Let There Be Light!

Some may question the need to put lights on a church steeple, especially if some of those lights are presented in color at various times of the year. Although there may very well be some aesthetic or artistic reasons to do so, it’s also important to understand that there may be some valuable theological reasons, as well.

In the book of Genesis God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). It was the very first act of Creation. Out of darkness came the light of God’s presence, and centuries later when Christ came into the world he called himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12). Then, when he sent his disciples out into the darkness of the world, he told them, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Clearly, light is one of the most important metaphors for God’s very presence in our lives and in the lives of others.

When we light our church steeple we are not saying, “Look at me. Look at the wonderful beauty of our architecture.” To the contrary, we are saying, “Look at Christ. Look upward beyond the dark streets and busy thoroughfares. Look for the source of all life that is higher than all else.” A cross sits at the top of our steeple to acknowledge that self-giving, sacrificial love is the basis of our faith and the beacon that directs all of our living. Christ died on a cross in the cloud-covered darkness of Good Friday but rose like the sun three days later to spread the light of God’s forgiving grace across the land.

First United Methodist Church’s steeple, when lighted at night, reminds all who pass by that God is alive and present in the midst of whatever darkness clouds our vision of true life. In the book of Exodus we learn that God led Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). The light from our steeple reminds us of the fire light that directs the path of God’s people to this very day.

Some might question the shining of colored lights from inside the steeple that we use from time to time. They may startle or even cause a bit of discomfort as they interrupt the serenity and peace of a more aesthetic, colorless illumination. Our eyes may be drawn to the purple or red hues that draw our attention away from the spire or other intricate architectural elements. But that is precisely their purpose. They are meant to distract - ever so slightly, ever so imperceptibly – in order to cause us to question, like the child who asks during the Passover Seder, “Why is this night different from all the rest?” Why have the lights on the steeple changed in color? What is different about this time of year? What does this mean?

The Christian calendar is full of seasons, as Qoheleth the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes suggests: “There is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Two of the most important seasons of the Christian Year are Advent and Lent, times leading to the birth of our Savior and his sacrificial death and resurrection. These are seasons of preparation, expectation, and, yes, penitence. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day to remember in humility from where we have come, dust of the earth. Thus, the steeple offers a dusty, gray light from within its tower on that day. During Lent purple is used to call us to repentance as we remind ourselves of our need for God’s redeeming love. On Good Friday the lights will be extinguished, reminding us that through our own selfish hatred Christ breathed his last and was laid in a tomb.

Then, at midnight as Easter begins and to mark the Resurrection of our Lord, the lights will shine brightly again with the color of a rising sun. On Pentecost, the lights will turn red to remind us of the birthday of the Church when the fire of the Holy Spirit rested upon the heads of the early followers of Jesus.

Yes, for some the colors will be distracting, but hopefully they will cause still others to question, to wonder, to ponder what God’s people are up to. They will remind us all that worship of God is both a comfort and a challenge, a place of sanctuary and a place to be pushed into service, just as the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness of temptation immediately following his baptism.

In our Sanctuary is a 1930 reproduction of Raphael’s The Transfiguration. It is an artist’s interpretation of the story found in Matthew 17:1-21 of Jesus leading three of his disciples up on a mountain where he is “transfigured” with Moses and Elijah. The scene is to affirm that Christ is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets. Peter wants to remain on the mountain and build three booths ostensibly to worship these important figures of the faith, but Jesus has other ideas. He leads his friends down the mountain, into the valley, where he finds a boy in need of healing. The message is clear, is it not? Worship can occur on the mountains of our lives, in our sanctuaries, in our moments of solemn reflection; but ultimately our faith must draw us down into the valley where people are in need. We need the quiet of mountain retreats but only in preparation for the valleys of ministry that await our presence.

We light our steeple to be a beacon of grace in a sometimes graceless, darkened world and as a challenge to our people to go into that darkness and proclaim, “Let there be light!”

The Rev. Alvin J. Horton (March 15, 2017)

One of the most iconic landmarks in downtown Charlottesville is now a beacon of light!  On Christmas Eve, 2016, First United Methodist Church completed the months-long repair of its 138-foot, 92-year-old steeple and now shows off its many architectural elements even in the night. Special LED lights bathe the exterior cupolas, accent the cross, and light from inside the steeple’s multi-paned windows.

A “Grand Illumination” was held at the corner of North 1st and East Jefferson Streets on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, at 6:30pm. Following a time of appreciation, the reading of scripture, and prayer - the steeple was lit.

When Bill Owens, church member and architect guiding the repair of the steeple, appeared before the city’s Board of Architectural Review (BAR) on October 18, 2016, he could not have predicted the board’s degree of favorable reaction to the church’s proposal to light the steeple. One board member even stated, “Perhaps this will set a precedent for other churches in the city.” Leading up to unanimous approval of the plan, board members expressed how much they thought the lighting would be an aesthetic asset and tangible draw to the downtown area. The special lighting was designed and installed by Mark Schuyler of Mark Schuyler Design who helped present the proposal to the BAR. Safeway Electric installed the electrical system.

The steeple repair was led by Collin Waters, president of Waters Craftsman, Inc. of Huntley, Virginia, a restoration consultation and preservation company that specializes in the restoration of sacred and historic properties. The firm has restored hundreds of historic properties throughout the United States and Caribbean, including elements of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, the State House in Richmond, and a number of historic properties of the National Park Service. Most recently, Dale Waters, the company founder, helped rescue the Thomas Jefferson designed resort and bathhouse at Sweet Springs, West Virginia.

All painted surfaces were stripped down to the bare wood so a special organic linseed oil paint could be applied and that should last for fifty years or more. In the process of restoration, the steeple’s deteriorated architectural features were repaired or rebuilt, new interior ladders were installed, and copper gutters were mended or replaced. The linseed oil paint that was used in the restoration process is meant to last dramatically longer that more modern paints, according to Owens, and it is environmentally friendly because it is composed of only natural paint pigments with no added solvents.

The cost of the project was estimated to be nearly $447,000 which is no small amount for any faith community. However, when church leaders considered simply removing the steeple it became clear that even that would cost at least as much, if not more, than repairing the historic structure. A finance campaign was launched by the congregation two years ago to raise the funds needed, and fund-raising efforts have been renewed now that the work has begun.

The congregation of First United Methodist Church dates back to 1834, and the present building on Jefferson Street at Lee Park is the third home for the church. The congregation’s first building once stood on Water Street between First and Second Streets West, south of the present Downtown Mall.