ChristianityRichly

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 as Timothy Cardinal Dolan has said, worship is “the most profound act we can do.”

The Importance of Liturgy
What makes worship the most profound act we can do? Bishop Dominique Rey, organizer of Sacra Liturgia 2013, an international conference on liturgy, states Christ “acts uniquely in the world today in the Church’s liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium, one of the most important documents of Vatican II, 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 only attributes of God and, therefore, of the Christian life (or they should be). Truth, goodness, and beauty are also powerful incentives drawing men and women into relationship with Christ — “to marvel at Your beauty and glory in Your ways,” as Michael Perry’s text at the beginning of this post states it.

The Focus Must Be God
If liturgy is powerful and even potentially evangelical, what criteria exist for liturgy? Many. In Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century, Dr. Jennifer Donelson reminds us of at least three fundamental points.

I have reformatted Dr. Donelson’s list here to stress the importance of these three points.  She states: “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 aesthetic emphasis  of liturgy must be on its suitability for worship and sanctification of God’s people.

An Open Door
But the liturgy is not only for those who know they are God’s people. The liturgy is for the entire world! Celebrated with reverence and transcendence, it parallels the invitation given to St. John in Revelation 4:1: “I had a vision to an open door to Heaven.” That’s what the liturgy is; that’s what it must be for the world.

According to Pew Research, the number of religious “nones”  is increasing significantly. Yet a deep spiritual hunger remains. Celtic spirituality talks about thin places, where “the distance between heaven and earth collapses.” The liturgy is precisely that: a thin place, a door to heaven standing open! A place of great visual richness, glorious song, and sights, sounds, even scents, all of which proclaim:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come . . . Worthy are You our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.  —Revelation, chapter 4.

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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