Beauty and the Liturgy
Hans Urs von Balthasar has placed “beauty” at the very threshold of his theological opus. It is one reason his work resonates powerfully with many.
When I first came to the parish where I live, the lower church, where daily Eucharist is celebrated, had been “creatively” renovated in the early seventies.The walls were painted a garish orange; the altar and ambo looked like they were hand-made of wooden crates in the local high school workshop (though in upper-middle class Newton no high school would dream of having a workshop).
To celebrate Mass in such an environment required drawing upon every ounce of ex opere operato conviction one could muster. Happily some years later a modest but tasteful renovation transformed the worship space (though the inside of one closet was kept orange as a cautionary remembrance of things past).
That memory surfaced when reading Pope Benedict’s catechesis during his Wednesday audience on the sixth century preacher and hymn writer, Romanus the Melodist. Clearly Pope Benedict’s own persuasion of the importance of art and music in liturgical celebration and in catechesis inspires his remarks. Here is some of what the Pope said:
Romanus is known in history as one of the most representative authors of liturgical hymns. At the time the homily was for the faithful practically the only opportunity of catechesis. Thus Romanus was not only an eminent witness of the religious sentiment of his day, but also of a lively and original method of catechesis. Through his compositions we can see the creativity of this form of catechesis, of the creativity of the theological thought, of the aesthetic and the sacred hymnography of the era.
Palpitating humanity, arduous faith and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us of the entire treasure of Christian culture, born of faith, born of the heart that has found Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the heart with the truth that is love, culture is born, the entire great Christian culture.
And if the faith continues to live, this cultural inheritance will not die, but rather it will continue to live and be current. Icons continue to speak to the hearts of believers to this day, they are not things of the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments, rather houses of life, where we feel “at home”: where we find God and each other. Neither is great music — the Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart — something of the past, rather it lives in the vitality of the liturgy and our faith.
If faith is alive, Christian culture will never be “outdated,” but rather will remain alive and current. And if faith is alive, we can respond to the imperative that is always repeated in the psalms: “Sing an new song unto the Lord.”