There are lots of fights over the way that the Mass is celebrated, and about liturgical beauty more broadly. I think it would help to bear in mind two rules, both of which are borne out a simple reality: the Mass is the place in which we encounter Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. With that truth in mind, here are the two rules. They’re simple, really:
Liturgical Rule #1: Jesus is Present at the Mass, so it should be as beautiful as possible.
|Israhel van Meckenem, The Mass of Saint Gregory (1515)
The Mass isn’t about my self-expression, or yours, or the priest’s or the cantor’s or the choir’s. It’s about encountering Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It’s about uniting my prayers, sacrifices and struggles to His eternal Sacrifice, so that He can offer it all up as an oblation to the Father. It’s about giving Him even my sins, so that He can refine my soul in the fires of His Mercy. If I’m in a state of grace, it’s even about communing with Jesus Christ, the highest act of man this side of Heaven. The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Everything else flows from the Eucharist, and points towards the Eucharist.
Communing with Jesus Christ is the most amazing thing that you’ll ever do, period. And the externals should reflect that significance. I think that many (admittedly, not all) brides-to-be recognize this truth when it comes to their wedding: they’re about to enter into a lifelong union with their fiancees, and they want the external beauty to reflect this. How much more when we’re uniting, not with our spouse-to-be, but with the Divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ Himself? Jesus actually uses just this imagery in Matthew 22:1-14, in which He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet, and describes the need to come attired in the appropriate “wedding garment” (Mt. 22:11-12).
There’s a good reason that the Old Testament has lots of instructions, given by God Himself, for proper worship: He governs everything from the architecture, to the vestments, to the music. He’s not apathetic about these things. At the risk of sounding cheesy, we should offer God the best that we’ve got, because He’s the best we’ve got.
All of this is complicated, of course, because tastes vary. Let me put this more bluntly: all of this is complicated because some people have bad taste, or they have bad theology. Often, people either fail to make the Mass what it should be, aesthetically, or succeed in making the Mass something that it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, it’s simply because people making important decisions don’t think with the mind of the Church about the focal point of the Liturgy: making it about us (either corporately, or certain “performers”) rather than about Him. Other times, it’s more subtle than that. Perhaps they think that they can sing, and can’t; perhaps they like a style of art or music that isn’t objectively beautiful (or perhaps they fall into the modern trap of believing that there’s no such thing as objective beauty), etc. Fortunately, the Church has developed guidelines governing all of these areas. If we listen to the Bride of Christ, we have a surefire way of offering worship fitting the Bridegroom, Christ.
Liturgical Rule #2: If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.
|Alessandro Allori, Christ with Mary and Martha (1603)
What I described in Rule #1 is the ideal, what we ought to see at every Mass. For a lot of reasons, that’s not always what the Mass looks like. And that’s why Rule #2 is important: it’s easy to fall into griping and faultfinding when the Mass doesn’t look like we want it to, or when it doesn’t look like the Church wants it to (which are two different things). But as long as it’s a valid Mass, Jesus Christ is there in the Eucharist. If the Mass is good enough for Him to show up, it’s good enough for you. Don’t set higher standards than God.
When we fault-find during Mass, we can easily become distracted: instead of focusing upon Jesus (the reason we’re there), we’re focused on the externals. But that misses the point, entirely, since the externals are meant to draw us towards Him. If we fixate on the externals of themselves, we’re forgetting that
“art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.
” Consider Luke 10:38-42:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Martha understands Rule #1 well. She’s welcoming Jesus into her home, so she wants it to be beautiful. She’s right to do so. But she is so fixated on wishing that everything was just so that she’s actually missing out on time she could be with Jesus. She’s not following Rule #2, and as a result, she’s missing the point of Rule #1: to enhance our communion with Jesus Christ. How often do we become anxious and troubled about many things during Mass, or resentful of our sisters and brothers who we think should be doing more? That may be a sign that we’re missing the one thing needful.
But it’s worse than that. The wedding garment that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 22:11-12 isn’t physical, but spiritual. When we harbor ugly thoughts towards others for how they’re worshipping, we’re adding ugliness to the Mass. That is, we’re not just violating Rule #2. We’re violating Rule #1, the very rule that we supposedly care about. In Luke 11:39, Christ condemns the Pharisees for their obsession with external cleanliness, while their hearts weren’t cleansed. Let’s not forget the highest forms of beauty (Ps. 51:16-17):
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. / The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Finally, remember that Jesus Christ is present at the Mass. A valid Mass can never be truly ugly, at least not completely. Remember that the Second Temple was externally inferior to the First Temple, to the extent that “many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes” (Ezra 3:12). But God promised that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9), that is, that the Second Temple was going to be more beautiful. This prophesy was fulfilled when Christ was presented in the Temple (Luke 2:22), and Malachi 3:1 was fulfilled.
When Christ was carried into the Second Temple, it was forever ennobled in a way that the First Temple could never rival. Likewise, when the priest carries Christ in his hands at the Mass, the church is rendered more beautiful than anything man can make by his own skill.
So there it is. When it is within your power to make the externals of the Mass more beautiful, do so; when it isn’t, ennoble the Liturgy by offering Him your heart.
Beauty Draws Others to Christ
|Bogorodica Trojeručica, an icon traditionally said
to have been written by or for St. John Damascene
Last thoughts on beauty: it draws others into communion with Christ. Here’s what the Catechism says about beauty, in discussing iconography:
1162 “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.
But there’s another quotation that I want to close on, from a surprising author:
We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.