Friday, July 29, 2011

Consider the Flowers

Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. Which is saying rather a lot, actually, given that Solomon was quite a king, the son of David, the Lord's anointed, and a type of the Christ who was to come. But it was Jesus, after all, who made the comparison and called our attention to it, so it must not only be true but worth considering.

The flowers neither toil nor spin, and like the grass they are but here today, then gone tomorrow, yet they are adorned with such beauty that not even Solomon could compete. How much more, then, will your Father in heaven clothe you, who are beloved of God and redeemed in body and soul by the Lord Jesus for the resurrection and the life everlasting.

It is a thought-provoking argument. Jesus moves from the lesser to the greater, from the perishable flowers of the field to men and women, created in the Image of God for eternal life with Him, who are granted His Kingdom and His Righteousness in Christ. If God adorns the flowers, as He does so gloriously, so beautifully, much more shall He do for His children. For the time being, however, it is a matter of faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Because, for now, it remains the case that the perishable flowers are arrayed more beautifully than any of us. Not even Father Petersen in all his vestments outdoes them. If the great King Solomon was not able to exceed the flowers, then we shall not make ourselves more beautiful than these.

But now a greater than Solomon has come in the flesh, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily among us. And He has given Himself for us, in order to adorn us for Himself, as a Bride in all her glory made ready for her Husband, having no blemish or flaw or any such thing, but cleansed and sanctified, holy and blameless. Beautiful. Clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism.

It is a hidden beauty: hidden under the Cross in the field of the fallen world. It is the hidden beauty of faith in the heart, the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God, even when rejected by men. It is not the external adornment of braided hair and gold jewelry, nor of diamonds and pearls and expensive garments. It is not the vanity of an outward appearance that fails to enliven but merely conceals the dust and bones beneath. It does not rely on any pretense or show of self-righteousness, but rests in Christ.

Nevertheless, the true beauty of the Bride of Christ does manifest itself bodily, by means of good works befitting a godly woman, and through her chaste and respectful behavior, at times without a word. It is precisely at this point that I am considering the flowers, which are arrayed in such glorious and outward beauty — which the Church on earth also uses, not only metaphorically but actually, to adorn the Sanctuary and the Altar of her Lord.

I've been mulling over the significance of the flowers for a while now, and it has been instructive, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the lesson to be learned. It first came to mind when I was asked about the purpose of vestments and the various colors of the liturgical year. On the one hand, it's easy enough to identify the history of these things and the relative significance that has come to be assigned to them. On the other hand, such answers still beg the question. Giving the history does not yet explain the present-day purpose or benefit, and when it comes to the meaning of such things, I often find the supposed symbolism rather contrived and arbitrary.

Where the life of the Church is concerned, I've never been comfortable with doing things arbitrarily, nor with even the appearance of doing things arbitrarily. That caution and concern serves as a discipline against my own idiosyncrasies and personal whimsies, and as an aspect pastoral care for the people of God. Whether in the case of long-standing traditions, current practices, or changes in practice, I should be able to give an answer as to why we are doing something in a certain way.

In considering my answers and my reasons for doing this-or-that in the past, I realize that I have tended to rely upon practical, productive, and pedagogical purposes. That is to say, I have much preferred to have a clear function and identifiable goal in mind, as though anything else, or anything "less," would in fact be arbitrary and insufficient. In many cases, if not most, perhaps that's fair enough, and I suppose it usually works out fine. But the flowers have been teaching me to rethink many other cases rather differently, and in general to resist my proclivities for "practical, productive, and pedagogical purposes." In fact, I strongly suspect that a desire and demand for such purposes betrays an undercurrent of works-righteousness and a kind of evolutionary model that fails to grasp the grace and glory of God.

The flowers with their God-given beauty, arrayed in more colors and configurations than most of us could ever identify or count, are really not practical or productive by any of the usual standards. And though they are in fact teaching me a lesson, by and with the Word of Christ, the flowers of the field are certainly not "pedagogical" in the usual sense. Whatever they may symbolize within some context or another, they are not merely nor mainly symbolic. What they are is pretty, and with their prettiness they glorify the Lord, their Creator, and give pleasure to His children on earth. When the Church adorns the same Lord's Altar with pretty flowers, she does so for the same reasons: not to achieve or accomplish any other agenda, but to glorify God, to delight in His good gifts, and to rejoice in His goodness. Such outward beauty and adornment is not only okay, permissible and tolerable; it is quite good and right. In such a case, the outward appearance is not attempting to conceal a contrary inner reality, nor is it attempting to achieve some other reality than it has received, but it is simply confessing the otherwise hidden reality of God's grace, mercy and peace. It boldly confesses what is most certainly true concerning the beautiful glory of the Cross, despite all appearances and experiences to the contrary.

The beauty of flowers is attractive, not only to people (universally so), but also to the pollinators of the animal kingdom, by which the Lord our God causes more beautiful flowers to spring forth, and by which He also blesses us with the good gift of honey. So, too, the sweetness of the honey is appealing, as the flowers are attractive, that man and beast might be drawn to it and delight in it. Everything could have been quite functional, practical and productive, without such adornments and frills, but in love for His creatures the Holy Trinity makes things beautiful and delicious. He adorns the world with color and light, graces it with lovely sounds, fills it with pleasing aromas, sweetens it and spices it with delectable tastes, in the way a good father enjoys giving pleasant gifts and treats to his children. All of this while the fallen world is perishing! How much more beautiful and lovely shall the new heavens and the new earth be. But for now, the Lord attaches His Word and promises of the New Creation to the gracious beauty of the present age — calling our attention to the flowers, comparing His Word to honey, with which the promised land flows, describing His Church as a beautiful bride, and giving us a covenant in the rainbow with its full spectrum of radiant colors. So did He likewise instruct Moses in the construction of the tabernacle, and in the making of the priestly vestments — involving skilled artistry and fine craftsmanship and excellent materials, including gold and other precious metals — that the earthly tent and the temporal priesthood might be a pattern and a copy of the heavenly things, which are now given to us in Christ Jesus.

The Church, too, that godly woman who fears the Lord, looks for wool and flax, and she stretches out her hands to the distaff, to grasp the spindle, in order to clothe her household with scarlet, and to make coverings for herself of fine linen and purple. With vestments she covers the servants of her Lord, and by doing so she also adorns their office, not only in the most pragmatic and functional way possible, but as beautifully as she is able. Not as a pretense, but as a confession of the One who clothes her and all her children with Himself by the Ministry of the Gospel. Such adornments are "pedagogical" in the way that flowers are, that is, not by their "practical productivity," but by their colorful beauty. They are attractive and appealing, so that men and women, boys and girls, might be drawn to the hidden beauty of the Cross, and to the sweetness of the Word of God, which is even sweeter than honey.

For so are we invited to consider the flowers, that we might know the providence of our gracious God and Father in heaven. And as the perishable flowers point thus beyond themselves — as they point beyond even the great and glorious King Solomon to the One who is greater by far than Solomon — so do the Church's vestments and other beautiful adornments point beyond themselves, and beyond this temporal life on earth, to the glories of the age to come: to the revealing of the sons of God in Christ, when we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him.


  1. Gloriously said, Rick, as always.

    Something more to think on: we must also be willing to learn what beauty is, to grow in our understanding of beauty. "When I was a child..." I thought hotdogs were the best, and I still enjoy them on occasion. But can you imagine an adult whose taste did not develop to enjoy filet mignon over a hot dog?

    And so, here in this post, you remind us that we must learn and grow so that we can know beauty and that this beauty might lead and direct us to the praise of God. This is the truth at the core of Romanticism - the baby too often tossed out with the bathwater of emotionalism.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Heath. I'm sorry that I didn't catch them here earlier. What you say is a helpful consideration, and one that bears thinking about. It dovetails, interestingly, with a book that I'm reading (with mixed opinions): "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century," by Howard Gardner. I find myself frustrated by his very liberal world view and ideology, but I find his concerns and the topic itself to be quite significant and challenging.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment.


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