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Stripping the Church

April 18, 2014

I fell in love with our Sanctuary throughout these forty days of Lent. Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved it before. But I noticed that it’s very white, and bright, and clean and pretty. Hardly fitting for a season of repentance and denial, for a season of sackcloth and ashes. So I wanted our Sanctuary to reflect the season as we talked about struggle, as we talked about wandering in the wilderness. We decked it out in burlap and rocks, in purple and thorns.

Lent lasts 40 days, symbolizing Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, where he was tempted to turn stones into bread after fasting from food and water. We had branches and trees, along with stones and rocks, reminding us that Lent can be seen as a time of wilderness in our lives. The two trees on either side of the cross were also symbolic of the two criminals who hung on either side of Jesus just before his death.

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Wilderness represented through burlap, rocks, and trees.

Sackcloth represents repentance and mourning, as many characters in scripture used to wear sackcloth and sit in ashes. Jeremiah called for it as a means of repentance, saying, “O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mournings as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jer. 6:26).

IMG_6706When Jonah proclaimed that Ninevah would soon be overthrown, the whole town went into mourning. “The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jon. 3:5-6).

 

 

Sackcloth was woven throughout the Sanctuary to remind us of these practices of repentance and mourning, and call us to find similar ways to show our devotion to God.

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Purple during Lent symbolizes preparation, as we prepared our hearts to understand Christ’s sacrifice and experience the resurrection in a powerful way. It is also a symbol of royalty, and reminds us that Jesus brought about a new eternal kingdom. Soldiers used this color as a way of mocking Christ on the way to his crucifixion as they “wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe” (John 19:2).

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Royal purple draped throughout the Sanctuary.

Even with all of these symbols and images of wilderness and mourning, the Sanctuary was still beautiful. In an attempt to make it look a little more rugged and wild, we just grew to appreciate the beauty of knowing Christ is with us in our suffering.

But last night the Sanctuary transformed once more. At the end of our Maundy Thursday service, we stripped the church of all religious symbols. We took out the Bibles, the crosses, the clergy robes and Communion chalices. We removed all the burlap sackcloth, we removed all the purple. Before our very eyes the Sanctuary was stripped of anything symbolic of Christ.

It was a reminder of how Jesus was stripped bare and left exposed before the crowds. The once beautiful worship space suddenly looked empty, and gave us a sense of the emptiness the disciples felt when their teacher was led to the cross. The altar table became reminiscent of a burial sarcophagus, and with all of the lights and all of the people removed, the Sanctuary became a haunting place.

Stripped Sanctuary

Stripped bare of all religious symbols.

And that’s when it hit me. It’s not the Sanctuary that is beautiful in itself. It is the Church that makes the room beautiful. It is the people who come in and fill the space with their prayers and their voices and songs. It is the members who share their talents through altar design and singing. It is the smiles and the handshakes, the hands that break bread and serve the cup. It is the love of Christ that is in each person filling that room with beauty and grace.

And when all of that is removed, the beautiful Sanctuary becomes just a room.

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