Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

Some comments were made about the beautiful vestments used for the Sarum Mass at Hampton Court. There is a frequent argument for punishing the Church and stripping it down to nothing, a kind of creeping nihilism that has spread into the arts and all western culture over the past century. Of course, the title of this posting is the question asked by Judas to Jesus, apparently shocked over the waste of an expensive ointment.

I reproduce the thread from Facebook, hiding the names concerned.

Q Hmm, not my cup of tea I have to admit. In these days of huge misery and poverty I’m afraid I feel very uncomfortable when the church flaunts its wealth in sumptuous fabrics and displays of silverware. I’d rather honour God by feeding the hungry. But that’s just my view.

A Quite. Once the articles have been made and given, you may as well use them. I think someone made that kind of remark to Himself once, to which he replied ‘The poor you will have always with you.’

And by that logic, we ought also to sell off the crown jewels, the palaces, the coaches, and all the other state flummery.

A Every time I see a high church posting, i know it’s merely a matter of time before the spirit of the Iscariot prompts a negative reply 😉

A You would be surprised how much money is spent throwing old liturgical items away and then having new altars and vestments made in post-modern style. Then there are no complaints about the money not being given to the poor. These vestments are about 100 years old. Sell them? To whom? Shouldn’t the prospective buyer give his money to the poor?

A Also of course one isn’t normally allowed to sell church paraphernalia and especially not the silverware.

A I think this reaction, which is not uncommon, shows that people think of well- designed, well made beautiful things as being expensive and frivolous and don’t see less beautiful but equally or more expensive equivalents as being equally frivolous. It fascinates me that plain, functional styles never appear materialistic. Like the perceived difference between an elegant, well made, pre-owned and therefore recycled Georgian dining table and a rough, brand new, inelegant piece of ikea pine sold as a kitchen table which costs about three times what the Georgian one did and won’t last a third the time. People unconsciously associate good taste, timelessness and thoughtful use of resources as materialism.

Q N. You are right of course; a fascinating understanding of perception. But when I made my initial comment I wasn’t actually thinking that, or suggesting that such items should be sold, but rather how it appears to people outside the church and the image that the church, wittingly or unwittingly, presents to the world. I have seen so many comments online from people whose very negative view of the church is based on its perceived wealth (as seen in buildings, works of art, vestments etc etc), the highly publicised cases of sexual abuse, and the perceived (and totally untrue) lack of any action to help those in need. I realise that this was the wrong place to have that discussion, so I apologise.

A I see this point of view and I agree that society has an unfortunate opinion of the church sometimes- which I am sure is encouraged by the ultra- secular media. I don’t think taking away the beauty of holiness as it is given in this and other traditions and contexts would have a positive effect at all though- the people who have this opinion would not suddenly start going to church, they would just have a savage satisfaction that they had crushed something they didn’t approve of. Also, this is a powerful way of making beauty accessible to people who can’t personally afford it and to reach their souls through all of their senses- if they are that way inclined. This country has a rich tapestry of church traditions and cultures to appeal to almost anyone and this is the one that reaches into the souls of some, including myself. That’s perhaps why I was a tad defensive! Apologies here too.

Q No, you weren’t being defensive – you made a really good point, and a very thought-provoking one. And the beauty of holiness is wonderful, however one finds it. I tend to find it in much simpler surroundings, but that’s just my taste. But I am very bothered by people’s perception of “The Church” and by extension of the whole of Christian belief and practice, and I am equally troubled by our very broken world and country, and I am struggling to reconcile the two. On a purely personal level I think my beliefs have been pared down to the bare minimum – love God, love your neighbour, feed the hungry etc – and I am currently struggling to find any relevance in ritual, vestments and all the paraphernalia. I can see that they have a beauty, but that’s all. I’ve had to do a LOT of rethinking over the past few years and I don’t think I have yet come out the other side!

A The church which lent the vestments, St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, has a long history of engagement with the community since the day it was built. They have run a night shelter for rough sleepers for some years . Vestments do not figure highly on their expenditure list!

This is an example of a sensitive dialogue with the person who came out with this frequent objection to beauty in liturgy and culture. Ever since World War I, many in the west feel that they are undeserving of any beauty or consolation in life for whatever part in them contributed in their mind to the mass killing and destruction. A similar reaction occurred after World War II. German churches are among the plainest and most whitewashed, and modern buildings incorporate a desired ugliness and anti-aestheticism.

This is something I see reflected in our current political discussion of the collapse of traditional centre-left-right party politics and the desire for punishment and self flagellation. The Russian Revolution was largely brought about by nihilism, a theme found in Dostoevsky’s Demons (The Possessed – Бесы). Nihilism in this and other contexts is a belief that traditional morals, ideas, and beliefs have no value. It is also the belief that society’s social and political institutions are so corrupt they should be destroyed.

This is a feeling many of us can encounter when considering the Church and the big questions of sexual abuse by priests and bishops of children and vulnerable adults. It is understandable, but it can only lead one way…

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3 Responses to Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

  1. Dale says:

    My favourite is with those who play this game, and then they turn around and purchase vestments that appear to be poor, usually some sort of fashionable baggish sackcloth, that in reality cost far more than traditional vestments.

  2. Rubricarius says:

    It is a sad reflection on the contemporary state of religious praxis that a celebration of our historic patrimony can be tainted with comments about an historic set of vestments. Considering the amount of money spent on bringing churches ‘up to date’ and ‘meaningful’ and, as Dale observes, even a cursory glance at supplier catalogues will reveal modern rubbish at very high prices.

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