the St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church campus in Irvine yesterday. The weather was pleasant, the food delicious, the live Greek music infectious and the company (The Farrs, Fosters and Taits joined Robin, JeanneAnn and me) delightful.

I am making friends with a man who goes to the festival every year. He suggested we take the time to take one of the tours of the church offered throughout the festival. So, at 7:30 p.m., we joined Father Steve, the Pastor of St. Paul's, for his "tour" which really turned out to be more of a sit down lecture with Q & A following.

As a building, St. Paul's is impressive. The huge mosaic at the front is an icon of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus. These central figures are flanked by two archangels. Father Steve said it consisted of 1.2 million pieces of gold glass bits (yes, real gold) for a background along with the other multi-colored pieces that make up the figures. Father Steve explained the real gold and painstaking assembly were evidences of the church's value to "invest" in something that brings glory to God. That comment gave me pause.

Above us, the huge rounded dome area of the church featured a scene of the last judgement, also done in mosaic. The Christ figure was seated on a throne and biblical verses regarding love were featured around the base a la "Love One another", "Love Your Enemies", etc. Looking back toward the front were other icons poised along the "icon screen" at the front altar area of the church that included depictions of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the church's namesake, St. Paul. I can't even get into all the other mosaics and icons that were featured elsewhere around the building. Suffice it to say that the Greek Orthodox commitment to iconography and church edifice was (as Father Steve affirmed) very important to their tradition of worship.

After the initial "wow" factor quickly subsided, I confess I remained unmoved by all this "investment" in the glory of God. Whether it is the million dollar retablo recently installed in the Serra Chapel at the San Juan Capo mission or the things we saw at St. Paul's, I find the whole notion of edifice adornment as a statement of worship to be confusing. Father Steve (a nice, very knowledgeable and -- apparently -- spiritually alive man) went to great lengths to explain that the three divisions of St Paul's church building were patterned after the three sections of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Holy of Holies, Holy Place, Court of the Gentiles).

This, at first sounds very "biblical" until one remembers that Jesus predicted that "not one stone" of the temple would be "left upon another" and at no time in Acts or the N.T. Epistles do we see the Spirit inspiring or instructing believers to build a temple, a church or any other building -- even as a prophetic statement that such would be the case.

Of course, one could argue that under pre-Constantinian Roman persecution, such buildings were not possible and that when the opportunity arose, Christians finally did start building away. Fine. But the truly biblical notion is that God's collective people are His living temple within whom He now chooses to dwell. This is when I most clearly experience "the glory of God" -- when His people are truly in WORSHIP and in ACTION (no matter where they are at the time). While Jesus prophesied a time when God would allow the earthly temple in Jerusalem to be decimated, at no time will the Lord allow His living temple to be disassembled and defiled.

In the end, I don't begrudge believers their buildings whether they feature massive mosaics or massive video projection screens. Buildings have a way of enshrining our values -- whatever they may be. I've been in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. and in St Paul's in London (along with other churches and cathedrals in England). These are architectural and historical wonders to be sure. But nothing about them inspires a deeper spirituality in me. Ironically, I saw a lot of smaller quaint and beautiful church bulidings (no doubt erected and dedicated to the glory of God) now being used as racquetball clubs, restaurants and other secular puproses now that European Christendom is on the wane. In the end I guess it comes down to the notion that, once erected, our religious buildings need us as much or more than we need them and, in the end, none will pass into eternity -- none except the living stones built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone.

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