Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed: Beauty as an essential element of the sacred liturgy

By Veronica A. Arntz

“O Lord, I Have Loved the Beauty of Thy House”
Beauty as an Essential Element of the Sacred Liturgy

In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Beauty…is not mere decoration but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation” (art. 35). Beauty, therefore, is not merely an external; rather, beauty is inseparable from the liturgy itself. To say this in the abstract is one thing, but to understand it in the concrete is much more difficult. To understand how beauty is an essential element of the liturgy, we will look to Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s writings to elucidate three main indicators of beauty: liturgy must be Christocentric; situated within the long-standing, sacred tradition of the Church; and permeated with beautiful music. 

In the above-quoted apostolic exhortation, Benedict XVI immediately goes on to say: “The ‘subject’ of the liturgy’s intrinsic beauty is Christ himself, risen and glorified in the Holy Spirit, who includes the Church in his work” (art. 36). If the liturgy is to be beautiful, then it can only be so because Christ himself is the center of the celebration and sacrifice. Christ Himself gave us the mode of the sacred liturgy at the Last Supper, which has been passed down and developed organically throughout the Church’s tradition. Christ Himself is the sacrifice: He is both the Priest and the Victim, as we read in the letter to the Ephesians, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:2, RSV; Summa Theologia, III, q. 22, a. 2). As Ratzinger eloquently shows in his address, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Christ is Beauty itself:

It is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is glorified; rather, the beauty of Truth appears in him, the beauty of God himself who draws us to himself and, at the same time, captures us with the wound of Love, the holy passion (eros), that enables us to go forth together, with and in the Church his Bride, to meet the Love who calls us.

If Christ himself is the Beauty of holy Love, then how could He not be at the center of our sacred liturgy? If Christ’s presence permeates the sacred liturgy, then it will be impossible for it to be beautiful in itself. When we start to “make” our own liturgy or re-order the focus toward ourselves, then we are bound to make the liturgy into something ugly, since its focus becomes anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. While the human community is certainly part of the celebration of liturgy, when it becomes the focus, then Christ Himself is no longer the reason for liturgy. Rather, liturgy becomes focused on man’s own achievements and his own desires, and when we turn away from Christ, who gave himself to us to be our spiritual food and drink, then we are forgetting the one who is Beauty itself; we run the risk of turning beauty into mere aesthetics, based on our cultural understanding of beauty.

To ensure that Christ, who is Beauty itself, is at the center of our sacred liturgy is not something we can accomplish on our own power; indeed, if we rely only on ourselves, we will be likely to turn the liturgy into some action about ourselves. Therefore, in order to ensure that the liturgy is centered on Christ, sacred liturgy must be situated within the sacred tradition of the Catholic Church. As Benedict XVI comments in Sacramentum Caritatis, “The celebration of the Eucharist implies and involves the living Tradition” (art. 37). If we separate the sacred liturgy from the tradition of the Church, then we risk losing the beauty that has been handed down by the saints of the Church; we ought to remember that the Roman Rite, prior to the liturgical upheaval of the 1960’s, has formed centuries of saints, and we can attribute that to the fact that this liturgy is entirely focused on Christ, the fairest of the children of men (Psalm 45:2).

It is worth quoting from Ratzinger’s autobiography, Milestones, to see how beauty and tradition are intrinsically related:

The Church year gave the time its rhythm, and I experienced with great gratitude and joy already as a child, indeed, above all as a child. During Advent the ‘liturgy of the angels’ [Rorate Mass] was celebrated at dawn with great solemnity in the pitch-black illuminated only with candles. The anticipated joy of Christians gave the gloomy December days their own particular character…During Lent, on Thursdays, ‘Mount of Olives” devotions were held, whose seriousness and sense of trust in God always penetrated into my soul. Then, on Holy Saturday evening, the celebration of the Resurrection was especially impressive. Throughout Holy Week black curtains had covered the windows of the Church so that even during the day the whole space was filled by a mysterious darkness. When the pastor sang the words ‘Christ is risen!’ the curtains would suddenly fall, and the space would be flooded by radiant light. This was the most impressive portrayal of the Lord’s Resurrection that I can conceive of (Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998], p. 18-19).

There are several things to note here. First, the beauty of the liturgy is closely tied with the liturgical calendar, which is a tradition of the Church in that the Church has continuously celebrated the great feasts, year after year, with solemn regularity. The beauty of the Rorate Mass and the celebrations of Holy Week comes from the fact that it is celebrated each year; each year, we anticipate the arrival of the feasts, and we remember the salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross. The anamnesis of the Church is stirred, as she celebrates the ancient traditions and recalls the saints of old who have also celebrated these same feasts. Rather than merely focusing on the human community, the yearly celebration of the feasts unites the Church with the Mystical Body of Christ in Heaven; the pilgrim Church on earth is united to the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) in the heavenly kingdom.
Moreover, each feast has a particular mode of celebration. Novelty in the celebrations of the feasts does not aid in making the liturgy more beautiful; the feasts are beautiful by the very fact that they are not novel. While these celebrations are part of the specific Bavarian community—a sort of inculturation—it is clear that that they are feasts of the universal Church because of how they are celebrated. The timeless tradition of the Church is present in Ratzinger’s Bavarian community, and we can perhaps say that this explains why he and his brother Georg both answered the call to the priesthood. The beauty of the liturgy drew Ratzinger into the heart of the Church, into the heart of Christ. Contemplating life without the Church and liturgy, Ratzinger says, “Life then would have simply fallen into the void, would have lost the solid ground that supported it and gave it meaning” (Milestones, p. 17-18). The regularity and traditional mode of celebrating the feasts of the Church brought meaning to the lives of these Bavarians. In our secular culture, how many of us can say that the liturgy gives such intrinsic meaning to our lives? Does not the liturgy become simply something we “do,” rather than something that gives shape and meaning to our lives? Is it not often the case that liturgy is something extrinsic to our daily living, rather than intrinsic? It is because the liturgy was essentially beautiful, for Ratzinger and others, that it gave such profound meaning to their lives.
Third and finally, sacred music is an essential component to liturgy. As Benedict explains, “The profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration…Everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty” (Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 41). This – in particular – means the sacred music that accompanies the liturgy: “Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another” (Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 42). As such, we must pay special attention to the music that is played and sung within the sacred liturgy, because it is intrinsically connected to the beauty of the liturgy. The music of the liturgy gives form to the liturgy. In the Ratzinger Report, we read:

A Church which only makes use of ‘utility music’ has fallen for what is, in fact, useless and becomes useless herself. For her mission is a far higher one…The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it too glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved (The Ratzinger Report [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985], p. 129).

The Church must “arouse the voice of the cosmos.” Even with recent developments in Church music, nothing can compare to the ancient modes and settings of Gregorian chant and polyphony, which have fed the souls of so many saints. What is essentially beautiful about the sacred music of the Church is that it fosters a spirit of receptivity. After the Second Vatican Council, even though Sacrosanctum Concilium praised the Church’s sacred music as “a treasure of inestimable value” (art. 112), “experts” decided that the Church’s ancient music was insufficient; rather, what was needed was participatio actuosa by the Church community. Thus, the great polyphony and Gregorian chant of the Church was replaced by banal utility music, oriented toward “modern man” and his desires and sensibilities. As Ratzinger is right to point out, however, “They have pushed the great church music aside in the name of ‘active participation,’ but cannot this ‘participation’ also include receptivity on the part of spirit and the senses? Is there really nothing ‘active’ in perceiving, receiving, and being inwardly moved?” (Ratzinger Report, p. 128). The Church’s sacred music is truly and essentially beautiful because it touches man at the deepest level of his soul, and causes him to be inwardly receptive to receiving the divine Word. Unlike utility music, which touches man only at the level of his physical senses and appetites, the Church’s great collection of sacred music unites man more intimately with Christ, who is the center of the liturgical action.
In the last analysis, Ratzinger unabashedly says in the Ratzinger Report:

If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell (p. 130).

Indeed, it is as Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.” Christ is Beauty itself, and he has saved the world through his sacrifice. The beauty of his love continues to permeate the Church through the sacred liturgy; if we fail in manifesting the essential element of beauty in the liturgy, how will souls be saved? How will vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life be fostered? How will families be able to raise their children to love their Lord with their whole heart, mind, and body? It is through the sacred liturgy that we encounter Christ, and for that reason, our liturgies must be intrinsically beautiful, pointing us beyond to the glorious cosmos, to the glorious Beatific Vision.