Friday, August 17, 2007

Surprised by Beauty: Reflections on the Assumption Mass in Camden

Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: because he hath done wonderful things. [1]

The wonderful things which the Lord has done are manifold and span all of time. These deeds are, in a word, Salvation History, the great drama of God's redeeming work which continues to this very day and eventually leads to the Heavenly Liturgy in the New Jerusalem. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the work of salvation takes place right before our very eyes, for the liturgy is the summary of Salvation History, an offering "in remembrance of the passion, resurrection, and ascension"[2] of our Lord, the event around which all of human existence revolves. When the drama of redemption is carried out in the Mass in dramatic fashion, the saving power of God is all the more efficaciously manifested.

Mater Ecclesiae's annual Solemn High Assumption Mass at Camden's handsome Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a foremost example of this truth. Through its fine ars celebrandi and its unsurpassed sacred music,[3] this liturgy appeals to the five senses and brings the infinite into the finite.[4] This sacred drama unfolds in the form of processions, sacred dress, colorful banners, singing, and liturgical actions. The most vivid moment in all of this comes at the climax of the Mass, when after the people have lifted up their hearts, the choir shouts Sanctus, the torchbearers kneel down in the sanctuary, bells ring, incense is burned--and then silence. In this silence, the Lord comes into our midst in the Sacramentum Caritatis. Who would not be moved in such a moment? One cannot help but recall Elijah on Mt. Horeb.[5]

It might seem sensible to suppose that one can become accustomed to all of this splendor after repeated experience, that an extraordinary celebration like this one can lose some of its power for those who've been to such a mountaintop on so many occasions. This is not so. The beauty of this Mass continues to surprise us each year.


Perhaps it is because the beauty of the Mass is not simply aesthetic--although that is certainly an important aspect of it. The outward beauty of the Mass is the showing forth of Christ's love, who "loved us to the end,"to the Cross and to the Resurrection. The Mass also manifests the beauty of the saints, most especially the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is all beautiful, without stain of original sin.[6] Virtue is the essence of this splendor.[7] This beauty draws us to Christ and His Mother, and we fall in love with them, just as beauty draws men and women together. As we grow in love with Christ and His Mother, new aspects of their beauty become apparent, the love deepens, and so it goes, on and on. First beauty, then love, then more beauty and deeper love. How could such a wonder ever become old or lose any of its power to continually surprise us?

Through this beautiful liturgy, the hearts of the faithful are "inflamed with the fire of love,"[8] and they are inspired to imitate Mary, who loves Christ with Her Immaculate Heart. Anyone who has witnessed a Mass at Mater Ecclesiae knows very well the love and devotion with which the parishioners worship. It is truly a powerful witness. Sermons and instructions are good and necessary for both conversion and ongoing formation, but perhaps not as effective as a congregation completely absorbed in prayer, or singing a new song unto the Lord.[9]

Those who experience this know that the faith is true, for beauty is universal. It speaks to all. It calls us out of our spiritual slumber and urges us to awaken to the reality of Christ's love, which is the source of all beauty. The world needs this Beauty now just as much as ever, and one need not travel any measurable distance from Camden's cathedral to arrive in areas of two cities ridden with crime, violence and ugliness and in great need of beauty and love. Will our hearts be open to the power of Beauty to change us?

It is not difficult to understand even from this short rumination that beauty is not a luxury; it is a necessity, a vessel which carries the Good News. It is not the property of a few elite. Rather, it comes from and belongs to God, who has charged all of us with stewardship over it. May we accept our duty as Christians and, as "ambassadors for Christ," bring the beauty of Christ's love to everyone we meet, so that, as the sacred drama of Salvation History continues to unfold, more and more souls may be saved.

O Mary, our Mother, most beautiful Work of God's Creation, we offer to God the beauty of our worship. In our weakness and distress, we call out to thee. On this feast of your Assumption, may our lives be filled with a spiritual beauty, a beauty that reflects the splendor of this Solemn Mass. May the harmonious chords of a holy life bring us to the courts of our Eternal King. Amen.[10]


[1] Psalm 97:1. Verse for the Introit for the Feast of the Assumption.
[2] From the Offertory Prayers of the Missale Romanum, 1962.
[3] Dr. Timothy McDonnell led a fourteen voice choir and ten piece orchestra.
[4] Robert C. Pasley, "Sacred Music and the Liturgy," notes in the 2007 Assumption Mass Booklet, p.8.
[5] I Kings, Chapter 19.
[6] Tota pulchra es Maria, et macula originalis non es in te. Psalm Antiphon for Lauds, Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
[7] Robert C. Pasley, Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2005.
[8] Secret, Feast of the Assumption, Missale Romanum, 1962.
[9] For more on the theological ideas about the "new song," see Joseph Ratzinger, _The Spirit of the Liturgy_. Ignatius.
[10] Pasley, "Sacred Music and the Liturgy," p. 8.

For further reading:

Joseph Ratzinger, _On the Way to Jesus Christ_, esp. Chapter 2, "Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty," Ignatius.

Michael E. Lawrence can be reached at hocket [at] gmail [dot] com.

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