Flowers are the great equalizer.
The great common denominator.
I’m quite sure this is at the root of why I love them so. Oh, I, like most everyone else, prize flowers for their appeal to my senses and role in our ecosystem. But in traveling the world, I’ve also been touched by their symbolic meaning in cultural and religious creeds, traditions and rituals.
Despite the broad spectrum of differences in culture, politics and religion that too often divide humans, flowers are almost universally entwined in religious and spiritual beliefs in positive ways. According to some, they are revered primarily as God’s beautiful creation; for others they symbolize God or gods or spiritual practices themselves.
They are often symbols of what we humans hold in common to be right and good in this world: love, virtue, respect, hope. And they serve as metaphors for basic human aspirations such as fertility or prosperity. Many religions feature flowers in art and architecture toward both symbolic and decorative ends, and some offer them as tangible gifts to God as part of their rites of worship.
Rites and Rituals
Islamic traditions include roses in marriages, as well as dye from flowers of the henna plant to decorate the hands and feet of brides as a symbol of fertility and good fortune. And Islamic funerals often feature jasmine and a sprinkling of rose water on new graves. Extensive and intricate floral patterns embellish Islamic art and architecture.
In Hinduism, flowers play a more prominent role, with the primary prayer rite called puja (Sanskrit for the act of worship), translated into English as “the flower act.” The lotus flower is associated with divinity, piety, beauty, and fertility. The Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, instructs followers to be pure and detached like the lotus. Other specific flowers relate to specific gods or rituals, and weddings and funerals often feature jasmine garlands.
The lotus is also central to Buddhism and symbolizes the highest level of spiritual elevation that man can possibly reach. The lotus flower is a metaphor for knowledge and enlightenment and is depicted in much of Buddhist artwork, often with Buddha sitting on an open lotus flower.
The spiritual practice of Yoga has a major branch, Hatha Yoga, in which a posture called the lotus position, padmasana (also Sanskrit), is adopted by devotees striving to reach the highest level of consciousness.
In Chinese religions such as Taoism, flowers are metaphors for life, happiness and fertility. Peonies and daffodils are symbols of spring and renewed life, and the lotus flower symbolizes morality, purity, wisdom, and harmony.
Flowers are featured in wedding ceremonies worldwide. They are also usually welcome in funeral observances except in Judaism, in which (at least in orthodox traditions), food baskets of Kosher items are typically more appropriate. Judeo-Christian traditions consider flowers among the most beautiful and pleasurable of God’s creations and symbolize the glory of the Garden of Eden before man’s fall from grace.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante speaks of Paradise after life: “…the beautiful garden which blossoms under the radiance of Christ…There is the rose, in which the divine word became flesh; here are the lilies whose perfume guides you in the right ways.” Dante also depicts the final, eternal World in Heaven “in the form of a resplendent white rose.”
Flowers symbolize numerous aspects of the Christian religion, such as the white Madonna lily (lilium candidum) as a symbol of purity. Red roses stand for Christ’s blood and for love. Roses are especially prominent in Catholic symbolism—with the Virgin Mary honored as a “rose without thorns” and the form of devotion called the rosary. In my church, Lynchburg’s First Presbyterian, a single red rose bud is placed on the baptismal font to celebrate the birth of every new baby in our congregation.
In Christian weddings flowers are an important accoutrement, and brides typically carry a bouquet of flowers down the aisle. Funerals are also a time for celebrating the life of the deceased with flowers.
The tradition among many churches is to decorate the sanctuary, narthex and other parts of the church with fresh flower arrangements, especially on significant liturgical days such as Easter and Christmas. However, in the interest of time and expense, a growing number of Protestant congregations have moved away from this tradition—or increasingly rely on artificial flowers.
Parishioners and congregations that continue to adhere to the practice of decorating their churches with fresh flowers and greens typically maintain an altar, chancel, or flower guild (or committee) to plan, organize and manage flowers as an expression of their devotion, as an offering of their gifts of time and talent to the Glory of God, and to serve as an inspiration to fellow worshipers.
Altar, Chancel and Flower Guilds
My friend Anne McKenna, who co-chairs the Flower Guild at Lynchburg’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, shared a quip from internationally renowned flower-arranging expert, Gay Estes, author of The Church Ladies’ Guide to Divine Flower Arranging, “Flowers are a gift from God; unfortunately, he doesn’t arrange them.” So Anne and her co-chair, Rod Meeks, manage a group of devoted arrangers, hold flower-arranging workshops to encourage parishioners to join them, and make general appeals that bring out men, women and children to take on all the jobs (including sweeping the floor) it takes to fill the church with flowers for festival days. After holding back on flowers during Lenten season, they go all out for Easter and celebrate with glorious fresh spring flowers everywhere.
We at First Presbyterian have an established, on-going Chancel Guild with monthly teams responsible for fresh flower arrangements in the sanctuary, narthex and entrance foyer every Sunday. Our co-chairs, Becky O’Brian and Betsy Burton, gather us all together to decorate more extensively at Easter and Christmas. We surround our Advent candles with a wreath of evergreen boughs, representing God’s continuous love and the soul’s immortality, and we prepare fresh evergreens for our “Hanging of the Greens” service. Dozens of live poinsettias also grace the Sanctuary in honor or memory of loved ones.
Another friend, Meg Laughon, notes that her church, Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian, focuses on the joys of nature and celebrates each season by arranging fresh flowers and greens from members’ gardens. We at First Presbyterian also use bounty from our gardens both to share God’s gifts in our community and hold down expenses.
My assigned month for the Chancel Guild is always January, and I enjoy gathering sticks, rocks, mosses and other gifts from nature for an arrangement—or forcing quince, saucer magnolia and other early spring blooming shrubs and trees or sharing my indoor orchids that bloom each winter.
Arranging flowers as a ministry builds community and friendships among worshipers and presents avenues for expression of artistry. We laugh and share our lives and skills as we learn and create.
And that brings us to the ‘how’ of arranging church flowers. Flower arrangements can be as elaborate and daunting or as simple and inviting as you and your church wish. At one end of the spectrum we are awed by huge and grand arrangements at The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and at the other we find joy in small and sweet roadside bouquets at tiny country churches.
First, decide where you land on this continuum and your available resources (people, time, money, available flowers) and if you need an organized system or only one or two devotees. Then decide on location and scale of arrangements to best suit your church and where and when the actual arranging will take place. And be sure to meet with your clergy to understand your church calendar, festival and other special days, and what kind of arrangements are appropriate for each.
Design and Mechanics
Basic principles of design rule flower arrangements, as they do any other form of art. Rhythm, contrast, dominance, scale, proportion and balance all are considerations. Mechanics and techniques of flower arrangements have filled many books and workshops, as well as inspiring Gay Estes with:
A Church Arranger’s Prayer
Please don’t let my flowers wilt,
My lilies stain the vestments
Or my vase leak.
May the Altar Guild not fight
Over who gets to do the altar
And who must do the pews.
Let my arrangement neither fall,
Nor catch fire from the candles. Amen
Starting simple and adding complexity is always a good rule of thumb. Just remember that flowers are a gift from God, and our gift is our behind-the-scenes talent and work to share them in uplifting arrangements in God’s House. Every time I go into our sacristy at First Presbyterian to prepare arrangements for the upcoming Sunday, I look up and once again silently repeat the simple little prayer taped to the cupboard above the sink:
Flower Arranger’s Prayer
May God Grant that our hearts
Our eyes and our hands may
Receive His inspiration,
Enabling us to glorify
His House with the beauty of
Of the leaves and blossoms
Which He has created. Amen
As we celebrate our faith with our love of flowers, we are reminded that our gifts of flowers are about glorifying God, and we are grateful that they are the great equalizer—the common denominator with kindred souls around the world who also share flowers in their own way, according to their own faith and spirituality.
by Susan Timmons