While on a recent trip to Dublin, I had the opportunity to view the Book of Kells. This 1,200-year-old Gospel book is a tremendous document—the ornate illustrations accompanying the holy text are beautiful and haunting. It is a wonderful reminder of the magnificence of Celtic Christianity. In a strange way, I believe it is a good example of how modern society views the ancient Church and her teachings.
The Book of Kells is a museum piece. It is viewed in a display case, a new page shown every day, and its Latin script is admired for its beautiful calligraphy, but its words go unread. The purpose of the beautiful book—to house sacred text—has been all but lost.
But the words of Christ were not meant to be admired simply for their beauty. The Sermon on the Mount was not given to supply pithy sayings for the greeting cards of future generations. The Incarnation was not meant to be the reason for a holiday shopping spree. The Crucifixion was not meant to provide a simple and easy-to-make design for future jewelers.
But the very foundations of our ancient faith—the teachings of our Lord, the apostles, and the ancient Church—are treated this way by many today. They are considered quaint items of historical curiosity, hardly applicable in the postmodern world (whatever that is).
The same day I saw the Book of Kells, the Irish Catholic bishops announced a proposal to drop many Pauline Epistle readings from the Lectionary because they are considered offensive to modern sensibilities. Apparently St. Paul is no longer welcome on St. Patrick’s Isle.
Even when he wrote his Epistles, Paul expected that they would not be well received. This is why he wrote to the Thessalonians, “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.”
Paul, of course, meant that those who did not follow his teachings should be ashamed, not the other way around. We do ourselves, the church fathers, and, most importantly, our Lord a disservice if we allow ourselves to be ashamed of following the instructions of the Scriptures.
That Christianity is admired because of certain beautiful artifacts while its teachings are ignored, or worse, scorned, is perhaps nothing new. The beauty of holy things, including the words of Scripture, isn’t always as easily discernible to those without eyes of faith as is the beauty of the Book of Kells. Holy things have been touched by the sacred, and those whose lives are drawn to the sacred rather than the profane will always find them beautiful. Holy things remind us of the living God, for they have his mark, his touch, and are not just items of historical interest. That others would find holy things to be empty apart from their physical beauty or historical import is hardly a surprise. For us, we need to cultivate eyes of faith so that we can see the beauty of the hand of God in all his work, and not be embarrassed to incorporate such things into our homes and into our lives.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Holy Things” first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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