Monday, May 02, 2022

Enter His Courts With Praise: Liturgical Reverence for Christ the King

The following lecture was given at Mater Ecclesiae Parish in Berlin, New Jersey, on March 25, 2022. This parish is somewhat like St. Clement’s in Ottawa, in the sense that it has hosted the traditional Mass more or less uninterruptedly since the time of the liturgical reform; it is, moreover, that rarest of rare birds, a traditional diocesan parish. The pastor is Fr. Robert Pasley, the chaplain of the CMAA. I am grateful to the parish for supplying the video of the lecture; the complete text is published below.

Blueprint for Liturgy on Earth

According to Joseph Ratzinger, the last book of the Bible, Revelation or the Apocalypse of St. John, shows forth a kind of “archetypal liturgy” to which all our earthly liturgies must bear resemblance:

With its vision of the cosmic liturgy, in the midst of which stands the Lamb who was sacrificed, the Apocalypse has presented the essential contents of the eucharistic sacrament in an impressive form that sets a standard for every local liturgy. From the point of view of the Apocalypse, the essential matter of all eucharistic liturgy is its participation in the heavenly liturgy; it is from thence that it necessarily derives its unity, its catholicity, and its universality.[1]

Pope John Paul II makes a similar observation about the Canticle in chapter 5 of Revelation: 

The canticle . . . is part of the solemn opening vision of Revelation, which presents a sort of heavenly liturgy to which we also, still pilgrims on earth, associate ourselves during our ecclesial celebrations. The hymn of the Book of Revelation that we meditate today concludes with a final acclamation cried out by “myriads of myriads” of angels (see Rev 5:11). It refers to the “the Lamb slain,” to whom is attributed the same glory as to God the Father, as “Worthy is the Lamb … to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength” (5:12). It is the moment of pure contemplation, of joyful praise, of the song of love to Christ in his paschal mystery. This luminous image of the heavenly glory is anticipated in the Liturgy of the Church. In fact, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, the Liturgy is an “action” of the whole Christ (Christus totus). Those who celebrate it here, live already in some way, beyond the signs, in the heavenly liturgy, where the celebration is totally communion and feast. It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church make us participate when we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments (see nn. 1136, 1139).[2]

In his book The Lamb’s Supper, Scott Hahn writes: “I suspect that God revealed heavenly worship in earthly terms so that humans—who, for the first time, were invited to participate in heavenly worship—would know how to do it.”[3] The book of Revelation, Hahn suggests, offered help to the nascent church in discerning which elements of Old Covenant worship should be retained in the New Covenant, inasmuch as the new both concludes and includes the old.[4] The Church can, and should, have buildings, ministers, candlesticks, chalices, incense, and vestments, because her worship, being ordered to and derived from Jesus Christ, is the perfection of all that the old worship, with these typological symbols, pointed to as yet to be fulfilled. They do not cease to be the symbols that we need in order to perceive and enter into communion with Christ; they acquire a new purpose as symbols that point to a reality now accomplished, a salvation won on the Cross, a glory shared with the faithful who may now enter heaven. Indeed, since our earthly worship is still imperfect as compared with that of the heavenly kingdom, it is appropriate that we retain symbols that cannot be mistaken for the ultimate reality and yet not only bring it to mind but bring us into living contact with it.

Who is the central figure of the Book of Revelation? The slain and risen Lamb, the Paschal or Passover Lamb that is given to us in the Holy Eucharist, instituted by Jesus at the last meal He celebrated with the disciples before His atoning death. What is the central activity depicted in the book? Worship—either true worship (directed to God and the Lamb) or idolatrous worship (directed to Babylon, the beast, the whore, etc.). And what is the central metaphor? Marriage. We are either united as “one flesh” with the Lamb, washed clean in His blood and feasting at His table, or we are fornicating with the devil. The two cities are contrasted as a whore (the old, unfaithful Jerusalem) and a virgin bride (the new Jerusalem, the Church).

The very term apokalypsis means “unveiling.” At the time Revelation was written, this term was used to describe, among other things, the unveiling of the virgin bride as part of the wedding festivities. In short, the book of Revelation is about true worship of the true God, a mystical marriage with Him; and this is brought about through the Church’s worship, that is, the sacramental life, especially Baptism and the Eucharist. Apart from this life, there is error, folly, despair, horror, and destruction—the history of fallen mankind, which wages war against the Lamb.

It is interesting to note that this book has received a title of honor that was subsequently extended to, or rather, recognized in, the entire body of Scripture, namely, “revelation”; and it is not incidental that not just this book, called “Revelation,” is about true worship of the true God, but all of Scripture is about true worship of the true God. Christianity is a religion principally and fundamentally concerned with adoring, loving, and serving the one true God, in which man’s salvation and the very content of love of neighbor consists. Put differently, there is no such thing as an “ethical reduction” or a “philosophical distillation” of Christianity; it is inherently bound up with sacrifice and sacrament, by which we profess our faith in God and yield ourselves to Him in love.

Why does Sacred Scripture end with the Book of Revelation? The reason is as simple as it is profound: Revelation is not merely or even primarily the closure of a written book but the beginning of, or aperture to, something else that is intrinsically greater than Scripture: the living worship of the living Body of Christ. This is the subtle but poignant response, far ahead of time, to Luther’s invention of sola scriptura: Revelation ends the Bible because it depicts and invites us to the Eucharistic banquet of the Lamb, which is where the things that are spoken of in Scripture are really present, in their fullest intensity. The written signs lead us to the reality signified; the bread of the word leads to the bread of life, the book to the altar. As Hahn writes: 

For most of the early Christians it was a given: the Book of Revelation was incomprehensible apart from the liturgy. … It was only when I began attending Mass that the many parts of this puzzling book suddenly began to fall into place. Before long, I could see the sense in Revelation’s altar (8:3), its robed clergymen (4:4), candles (1:12), incense (5:8), manna (2:17), chalices (ch. 16), Sunday worship (1:10), the prominence it gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary (12:1–6), the “Holy, Holy, Holy” (4:8), the Gloria (15:3–4), the Sign of the Cross (14:1), the Alleluia (19:1, 3, 6), the readings from Scripture (chs. 2–3), and the “Lamb of God” (many, many times). These are not interruptions in the narrative or incidental details; they are the very stuff of the Apocalypse.[5]

In the final pages of the book, we behold the new Jerusalem descending from heaven. To where does it descend? Mount Zion, that is, the place where Jesus had eaten His last Passover and instituted the Eucharist, where the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, where the Christians in AD 70 were spared Roman destruction. “In other words, the new Jerusalem came to earth, then as now, in the place where Christians celebrated the supper of the Lamb.”[6] Liturgy is the anticipated Parousia, the ‘already’ entering our ‘not yet.’

If Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul II, and Scott Hahn are all correct in what they are saying about the connection between the earthly liturgy and the heavenly, we have a powerful and truly unanswerable argument in favor of the restoration of the sacred, the recovery of signs and symbols in every aspect of the liturgy from architecture, furnishings, and decorations to ceremonial and sacred music. It is an argument in favor of the preservation or reestablishment of continuity with traditional Catholic worship, and the overwhelming need to enrich and “celestialize” the often sterile and impoverished vocabulary of modern liturgical life. The music we hear, for instance, should be awe-inspiring, or at very least, effective in elevating the mind to divine things, so that we may catch a faint echo of angelic music; the church building should be an evocation of the heavenly city, the sanctuary a magnificent image of the Holy of Holies. The ceremonies, in their solemn and ordered splendor, should draw the mind upwards into the majesty and mystery of God.

If we do not strive to have and to do these things to the extent that it lies within our power, we are not just running away from a tradition stretching back 3,000 years (if we taken into account the Jewish background)—bad enough as that would be. We are showing that we have not understood, assimilated, and embraced the message of Divine Revelation as such. We are, in a sense, rejecting the root of our religion, which proclaims and actualizes the coming of the kingdom of God in our midst, “that we may receive the King of All, invisibly escorted by ranks of angels,”[7] and accompany Him into glory.

What we can and must learn from the Book of Revelation is the essential vocation of the Church: the glorification of God and the sanctification of souls in time of tribulation. To do this, we first of all need to consider the fundamental symbolic paradigm of worship according to Sacred Scripture and the entire Christian tradition—namely, that God is our great King, ruling over all with the sceptre of righteousness; that Jesus Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Judge of the living and the dead; that heaven is His throne and earth His footstool;[8] and that, in His holy court, a vast multitude of angels minister unto Him. Yet immediately an objection will arise from the so-called “progressives”: isn’t all this royal, monarchical, courtly imagery—together with the old liturgy that relies so heavily upon it—merely a time-bound cultural construct, ready to be replaced with a more democratic or populist convention in our times? Shouldn’t each age have a liturgy that speaks to it from within its predominant sacro-political models?

Defending the courtliness of the liturgy

Fr. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota,[9] has this to say about the Second Vatican Council: 

The Council fathers didn’t get into all the specifics of the reform of the liturgy. They left most of that to a future commission under the pope. The fathers approved a major paradigm shift—from liturgy as Carolingian clerical drama to liturgy as act of all the people—and then left open what the implications of that shift would be. No doubt some or many of the fathers didn’t yet have in mind all the possible implications of the paradigm shift. Nor did they need to…. [10]

One wonders how many of the fathers of the Council would have said that the traditional liturgy as they knew it was “Carolingian clerical drama” and that they wanted to shift liturgy to an “act of all the people” in such a way that they expected no limitations on how the liturgy would be modified in order to achieve this nebulous vision. Besides, the implied criticism of the Carolingians does not match the more complex picture that emerges from the historical records we do have, but progressives never have a guilty conscience rewriting or ignoring history. In another article, Fr. Ruff states: “For liturgy, the paradigm shift is from Carolingian clericalized sacred drama to an act of the entire community. Just let the full weight of that shift sink in, including all the possible implications for liturgical practice.”[11]

Let us consider Fr. Ruff’s mention of the Carolingians, namely, the Franks of the early Middle Ages, whose greatest ruler was Charlemagne, and in whose empire the Roman liturgy mingled with Gallican elements to form the substance of the Tridentine rite in its high medieval maturity. The simple fact is that we know so little about the liturgy of the pre-Carolingian period that liturgists can attribute almost anything they want, i.e., anything they personally dislike, to the Carolingians, as an excuse to say that it is not “primitive,” and must therefore be expunged. References to the Carolingians and the supposed “purer” worship of their predecessors is to be taken with a Malta-sized grain of salt.

Moreover, if “clericalism” is supposed to be the problem, the Novus Ordo is a thousand times more clericalist than the old Mass could ever be. “Participation” in the new liturgy is effectively defined by lay usurpation of historically clerical roles, such as reading the Scriptures and giving out Communion. The clerical nature of these roles is underlined by the fact that it is still illicit for a layman to read the Gospel and for the celebrant to not distribute Communion. Lay participation in good music, in meditation and prayer, has been compromised by a nearly-universal tendency to electrically-amplified showmanship.

It is often said that the classical Latin liturgy is characterized by courtliness or court etiquette, that it is mixed up with (and corrupted by) expressions of Baroque secular politics. In other words, the progressives hold that the traditional Mass—think especially the Pontifical Mass—is an elaborate show of deference towards a prince or king, indebted more to secular high culture than to sacred precedent, and detracts from the humility, simplicity, and immediacy of the presence of Christ in the community, the brotherhood gathered around the table. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But there are some nagging counterindications that deserve the attention of honest inquirers.

In his work The Treasure of the Church, J. B. Bagshaw argues to the intimate connection between royalism or royalty and temple liturgy, and how, as a result, the image of “the court of the great king” was adapted early on to Christian liturgy and everywhere accepted as a normative framework—something it obviously already is in both the Old and New Testaments. In Bagshaw’s words: 

The very fabric of the church suggests the presence of God, and the adornment of the altar carries out the same idea. In principle it is very like the splendour and ceremonial of the king’s court. It is impossible for men to have royalty amongst them, and yet not have some external sign by which the king is pointed out and honoured. The ceremonial has, of course, differed widely at different times, but from the earliest king that ever ruled amongst men down to our own time, there has always been a royal display of some kind. It is impossible, in the same way, for men to believe that our Lord is amongst them and not to lavish on Him their most precious treasures, just as it was impossible for St. Mary Magdalen not to pour out her precious ointment on His feet (Jn 12:3).
          The church is His palace, and the altar is His throne. We take that glorious court of Heaven described to us in Holy Scripture, and try feebly to imitate it on earth. The candles, and the incense, and the flowers—the vestments and the ceremonial of priests—what are they, but an earthly image of that “great multitude which no man could number … clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands,” and of “all the angels who stood about the throne, and the ancients and the four living creatures, and they fell down before the throne upon their faces and adored God”? (Rev 7:9–11)
We cannot dismiss this language or imagery, pervasive in Scripture and the Patristic period, as a mere epiphenomenon of ancient near Eastern courts and kings, a superficial mood-setting backdrop quickly or easily left behind by “emancipated” modern minds. For the same conceptual world extends throughout the Byzantine emperors who reigned for over a thousand years after Constantine the Great; it embraces medieval courts, Renaissance courts, Baroque courts, and the professedly Catholic governments that existed well into the twentieth century.

Monarchy or princedom, the oldest and arguably the most natural form of political organization, has been a far more consistent part of the human experience and of the formation of Christian culture than the democratic/egalitarian ideology of “self-evident truths” of which we have persuaded ourselves in modernity. Regardless of whether we think democracy can be made to work or not,[12] democracy has no place in the realm of supernatural mysteries: Christianity is purely and entirely monarchical.

Against the backdrop of the Old Testament revelation of God as the (one and only) great King over all the earth, and of the people of Israel as a kingly, priestly people ruled by prophets, judges, and ultimately the Davidic dynasty, we profess that Christ is our King, the Ruler of heaven and earth, of all times, past, present, and to come, of this world and of the next; that His angels and saints are His royal court; that while He deigns to call us His friends and brethren, we know that we never cease to be His servants. We long for His courts and tabernacles. The thick “politicism” of the imagery points to the real, sovereign polity of the Roman Catholic Church as a perfect society (societas perfecta) and altogether perfected in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the great King. Our ecclesial sacrifice, the Most Holy Eucharist, is a kingly and high-priestly oblation.

Consequently, the modern fixation on democracy, as if it were the best or the only good form of government, not only does not abolish our need for the language of kingship and courtliness, but makes it far more needed than ever before, in order to impress on our minds the way things really stand in the definitive reality of the kingdom of God. All of our democratic and egalitarian experiments will fall away at the end of time, as the glorious reign of Christ the King is revealed to all the nations, and those who have submitted to His gentle yoke will be raised to eternal life in glorified flesh while those who have rejected Him will wail and gnash their teeth, condemned to everlasting torment. The liturgy should reflect the truth of God—His absolute monarchy, His paternal rule, His hierarchical court in the unspeakable splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem—and not the passing truths of our modern provisional political organizations.

In short, to conduct the liturgy so that it appears to be less courtly, less regal, less hieratic, less splendid, is to make it appear to be that which it is not—to make it less truthful, less heavenly, less real. In this way it deceives the People of God, who are led further away from an encounter with the God whom no hands have fashioned, no mind fathomed. It is one of many ironies of our time that, in the new regime inaugurated by the “spirit of Vatican II,” the only “courtiers” are those who prance about in their vernacular theater in the round, turning a sublime sacrifice into a sorry spectacle from which the angels avert their gaze. If the way the liturgy is conducted allows people to think that the Mass is about them; that they are its primary protagonists; that the priests are somewhat like hired public servants who administer, in the name of the community, the business which actually belongs to it, such a liturgy is inculcating a pernicious lie.[13]

The liturgy is not “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is the saving act of Christ, done by Him first and always, and by the ordained ministers who act in His name and by His authority; it is done for the glorification of God and only for that reason does it sanctify the people. One can say the liturgy is “for us” in the same way that one can say we ought to love ourselves, namely, by loving God first and foremost, with the sacrificial offering of ourselves in mind and body, which is how we truly love ourselves.

One of the greatest blessings of the traditional Latin liturgy, therefore, is its pure, open, unembarrassed representation of the court of the great King of heaven and earth, in all of its prayers, rubrics, and ceremonies, and in the magnificent art forms that emerged from its “courtliness” and reinforce the “drama” of the holy mysteries of our redemption. We find in it an uncompromised and unapologetic expression of the divine monarchy as it radiates through the panoply of sacred symbols and the ecclesiastical hierarchy endowed with fatherly potency. We are wrapped in an atmosphere of spiritual aristocracy, namely, the world of the saints, who reign with Christ. After all, this liturgy was not produced by a committee of experts, as laws and bills are manufactured in contemporary parliaments or congresses, but emerged slowly over time from innumerable currents of doctrine and devotion introduced by pious monks or bishops and assimilated by God-fearing laity.

The traditional liturgy, in short, challenges everything modern man has come to take for granted, everything he has persuaded himself to believe “self-evident.” It throws down the gauntlet to our modern assumptions, routines, and expectations. It is an enormous challenge to our collective social hubris and cultural pride. This is why the traditional liturgy is hated and feared by those who embrace modernity as a primary value that gives value to all else; this is why it is passionately loved by those who recognize in it a higher, deeper, and better vision of ultimate reality.

The Byzantine witness

When we are considering the courtliness of liturgy with its irreducible monarchical and aristocratic elements, we should not forget, moreover, to “breathe with both lungs” of the Church.

The Byzantine Divine Liturgy is positively bursting with courtly imagery and gestures, as befits its long sojourn in Constantinople. The Byzantines have retained many of these features because they did not succumb to the minimalism, utilitarianism, and democratic thinking that have poisoned the springs of Western social life and made of us men with hollow chests. Byzantine liturgy has all the same kinds of “courtly” rituals that the Roman Rite has, such as the kissing of the celebrant’s hands, the bowing towards persons, icons, and other objects, the candles, and the incense, rituals that had their origin in the veneration surrounding the emperor.[14] Nor should we be surprised: both the Byzantine court and the Carolingian court saw themselves as continuations of the Roman Empire, now consecrated in its new role as supreme governor of the Christian world, for the glory of God and the empire of Christ. It was completely natural to the clergy and faithful to adopt for their divine worship customs that accompanied the earthly ruler; indeed, in so doing, they restored the proper immovable and incorruptible object of veneration, bestowing on the ruler the privilege of being an earthly icon of the divine King. What began on earth was raised to heaven and seated there at the right hand of the Father; thence it descended to the human throne as a mantle of authorization and responsibility.

All four of the Cherubic hymns refer to Christ as King:

  • The one for daily use sings: “We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity, now set aside all cares of life that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by Angelic Hosts.”
  • At the Liturgy of the Presanctified is chanted: “Now the powers of heaven do serve invisibly with us. Lo, the King of Glory enters. O, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled. Let us draw near in faith and love, and become communicants of life eternal.”
  • On Holy Thursday: “Of Thy mystical Supper, Lord, let me partake, O Son of God, for of Thy mysteries I will not speak to Thy enemies nor kiss Thee like Judas, but like the thief on the cross I will confess Thee: In Thy Kingdom, Lord, remember me.
  • On Holy Saturday: “Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling, ponder nothing of earth; for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh forth to be sacrificed and given as food to the believers; and there go before Him the choirs of Angels, with every dominion and power, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces, and crying out the hymn...”[15]

Thus the Byzantine rite’s four chants for the Great Entrance refer to the coming of the King, including His post-resurrection life as king of the universe. This, of course, is nothing other than a consistent application of the imagery of kingship with which the Book of Revelation is rife: 

And the seventh angel sounded the trumpet: and there were great voices in heaven, saying: The kingdom of this world is become our Lord’s and his Christ’s, and he shall reign for ever and ever. Amen. And the four and twenty ancients, who sit on their seats in the sight of God, fell on their faces and adored God... (Rev 11:15–16)

Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: because the accuser of our brethren is cast forth, who accused them before our God day and night. (Rev 12:10)

And singing the canticle of Moses, the servant of God, and the canticle of the Lamb, saying: Great and wonderful are thy works, O Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, O King of ages. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and magnify thy name? For thou only art holy: for all nations shall come, and shall adore in thy sight, because thy judgments are manifest. (Rev 15:3–4)

These shall fight with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them, because he is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and they that are with him are called, and elect, and faithful. (Rev 17:14)

It was once common to say, and one still hears it said once in a while, that the Mass is a mystical representation of the life of Christ, that it makes His life present to us in all of its mysteries, as if recombining the spectrum into pure white light so that all the colors are virtually there in a single moment. Since this is true, we must say that all phases of the life of Our Lord are present and active, including the 2,000 years of His Mystical Body over which He reigns as the glorified King and Son of God (in the Davidic and more than Davidic sense). In fact, while the Mass is the sacramental renewal of the once-for-all sacrifice of Calvary, we know at the same time that it is the offering of the risen Lord in His royal dignity, power, and beauty. Thus, however much we rightly emphasize the Passion, the Mass should be for us a tangible (i.e., sacramental) encounter with our glorious King. The traditional Roman rite, especially in its sung and solemn forms, has exactly this character, in company with all the Eastern rites.

It is currently, for some odd reason, fashionable to admire the colorful extravagance of the Byzantine liturgy while contemptuously dismissing anything in the Latin tradition suggestive of the same. People admire gigantic gold vessels and rich vestments in the East while settling for unsightly cups and drab drapes in the West; they catch their breaths at an impressive iconostasis, while shaking their heads at altar rails and other signs of separation between the nave and the sanctuary; they extol the marvelous poetry of the kontakion or troparion sung to a haunting traditional melody, while leaving their own incomparable Gregorian repertoire out in the cold.

I doubt any of you here today are afflicted with this peculiar double standard, but its ubiquitous presence in the halls of academia and power suggests that we are dealing with a psychological disorder, a kind of self-loathing that compels some people to strip themselves of the treasures of “the other” and to force themselves into a plainness that is almost a punishment or an echo chamber of one’s own emptiness. We can point to the beauty elsewhere, like a tourist passing through the halls of Versailles, as long as we deprive ourselves of it here and now, and suffer our democratic fate, which we deserve good and hard.

This is where the rejection of Christ’s kingship will lead, and has already led. His royalty will either be fully embodied in and expressed through our primary, fundamental, and culminating public, political, and civic action, namely, the sacred liturgy, which will form the reference point and stable basis of Christian society; or His royalty will be rejected and replaced with the tyranny of man over man, the tyranny of fashion or ideology: “We have no king but Caesar.” In this sense, the anti-royalism or anti-courtliness of the reformed liturgy is an expression of Christological heresy and a step along the path of apostasy.

Implications for the fine arts

Given a full-bodied understanding of the royalism or regality of the sacred liturgy in which God our King is adored in His holy court, what are the implications for the fine arts that are unavoidably called upon to aid us in offering this formal, solemn, public activity? I say “unavoidably,” because, apart from emergency situations such as a secret Mass in a concentration camp, the ministers must be attired somehow, the altar must be of some shape and style, the church building must be of this or that design, the words must have one or another register, the music must have a melody and a rhythm, etc. Simply as physical beings, as rational animals who communicate through the senses, our activities of worship are utterly bound up with artifacts, so much so that, as we have seen, the Book of Revelation does not even make the attempt to avoid them in depicting heaven but, if anything, pushes their use to an extreme of symbolic and gestural language. Our worship is inherently artistic, and the only relevant concern is whether the art will be good or bad, well-suited or poorly suited to the reality, done masterfully or done shabbily.

In a book on the modern composer Arvo Pärt, I read this inspiring passage: 

Under Archbishop Laud (1589–1645) there was a strong move towards greater ceremonial dignity in the church. As the house of God it was to be fitted out accordingly with the finest of human artistry, and its functions were to be conducted in a spirit of deepest reverence. The liturgy, the music, the sacred vessels, the very fabric of the building, all were to serve and make manifest the beauty of holiness. This phrase, which we find invoked time and again . . . derives from Psalm 96: “O sing unto the Lord a new song… O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”[16]

Laud was Anglican, of course, but his devout attitude was no different from that of Catholics.[17] Do we not need “greater ceremonial dignity in the church”? Why are the processions at the start of most Masses so slapdash, casual, and quick, almost as if people are embarrassed to be engaged in divine worship? Why are there so few processions outside of church? We could certainly use “a spirit of deepest reverence” in conducting our services. Less of the informal greetings, smiles, and handshakes—more of the reverential fear of the Lord that brings us to our knees in homage to the great King, begging for His mercy. We need music, vessels, and architecture that “make manifest the beauty of holiness.” In particular, we have all heard music that seems neither beautiful nor holy; its mawkish sentimentality, circus-like tunes, predictably syncopated rhythms, and simpering lyrics are an appalling combination from which beauty must hide her fair head while holiness flees to the mountains to bewail her virginity.

But why must we seek to do such laudable things? For one simple reason: because God, the greatest and best, deserves the greatest and best from us: date magnificentiam Deo nostro, “give ye magnificence to our God” (Dt 32:3). Deo optimo maximo. And there is a corollary: we human beings, created in His image and likeness, need to be able to offer “the finest of human artistry” to Him, lifting up our minds and hearts by means of it. If only we knew ourselves, we would see that we have a longing to give the best of ourselves to Him, not what is mediocre, humdrum, worldly, or two-faced. Does not an artist who takes pride in his work wish to give his very best to a patron? Do not lovers with pure intentions long to give the best of themselves to one another? God has given us the ability and the calling to reach out to His transcendent holiness with works of beauty that carry us along with them, past the realm of the profane into the sanctuary of divinity. As St. Thomas says, we worship God not to give Him something He does not already have, but to bring ourselves closer to Him by yielding what we owe Him. In this way we draw nearer to His goodness and grow in likeness to Him.

This explanation will always hold true for all human beings at all times. But we can say something more specifically Catholic. The “preferential option for the beautiful” rests on the truth that the Body and Blood of Jesus, really present, are offered in sacrifice in this building, on this altar, enacted by these rituals, sung in this music. The elements of the liturgy are not indifferent placeholders, like paper money or coins that have value only because someone arbitrarily declares them to be valuable. Rather, as gold is precious by nature and as the king’s image is honorable due to his office, liturgical signs represent Christ to the eyes and ears of faith, and offer Him to the loving heart. Whatsoever we do to the least of His symbols and ceremonies, prayers and chants, that we do unto Him. This is not so much a fearful vision of the danger of making mistakes as it is a joyful awareness of the many ways, little and great, in which we may pay Him homage and adore Him. The traditional liturgy reminds us in countless ways that we are dealing with the Lord of life and death, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, who was, and who is to come—and (to borrow a phrase from another Anglican) He “is not a tame lion.”

This is why it matters, crucially, what we are doing, what we are endeavoring to do, when we worship God in public prayer. If we have got the wrong idea about it, we may do that which is seriously unfitting, unworthy, and displeasing to the Lord, whom it is our great privilege to serve and to please. If we follow the lead of the Church’s Tradition and the requirements or counsels of the Magisterium of the ages, we can be certain of giving glory to God and aiding, over time, the sanctification of His people.

The holy Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, starved himself on potatoes but spared no expense for the embellishment of the sanctuary. He knew, like Archbishop Laud, and like faithful Christians of every age, what came first and what came second. The same was true of St. Francis of Assisi, pace the falsification of his legacy by hippies who bow before Nature rather than adoring the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, Franciscan churches are some of the most beautiful in Europe, magnificently decorated—even those that were built in periods when the friars themselves were dirt-poor beggars who scarcely knew where their next meal was coming from, though they trusted that the Lord would provide. They knew what came first; they knew that when it is God who is to be honored, the work must call forth everything in us, everything great and glorious we can muster, for His sake. This is why the Catholics of old never built cheap churches, if they could help it, and, at least on special occasions if not more often, brought together the best musical forces they could find, to provide the most glorious music.

St. Thomas Aquinas provides the essential rationale for the Church’s longstanding practice of supplying rich vestments, splendid vessels, glorious architecture, elaborate ritual, decorous music, and so forth for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office. Here’s what he writes: 

The chief purpose of the whole external worship is that man may give worship to God. Now man’s tendency is to reverence less those things which are common, and indistinct from other things; whereas he admires and reveres those things which are distinct from others in some point of excellence. Hence too it is customary among men for kings and princes, who ought to be reverenced by their subjects, to be clothed in more precious garments, and to possess vaster and more beautiful abodes. And for this reason it was necessary that special times, a special abode, special vessels, and special ministers be appointed for the divine worship, so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God.[18]

If we had a proper religious formation, the trite songs infesting Catholic hymnals would evaporate and our churches would be filled with music of true artistic merit. We would insist that it happen; we would make it happen through personal sacrifices; we would absorb its fruits with gratitude as these heavenly harmonies penetrated and shaped our souls. The same would be true of the churches we build: their lofty architecture would captivate all who enter and move them to worship the Lord of hosts. In his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II offered theological support for this exultant and sacrificial attitude:

Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance,” devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room,” she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery. … The faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated.[19]

That the liturgy should be done with splendor and solemnity, in surroundings as magnificent as can be, evoking the transcendence, holiness, and glory of the Lord, is not a “debatable question” but a plain given as far as Catholic tradition is concerned. This is why the Church has always striven for and sponsored the finest of human artistry—and why the poor have always contributed to the building of churches of which they and their descendents are the rightfully proud beneficiaries. Such an unequivocal dedication to the sacred liturgy does not, of course, cancel out the need for personal prayer, works of charity outside the church doors, or energetic efforts of evangelization. But neither can these things ever replace the liturgy, which serves as their final end, from which they derive their meaning. Most simply, this is what we owe to God, and He comes first. “Glorify the Lord generously, and do not stint the first fruits of your hands” (Sir 35:8).

Beauty is not an extra or an add-on, a luxury or an indulgence, but an essential and inherent dimension of truth itself, an attribute of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His liturgy. If we abandon our pursuit of excellence in this domain, we will lose our faith, our ability to transform the world for God’s sake, even our sanity. Ugliness, like ignorance, error, and sin, is a privation and a deprivation, with a peculiar de-evangelizing force, while beauty, like truth and goodness, converts us, perfects us, and elevates us to God. Moreover, without supernatural faith, which orders everything in life to our final destiny in God, art itself can become a pernicious and soul-destroying force, as we have seen in modern times with so-called “modern art” and popular culture. Christianity is not only the art of salvation, it is the salvation of art.

Our Lord said to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: “I will reign through my Heart.” But what do we find contained in that Heart of sinless flesh, pure love, and everlasting deity? The Litany of the Sacred Heart tells us that the Heart of Jesus is maiestatis infinitae, of infinite Majesty—the Majesty of the One who is rex et centrum omnium cordium, King and center of all hearts. It is the templum Dei sanctum, tabernaculum Altissimi, domus Dei et porta caeli: the holy temple of God, the tabernacle of the Most High, the house of God and the gate of heaven. In like manner, the sacred liturgy of our Catholic tradition is a holy temple in which we adore the divine King, a tabernacle of the Real Presence, a dwelling-place of God with man, a portal swinging open to the sublime and blissful worship of God in the courts of heaven. And just as the Heart of Jesus is omni laude dignissimum, fons vitae et sanctitatis, deliciae Sanctorum omnium—most worthy of all praise, the fountain of life and holiness, the delight of all the saints—so too is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that Our Lord gave to us in His immense wisdom and love; for through it we give Him, and the Father, and the Holy Ghost, perfect praise, and from it we receive the bread of angels, our food of pilgrimage and our consolation in this valley of tears—a delight for the saints who have gone before us, as it is for us today, and as it will be for our descendents. 


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion, ed. Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz Pfnür (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 110–11.

[2] John Paul II, General Audience, November 3, 2004.

[3] Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 122.

[4] In Mt 5:17–18, “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled,” the Greek verb for “fulfill” means both to bring something to completion and to bring it to an end. The perfection of the Law both embodies all that is good in it and surpasses it with unexpected fullness.

[5] Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper, 66–67.

[6] Ibid., 102.

[7] From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

[8] Cf. Is 66:1, Acts 7:49, Mt 5:35.

[9] In this respect, more akin to the modern Jesuits than the classical Benedictines. See Chapter 5.

[10] “Cardinal Sarah on Mass Not Facing the People,” published at PrayTell, May 26, 2016.

[11] “The Worst Reasons for Ad Orientem,” published at PrayTell, August 18, 2016.

[12] Its track record so far is vastly inferior to that of monarchy and aristocracy, if we look to the standard of beatified or canonized rulers and the preservation of the Faith in societies.

[13] Ratzinger saw all this very clearly. In his address “The Ecclesiology of the Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium” (L’Osservatore Romano, English ed., 19 September 2001), he noted that the phrase “the People of God” quickly gave rise to a fundamental and dangerous misconception of the nature of the Church, in a Marxist or democratic vein. He saw, too, the liturgical implications of this politicized ecclesiology; see especially the essay “Image of the World and of Human Beings.”

[14] “The liturgy had taken over from the court ceremonial of the pagan emperors the symbolic language for the presence of the supreme sovereign: candles, which preceded the emperor, and the thurible. Whenever candles and incense appear in the liturgy, they indicate a new culmination of the divine presence” (Martin Mosebach, Foreword to P. Kwasniewski, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness [Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017], xxii).

[15] The Byzantines currently use the last of these only on Holy Saturday, but it was the daily use Cherubic hymn for the Liturgy of St James, which is currently undergoing something of a revival among the liturgically outré. The traditional Old Church Slavonic version is incredibly impressive.

[16] Paul Hillier and Tõnu Tormis, On Pärt (Copenhagen: Edition Samfundet, 2005), 61.

[17] Need I mention the sincere hope of many Roman Catholics that the Anglican Ordinariates, by modeling that Laudian attitude and approach, will become a force of renewal for the rest of us?

[18] Summa theologiae I-II, q. 102, a. 4.

[19] Emphasis in original.

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