Liturgical Beauty

In Christianity on February 28, 2017 at 7:33 pm

To marvel at your beauty
And glory in your ways,
And to make a joyful duty
Our sacrifice of praise.
O God Beyond All Praising¹

One of the most important books published during 2016 is Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, edited by Dom Alcuin Reid. A strong statement, yes. But almost eight years ago, in a post about Liturgy, I wrote:

Authority is the bedrock upon which my confidence in the Church rests. But my pilgrimage also was deeply affected by liturgy—or more accurately perhaps by a yearning for transcendence in worship; for Heaven and earth to meet.

The Importance of Liturgy
Worship is “the most profound act we can do,”  Timothy Cardinal Dolan has said. Bishop Dominique Rey states Christ “acts uniquely in the world today in the Church’s liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium declares:

The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.

That font is our Lord Jesus Christ present to His people during Mass. We must remember what is being celebrated by the liturgy. It is not a gathering of friends or like-minded religionists. It is, in the words of Cardinal Dolan, “our connection to the saving life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.”² 

The Importance of Beauty
Transcendent worship is evangelical
. Why? In a word, because it is beautiful. Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke’s chapter in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century takes beauty as the theme:

The search for beauty has nothing to do with a mere aesthetic sensibility or with an escape from reason. From the divine perspective, beauty, together with truth and goodness, are manifestations of being and, ultimately, the source of all being, God, Being Himself . . . the way of beauty, is a most important and irreplaceable means of announcing God to a culture [emphasis mine].³

Margaret Hughes cites French writer, Paul Claudel: “One can resist force, skill, or self-interest. One can even resist Truth, but one cannot resist Beauty [again, emphasis mine].” Why? Because:

Beauty . . . is essential to . . . manifesting to human beings what is authentically good. Beauty conveys that it is good to exist, and so opens us to the appropriate, fitting joy in being, and being in the world. Joy is the only proper response to the gift of Creation and Redemption. 

God shows His love for each of us in ways uniquely suited to us. Truth, goodness, and beauty are not simply evidence of life in Christ (though Christian lives should be marked by these attributes). Truth, goodness, and beauty are also powerful incentives drawing us into relationship with Christ, and through Him, to the Triune God.

The Focus Must Be God
In Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, Dr. Jennifer Donelson reminds us that there are at least three criteria for beauty in the Sacred Liturgy. I’ve reformatted her criteria here to stress their importance.  “Artists creating works for the Sacred Liturgy [must] intend that their works:

1. Glorify God
2. Sanctify His people, and
3. Serve as a sacred window into the divine mysteries.” 

These criteria obviate arguments, for example, about how we “reach young people.” Young people are drawn by Sacred beauty and transcendence, just as middle-aged and older people are. These criteria preclude parish discussions about changing the liturgy to attract a certain demographic for growth of the parish. All “demographics” are called to glorify God. Finally, these criteria avoid emphasis on the musical preferences of the “liturgical director” or virtuosity of the cantor. Rather, the artistic emphasis must be on suitability for worship and sanctification of God’s people.

Liturgy matters. Liturgical beauty matters. Thanks be to God for the the increasing number of faithful pastors and parishes who value the richness and eternal impact of liturgical beauty. That is Christianity Richly!


¹ Text composed by Michael Perry, to the tune of Gustav Holst’s Thaxted.

² Introductory Greeting and Messages, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. xi-xvii.

³ Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, “Beauty in the Sacred Liturgy,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives, Alcuin Reid, ed. (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), pp. 2, 11.

4  Dr. Margaret I. Hughes, “The Ease of Beauty: Liturgy, Evangelization, and Catechesis,” Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 91, 100.

 Dr. Jennifer Donelson, Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, p. 116.

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