by Catherine Fournier
used with permission
St. Lawrence, when ordered by the Roman authorities to hand over the Church treasure entrusted to him, assembled a multitude of the poor and presented them, declaring, "Here is the Church's wealth."
On top of my refrigerator is a small tissue box, covered with gold painted elbow macaroni, a gift from my oldest daughter when she was five. I have never used it to store tissues and the macaroni has fallen off in places. It was a proud gift of love and I display it because, to me, it's beautiful. Similar gifts from our other children occupy places of honor around the house and in the basement are six cardboard file boxes, one for each child, filled with a selection of their artwork, projects and essays from over the years.
These are my treasures, what I would rescue if the house was burning.
In them, I see the earnest, innocent and trusting love of my children, love that wanted to give and did, whole-heartedly and sincerely. Never mind that the objects are lumpy, gaudy and paint-speckled. My children made something they thought was beautiful and gave it to me because they thought I was beautiful too.
My husband understands this impulse. I often tease that he only seems to have one gift category in his brain, called 'Adorn the Beloved.' Flowers, jewelry, clothing, perfume, bath salts are his usual gift choices. "Why wouldn't I want to decorate you, make what's already beautiful even more beautiful?" he asks. I'd grab my jewelry box on the way out of a burning house, too, not for the diamond brooch from my great aunt but for the small green earrings and the seed bead necklace that were his first gifts to me.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have gathered together to worship, built churches in honor of Christ, Mary and the saints, and sought ways to express their love for God, the Holy Mother Church and each other. Artists, inspired by their faith, have sculpted and painted incredible works of art, craftsmen have made chalices, wonderful vestments, stained glass and other beautiful objects and lay people have commissioned and donated these works to the Church. All are sincere gifts of love, something made to be beautiful and given to the Church in honor of Her beauty.
And over the centuries, it's added up to a lot of stuff, large churches and many museums full of gold plated stuff. It's also lead to a commonly encountered misunderstanding and criticism of the Catholic Church. "If the Church is so dedicated to serving the poor, how do you explain the treasures of the Vatican? Shouldn't it all be sold and the money given to the poor?"
But every parent with a gold sprayed macaroni tissue box and boxes of craft projects in the basement knows that the Mother Church could no more sell all her treasures created and given in love than she could abandon one of Her children.
Mark 14:3-8 When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. There were some who were indignant. "Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days' wages and the money given to the poor." They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could."
By anointing Christ with costly perfumed oil, the woman in the Gospel of Mark was simply doing what every lover has done since Adam and Eve. She was adorning the beloved, honoring and decorating someone she loved. Since Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and in the tabernacle in every church, every impulse throughout two millennia to decorate, embellish, gild and bejewel a church is the same impulse that moved the woman of Bethany to break the alabaster jar. It is doing a good thing for Him.
We decorate our churches because we love God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and Mary. As children of God, we offer gifts of love, and as part of the mystical Body of Christ we seek to adorn our beloved. The gifts may occasionally be lumpy and gaudy (churches often have almost as many hideous objects as beautiful ones) but they are sincere. A plain, undecorated church doesn't express a purity and simplicity of faith, it expresses a barren-ness and misunderstanding of faith and the love that follows faith.
Our Holy Mother Church accepts this offered beauty and treasures it, filling her churches and museums with gold-plated stuff for the same reasons other mothers do, because She loves us. More than that, she rejoices in our love.
For we are the real wealth of the Church, not the stained glass, gold or marble. Each soul is more precious to Her than all the treasures of the Vatican and more cherished.