Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the Liturgy. To preside at the Eucharist is to be plunged into the furnace of God’s love. — Pope Francis
What makes the Liturgy, above all the Mass, beautiful? Christ. He is beautiful, Beauty itself manifest in his redeeming life and death and resurrection, all driven by his love. This theandric (divine-human) love is the true beauty in all beauties. A beautiful Liturgy, therefore, manifests every facet of Christ who transformed every small detail of his human existence into an act of chain-shattering divine mercy, consummated on the Cross.
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1) — in this is the true splendor of all Liturgy.
Liturgical beauty is enhanced by art and architecture, music and vestments, incense and bells, language and ritual gesture. But Liturgical beauty is made by love alone. Love for God, love for others. Thus, the more your devotion to liturgical beauty grows, the more your kindness, patience, gentleness, generosity, mercy, forgiveness — all refractions of charity — should grow. To be devoted to Liturgy and not be radically converted toward charity in each celebration is supremely dangerous. Better to not worship at all.
As the Prophet Amos voiced God saying to Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Back in 1991, I had the privilege of spending part of a summer with a priest, Fr Albert Goulet, who was in a nursing home at the time. He was an extraordinary man, a faithful priest for over sixty years. He invited me to join him every morning at 5:30 a.m. in his room for Mass. He celebrated the Divine Liturgy on his folding TV dinner table, covered by a white cloth, using travel-sized sacred vessels. Having had a minor stroke that left him partly paralyzed, he would slur through the words of the Mass and drool as he spoke. He would have us sing hymns, totally off key. When he elevated the Host and Chalice after the words of consecration, he would whisper each time with such deep feeling, “My Lord and my God.” I remember one particular time when he preached to me of the love of the Trinity for the two of us, he stopped to weep for a moment.
Those Masses still stand for me as the most beautiful and sacred I have ever participated in. No close second. Because they revealed and led me into the mystery of a deep divine and human love, wrapped in his purity of heart, weakness and brokenness. I wrote one night in my journal: “This is like the one and only Mass, the Mass of Golgotha, which was celebrated that Friday by a High Priest robed only in flies, sweat and blood; who spoke slurred words of Offering and Blessing amid gasps for breath, all the while reeking of the sweetest incense of a love beyond all telling. More sacred than any other Liturgy celebrated.”
So anytime I hear Liturgy spoken of with a lack of love, or used as a weapon of division, derision, disobedience or contempt, I see nothing of Christ. Including in myself when I fall into that. I see only idolatry, the worship of worship, of a false god. As St. John Chrysostom reminds us, worship and just-love must go hand-in-hand:
Consider that Christ is that tramp who comes in need of a night’s lodging.
You turn him away and then start laying out rugs on the floor,
draping the walls, hanging lamps on silver chains on the columns.
Meanwhile the tramp is locked up in prison and you never give him a glance.
Well again, I am not condemning lavish generosity in these matters.
Make God’s house beautiful by all means
but also look after the poor,
or rather look after the poor first.
No one was ever condemned for not adorning his house,
but those who neglect the poor
were threatened with hellfire for all eternity
and a life of torment with devils.
Adorn your house if you will,
but do not forget your brother in distress.
He is a temple of infinitely greater value.
Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
That alone is astonishing.