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Celebrating The Sacred Liturgy With The Utmost Magnificence And Splendor

August 1, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


In the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), amid the Old Testament sacrifices it cites as prefiguring that of Christ on Calvary, we find the sacrifice of Abel. At the dawn of human history, two sacrifices were offered to God, both by sons of Adam, but only one of these found favor with Him.
For Abel offered to God the very best He had to offer, “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (Gen. 4:4). But Cain offered the bare minimum, “the fruit of the ground” (Gen. 4:3), and nothing more. Abel’s oblation was pleasing and acceptable to God; Cain’s was not. From the abundance of God’s creation Abel took abundantly and gave abundantly — all for the greater glory of God.
As our Lord observed various people putting their donations into the Temple treasury, it was the tiny gift of two copper coins by a poor widow that He singled out as the one most pleasing and acceptable to Him, not because it was tiny, but because it was the very best she had to offer, all she had to offer (Luke 21:1-4).
At a dinner just days before the crucifixion, Mary the sister of Martha lavishly expended “a pound of costly ointment of pure nard” to anoint the feet of Christ, filling the house with “the fragrance of the ointment” (John 3:12).
Abel, the poor widow, and Mary of Bethany were all “extravagant” in rendering worship to God. Why such extravagance? It is a question Judas the Betrayer asked. The answer? Because it is a matter of who God is, and of just how extravagant He has been toward us.
There is in my parish a woman of deep piety who volunteers her time and talent to select, arrange, and care for the flower arrangements on the altar. She devotes much effort and energy to this and goes about it in a very detail-oriented way, fastidiously trimming the stems and making sure that everything is just so and properly watered.
As to why she takes such pains with all this, she commented to me that since these flowers are for God, everything must be as perfect as possible. It was that simple. What we give to God shouldn’t be merely “adequate” or “sufficient.” It should be as perfect as possible, as excellent as possible.
God can only be fittingly described in superlatives — infinitely good, infinitely holy, infinitely powerful. It is right and just, then, that our hearts should respond to Him in superlatives. In a meditation upon the goodness of God, the Flemish Jesuit spiritual writer Fr. Leonard Lessius (1554-1623) writes:
“. . . in Him is the plenitude of every good conceivable to the created mind. . . . In Him are infinite light, infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinite beauty, infinite sweetness, infinite joy, infinite glory, infinite beatitude, infinite sanctity, infinite justice, infinite mercy” (Opussculum asceticum posthumum: Quinquagenta considerationum de cinquagenta… Nominibus Dei in tres libellos, Viae pugativae, illuminativae, unitivae, Venice, Tomaso Beltinelli, 1744, p. 233).
As for God’s “extravagance” toward us, we see this countless times in the pages of the Bible. When the prodigal son returns, his father celebrates with extravagant prodigality — the finest robe, a ring for his hand, and a fatted calf (Luke 15:22-23). When Christ changes the water into wine, He changes it not into merely common wine but a wine of the finest taste (John 2:9-10). But Christ manifests His extravagance supremely in His gift of total self-donation on the cross.
Even in creating the natural world, God has not been satisfied to create just some birds, some trees, some animals. For Him everything must be done in profusion, abundance — extravagance — in numbers and varieties beyond our wildest imagining. Even the beginning and ending of each day He invests with great ceremony, decking the sky in an eruption of vibrant color when He sends forth the light at dawn and again just before He withdraws it at dusk.
Why then would we want to be miserly in our response to all this, in our response to Him?
Everything our response to God ought to be is summed up in the Lord’s great commandment, “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Nowhere more should this total love for God be expressed, this total gift of our hearts, souls, minds and strength to Him, than in the sacred liturgy. As the Book of Sirach declares:
“When you praise the Lord, exalt him as much as you can; for he will surpass even that. When you exalt him, put forth all your strength, and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough” (Sirach 43:30).
As creatures with both souls and bodies, we must respond to our Creator with the totality of our being, not only with our souls but with our bodies and our senses as well. And thus it is that for the response of our senses, sensible creation is employed — precious objects made from precious metals, stones, and fabrics, and for that which we utter unto God in His praise, sublime harmonies wrought with perfected human voices and fine instruments.
Commenting upon the vision of the heavenly liturgy presented in the Book of Revelation and applying it to what the sacred liturgy on earth ought to be, the sacred music scholar and president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy Dr. Jennifer Donelson observes:
“The liturgical worship of heaven is no exercise in functionality or minimalism; it is the act of putting all that is most treasured, most valuable, most excellent at the feet of God, for it is He who owns the earth and all that is in it, and He who is worthy to receive the most excellent things we have to offer Him” (“The Sacred Liturgy as a Primary Source for the Artist’s Imagination,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, volume 41, n. 1, April 2018, p. 105).
One of the earliest proponents of “extravagance” in the sacred liturgy was himself a former “minimalist” — St. Benedict of Aniane (+821). There was a time when as a young monk Benedict assumed that the poverty and simplicity of religious life should be expressed in the use of starkly simple and poor liturgical objects — wood, glass, or tin Eucharistic vessels, and the like in vestments.
But when subsequently there fell upon his shoulders the responsibility of serving as abbot of the French monastery of Aniane, he discovered a deeper vision of what fitting divine worship really ought to be. He built a splendid new abbey church, adorned with seven ornate candelabras, seven hanging lamps for the high altar, and silver lamps for the choir, furnishing it also with large silver chalices and costly vestments.
From the love of God arises zeal for the things of God, a “burning zeal for the glorification of God” that characterized the saints, as Dietrich von Hildebrand observed (The Devastated Vineyard, Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1973, pp. 229-230). In the sacred liturgy this “burning zeal” to glorify God is expressed by celebrating the rites with the utmost beauty and splendor.
In laying out his plans for a new seminary, college, and chapel to be founded for the express purpose of offering the greatest possible glory to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament by means of magnificent ceremonies, art, architecture, and music, the archbishop of Valencia, Spain, St. Juan de Ribera (1532-1611) explains, “…in everything there should shine forth a pious zeal, and a holy devotion, with which the most high and most divine mysteries of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord are treated in the temple and house dedicated and consecrated to them” (St. Juan de Ribera, Constituciones de la Capilla del Colegio y Seminario de Corpus Christi , Juan Bautista Marçal, Valencia, 1625; digitized text, Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliografico, Madrid, n.d., chapter 41, p. 74)
Celebrating the liturgy with beauty, magnificence, and splendor helps the heart of man to ascend to God and the things of Heaven, and to rise above and away from the things that endanger his salvation, as Pope Benedict XVI observed, citing St. Thomas Aquinas.
To achieve this end, the sacred arts must rise above what is ordinary, merely functional, and banal, as he explains:
“The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and by glorifying its Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved” (“On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in Joseph Ratzinger: Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2014, pp. 440-441).

The Victory Of Christ

Critics of magnificence in the celebration of the sacred liturgy often resort to the argument that it is a manifestation of “triumphalism,” the timeworn accusation that the Church has been guilty of arrogantly gloating over conquering and defeating her enemies.
In an insightful essay regarding this, Fr. Gilles Pelland, SJ, notes that the Church from the New Testament onward has always accentuated the victory of Christ and has rightly rejoiced in sharing in His victory. He concludes,
“Although it is true that the Church must remain modest…it must also be able to repeat the words of the Magnificat daily, and in burning, heartfelt tones: ‘…he who is mighty has done great things in me’. . . . But how can it say this without often expressing it in terms of celebration? And how can it sing its joy without doing so in beauty — in particular on the liturgical level — even, and indeed especially, when speaking to the poor?” (“A Few Words on Triumphalism,” in Rene Latourelle, ed., Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives Twenty-Five Years After (1962-1987), Mahwah, NY, Paulist Press, 1988, p. 118).
Love is by its very nature “extravagant.” God has been extravagant in His love for us, in His gifts to us, in fashioning the universe for us, in redeeming us. Why shouldn’t we be extravagant in our response to His love?

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