Monday, September 7, 2015

In Defense of Extravagant Liturgy

I would not consider myself a radical traditionalist. I am an avid fan of Vatican II, Pope Francis, and, quite honestly, 'the Francis effect.' I would, also, not call myself a traditionalist, because doing so might offend my traditionalist friends who so devoutly and admirably attend with great zeal the extraordinary form of the Mass to receive Communion on the tongue while kneeling. I think these are beautiful gestures, and that this devotion is particularly beautiful and rich with grace and love for God and fervor for His Church. I am simply content not veiling while attending the Novus Ordo form of the Mass to receive Communion in the hand (for reasons related to my anxiety -- I understand that even the Church would prefer I receive on the tongue, and I would if it were not for my anxious sensibilities). I am not a traditionalist, to the understandable dismay of many.

That said, I must with great urgency admit that something is severely lacking in contemporary churches.

I love visiting beautiful, old Catholic Churches. I especially love visiting cathedrals. They tend to be incredibly ornate, which is a special treat in the 21st century post-70's-church-building era. In fact, very recently my boyfriend and I found ourselves on an adventure in the countryside, and the only thing which kept us from breaking into a closed down old Catholic Church was the fact that my conscience would not allow me to break into God's house, even if at present it is more of a retirement home for Him. We peered through the windows into an exquisite temple, though the outside appeared a very simple white-painted dusty country chapel. It was small, but extraordinary -- the stained glass windows, the elegance of the architecture, even down to the plain wooden pews. Everything in this building was obviously something turned toward the glory of God -- even though everything was simple.

And that's the thing: even simple can glorify God. But simple does not mean mediocre.

Take a trip with me, if you will, to the Old Testament. Specifically, the time of Solomon, whom God ordered to build a Temple for His honor. God gave instructions for the construction of the Temple, and Solomon built it accordingly. Solomon decorated the interior of the sanctuary with gold, gold, and more gold; with huge (15 feet tall) statues of cherubim, also covered in gold; with massive doors and tall windows; with beautiful walls and even beautiful floors. (1 Kings 6)

No one who entered would think this a mediocre place with mediocre purpose. Everyone would be struck with awe. This place was extraordinary. It was the house of God, and there were no doubts about the worthiness of God for all attempts at splendor.

This is not to say that God requires complicated, necessarily expensive homage. But His house should be beautiful.

His Temple was beautiful because people had reverence for the presence of God. And, as Catholics, as "completed Jews," so to speak, I very firmly believe our churches should be beautiful, too. And I want to be clear: simple can be beautiful. Remember the simple white country chapel from earlier? There was nary an icon, but simply the visual of the interior design drew the heart to something greater than the mediocrity of life, something more beautiful than the world in which we find ourselves.

The local Newman Center in my city has a beautiful chapel; its walls are plain white, yet lined with reminders of Whose house we find ourselves in. There are no attempts to modernize the Gospel. The focus is God.

And I think that might be something that's missing in several contemporary churches. And this is not restricted to the visual aspects of the church; it extends even moreso to the attitude of the liturgy. I have attended reverent liturgies in the middle of the woods, and I have attended confusing and distracted liturgies in beautiful cathedrals.

Perhaps we have forgotten, in our attempts to make the liturgy more welcoming and human (both of which are very good things!), what the liturgy -- rather, Who the liturgy -- is about.

Sacrosanctum Concilium puts it this way:

"Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.

From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree."

Because the liturgy is above and beyond the normal practice of life, shouldn't it follow that the way it happens, and our behavior within, go above and beyond what ordinary life demands?

As completed Jews, we no longer have the bread of the presence -- we have the presence of the Bread of God. The reverence shown by the Israelites for the Temple and the Presence therein should not diminish with us, but grow. Jesus, God Incarnate, dwells physically and spiritually in our midst. This should be the whole focus and goal of our churches and our behavior and attitudes within them.

I must add a note that there is a fair criticism to this line of thinking. If the Mass is truly about God, why am I so bothered by how it happens, or what liturgical abuses occur? And the answer is that I'm bothered because I'm weak. I'm human. I can't focus on God if the very place and event I'm attending isn't itself focussed on God. I try. And I try to remember it isn't about me.

But that is hard when everything around me is about me. What I can win in a raffle. What my community is proud of this week. And these aren't bad things. But they also aren't the focus of the liturgy.

Now, I don't want to step on any toes. If you are offended by something I've said here, please point out any flaw you perceive in my thought process. I'd love to talk about it, and if I need to be corrected, for the love of God (literally) please feel free.

But, all I'm saying is that God is beautiful, and His house and the manner of worship directed toward Him should be, too.

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