Beauty: An Essential Element of the Sacred Liturgy

Very often people are heard to fret and to worry about beauty in our churches and in the sacred liturgy. This seems to particularly be case with generations that were brought up in and through the 1970's when perhaps this was a particularly strong theme. (By comparison, this seems far less pressing a concern in either the earlier generations or in the newer and younger one's).

Regardless of whether this is a concern for you or not, this undercurrent of mistrust of beauty, pageantry and ceremony needs to be frequently addressed since these are often easy cliches and critiques that can be brought out.

In previous pieces around the importance of liturgical beauty, we looked at some of the key figures of the Liturgical Movement, and we have also approached the thought of award-winning writer Martin Mosebach. Today I wish to turn your attention to Pope Benedict XVI and the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

In their document, Beauty in Every Aspect of the Liturgical Rite, the aforementioned papal liturgical office turns our attention to the following teaching coming from Pope Benedict XVI, taken from his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis:
"This relationship between creed and worship is evidenced in a particular way by the rich theological and liturgical category of beauty. Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion.

"The beauty of the liturgy is part of this mystery; it is a sublime expression of God's glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus' redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mk 9:2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendor."

-- Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 35.
This point is particularly powerful: "Beauty... is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself..."

Put another way, beauty is not merely the 'icing on the cake.' It is not an optional extra. Too often beauty within the sacred liturgy is treated as just that. The liturgy comes to be looked at through the lens solely of pious or legal categories like "validity." But pursuing beauty in the sacred liturgy cannot be treated as a frill. It is an essential element.

If one wonders why it is an essential element, the Council of Trent summarizes it this way:
."..since the nature of man is such that he cannot without external means be raised easily to meditation on divine things, holy mother Church has instituted certain rites. . . whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be emphasized and the minds of the faithful excited by those visible signs of religion and piety to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice."
Finally, the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff adds:
." is necessary to exhibit all possible care and attention, so that the dignity of the Liturgy would shine forth even in the smallest details in the form of true beauty. It is necessary to recall that even those saints who lived poverty with a particular ascetical commitment always desired that the most beautiful and precious objects be used for divine worship. We mention here only one example, that of the Holy Curé d'Ars:
"From the moment he saw it [the parish church of Ars], M. Vianney loved the old church as he had loved the paternal home. When he undertook its restoration he began with what holds the foremost place, the altar, which is the centre and raison d’être of the sanctuary. Out of reverence for the Holy Eucharist, he wished to secure as beautiful an altar as possible. . . . After these improvements, he undertook the task, to use his own picturesque and touching phrase, of adding to the household possessions of the good God – le ménage du bon Dieu. He went to Lyons to visit the workshops of embroiderers and goldsmiths. Whatever was most precious he purchased, so that the purveyors of church furniture would say with astonishment: “In this district there lives a little curé, lean, badly dressed, looking as if he had not a sou in his pocket, yet only the very best things are good enough for his church.”
This latter point is also particularly noteworthy. Saints like St. John Marie Vianney and St. Francis of Assisi were known for their personal poverty and simplicity of life; but this love of poverty and simplicity was equally matched by their great concern for the beauty of the church and her liturgical life. In our own day, this has very often become reversed; our churches and liturgical rites have frequently become impoverished while our rectories and homes have become lavish.

While all are not called to lives of material poverty, we would do well to observe what the proper relationship in fact is.

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