The Beauty of the Liturgy

Most people, I think, would suggest that the liturgy should be beautiful. In his post below, Todd wrote that all of us should “be joining on common ground to address the cultural factors that prevent us from living up to the ideals of improved, artistic, and beautiful liturgy.” Dale Price then wisely asked, “How much common ground is there?” Dale wondered, in particular, about those admittedly slippery words, “artistic” and “beautiful.” What makes for a “beautiful” liturgy?

Archbishop Piero Marini, Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations, warns us, “It would be a great error simply to apply secular standards of aesthetic taste to the liturgy.” He is aware of the dangers of “aesthetic formalism” and concerned that the “artistic embellishment of an object does not hide its original sign-value.” Archbishop Marini suggests that the beauty of the liturgy is “not a beauty which catches the eye immediately,” but a “noble simplicity,” sensed rather than seen, that sets forth what is essential – “the gesture of love performed by Jesus.” But this does not immediately answer our question. When we are asked to describe beauty, words like “simplicity” and “sobriety,” I think, are not the first to come to mind.

But “noble simplicity” should not be entirely counterintuitive. The difference between liturgy and, say, a political event, is that the political rally has to try to create, sometimes with obvious artificiality, a sense of togetherness and a rise in emotional intensity. On the other hand, the liturgy, as James Alison writes, is “predicated on the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve.” There is no need for a build up of fascination or some sort of manufactured apotheosis, because, as Alison continues, “The Crucified and Risen Lamb is already in heaven. His marriage supper has already started.” There is nothing that we can add to this, nor should we ever try. As Archbishop Marini says, we can only “bring out its beauty, like a frame which enhances the beauty of a picture.”

What, precisely, is the beauty that we are trying to “frame” with our “noble simplicity”? As you already might have gathered, this is not an easy question. Most Bible dictionaries, including the venerable Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, will tell you that, in both the Septuagint and the New Testament, the Greek term kalon (“beautiful”) simply does not occur as an aesthetic quantity. But the Anglican priest F. Gerald Downing has very helpfully argued that there is a conception of beauty in Holy Scripture, and I think that it is this conception that answers our original question: What makes for a beautiful liturgy? But first we will have to rid ourselves of the modern notion that the “aesthetic” is about particular works of “art” and a distinct feeling of “delight,” completely separate from concerns about utility or morality.

Ancient Israel, of course, did not produce much in the way of “art,” and we do not have accounts of the prophets at concert halls or galleries. There are no psalms about the opera house. But, Fr Downing tells us, we can find a kind of aesthetic appraisal and “we are most likely to find it when what is commended is some sort of abundance or intensification: not a normal sufficiency, but a plenitude.” This aesthetic befits peasants, well aware of hunger and the dangers of an insufficient harvest, but it is also shared by God. The psalmist tells God, “You crown the year with your good gifts,” and then speaks with unmistakable delight, “The open pastures are lush and the hills wreathed with happiness; the meadows are cloaked with sheep and the valley decked with grain, so that with shouts of joy they break into song” (Ps 65:12-14). The mention of valleys of grain breaking into song alongside the psalmist clearly tells us that this is not an aesthetic of “art for art’s sake,” but rejoicing in life in a world of plenty characterized by solidarity and sharing.

In the Book of Sirach, we read “The eye likes to look on grace and beauty, but better still on the green shoots in a cornfield” (Sir 40:22). But the Old Testament book that is rightly most associated with delight is the Song of Songs. We read a series of stunning metaphors, representing the aesthetic of abundance – “Your nose is like the tower on Lebanon that looks toward Damascus” (Song 7:5), that describe a mutual love that goes far beyond the usual marital conventions. In fact, the “excess” of the metaphors, Fr Downing says, “opens up a vision of the ordinary world surpassed.” He quotes his fellow exegete, Michael V. Fox:

The images thus become largely independent of their referents and combine to convey a unified picture of a self-contained world: a peaceful, fruitful world, resplendent with the blessings of nature and the beauties of human art. The world blossoms in a perpetual spring. Birds sing and bathe in milk; spices give forth their fragrance; springs flow with clear water; fruits and wines offer their sweetness; heaps of wheat are surrounded by lilies; ewes, white and clean, bear twins and never miscarry; goats stream gently down the mountain side; proud and ornate towers stand tall above the landscape. Nor are there lacking silver and gold, precious stones, and objects of art: a rich and blessed world.

Hebrew aesthetics, Fr Downing concludes, is an “intensification of the ordinary.” Early Christians give us more examples of this aesthetic of plenitude and “intensification.” Tertullian, responding to the dualist Marcion, dismissively wrote, “A single red flower from the hedge, not to mention wild flowers in the field; a single tiny shell-fish from any sea, not to mention those from the Red Sea; a single small wing from a moorfowl, not to mention the peacock, will, I suppose, show you what a poor craftsman their Creator was.” And why shouldn’t he have reminded us of “a single red flower”?

After all, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest “intensification of the ordinary.” Death, which shadows all creation with the anticipation of meaningless decay and enslaves our minds with the specter of powerlessness and deprivation, is destroyed. All of creation is not left to a struggle for existence but will be redeemed into “abundance or intensification: not a normal sufficiency, but a plenitude.” As the Orthodox priest KM George writes, “The church has never interpreted Christ’s resurrection as an individual experience. It is the first fruits and foretaste of all creation. So the ascending movement of the Risen One gathers all-that-is to Him and sets orientation – from degradation to the triune community.” He points us to an Orthodox resurrection icon, in which “the rising Christ holds the hands of Adam and Eve, lifting them up along with him with a joyful but firm movement from the clutches of death.” Fr George tells us, “The creation around exults in eagerness.”

The beauty of the liturgy should reveal this “intensification of the ordinary.” We have noted the counsel of “noble simplicity,” lest we think that the sacred is something we ourselves need to bring about through our architecture and choirs. This “intensification” has already begun, irreversibly and eternally, in Jesus Christ. But this Christological “intensification of the ordinary,” “framed” by the liturgy’s simplicity and sobriety, challenges our modern aesthetics even further. Think about art museums: they are places of permanence and stability, where we gaze from a distance at separate and circumscribed works of what has been pronounced as “art” and carefully removed from the ordinary world and our ordinary experience. It is gauche to talk about functionality in an art museum, and, to most people, a museum should not be too political. The Hebrew aesthetic instead places us before the very ordinary world of nature and crafts (including, as we have seen, human bodies), which we experience as participants and not just viewers, and which is noticeably subject to the passage of seasons and time. The ordinary world of the Hebrew aesthetic is inseparable from concerns about food and the inevitable politics of ecology (see Jeremiah 18).

This leaves us, I think, with two questions. First (and this may be more directed to the “liberal”), do our liturgies reflect the beauty of the “intensification of the ordinary” through Jesus Christ or is there a contentedness with merely a pious sociability? Second (and this may be more directed to the “conservative”), when do concerns for reverence and permanence (including the deliberate recovery of ancient forms and the self-conscious formation of a “sacral vernacular”) completely remove us from the ordinary world of the Hebrew aesthetic and the beauty of seeing its ordinariness intensified and gathered around the Risen One? I hope that we do have “common ground.” Thank you.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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