When will the simplicity be beautiful again?

Issue 7-8 / 2019

About the author:

Daniel Seper is assistant in the field of liturgical studies at the University of Vienna and has been a member of the editorial team of Together since 2012.

A golden monstrance adorned with precious stones, which hides the Holy of Holies, is carried through the streets under the protection of a canopy, lined with delegations of uniformed members of various associations. Children prepare the way for the procession by scattering rose petals of all colors, the scent of which mixes with that of the incense. Bells and bands take turns.

For many, the feast of Corpus Christi is the epitome of Catholic solemnity that even Christmas or Easter cannot match. A feast for all the senses, which shows what sacristy and customs have to offer. Still others find their way to God through a simple celebration of the Word of God in a simple Romanesque church that has been spared from the baroque era. They see exaggerated pomp more as a distraction than as a guide to God.

A festival with a lot of pomp and noise - Corpus Christi. It is common for children to scatter flowers over which the monstrance is worn.

Noble Simplicity

Fans of baroque opulence as well as cool purism - and of course all the shades in between - have in common that liturgy attracts them, they look for something there that they cannot find anywhere else. You are looking for the beautiful in worship. The daily confrontation with the ugly in all its varieties on television, newspapers, and the news requires a balance that many hope for in the experience of the beautiful in Christian worship.

But why does liturgy have to be beautiful at all? Can't she just be sober and matter-of-fact? After the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical reform, an iconoclasm set in in some places: the excess of rites, jewelry and furnishings was turned into the opposite and in some churches led to a reduction in purism and minimalism. The intended simplification of the worship service was confused with functionalism and usefulness. The council did not call for poverty and poverty for the liturgy, but wanted to bring the "shine of noble simplicity" back to light.

Beautiful liturgy: a clandestine celebration of the Word of God or a pompous celebration?

Content and shape

For liturgy to be beautiful, it is not enough that it is pleasing, because tastes are known to differ. Liturgy gains its beauty from its inner being, from its purpose: a service is beautiful when it shares in divine glory, when heaven and earth touch each other in the service. However, all of this does not happen in an abstract way, but this content requires appropriate expression. Content and shape must correspond to one another. And since the human being is a sensible being, a beautiful divine service would like to appeal to the human being in all of his senses.

A service can be perceived as beautiful if the deeper meaning behind it is not covered by the design, but rather lights up in the various forms. Seen in this way, a pure, albeit highly elaborate, formalism in the liturgy, such as it may show itself in a Tridentine high mass, can be just as much a failure as an emphatically progressive aestheticism.

Purposeless provocation

If liturgy also has an eschatological dimension and wants to provide a foretaste of the glory to come, then certain forms of expression are required: It requires a language that is understandable but not banal, noble but not commonplace. It has to express itself in signs that reveal and conceal at the same time; that can address and grasp the whole person. In order for the liturgy to be beautiful, it must be celebrated as a celebration that allows a break in and break out of everyday life. A festival that is free from ambition and performance demands. Thus liturgy can not only have supposedly superfluous pomp, but can itself be seen as a “lavish luxury”, which in times of excessive objectivity and cost-benefit thinking is almost a provocation.

Liturgy must be understandable in every language, it must not be banal, noble but not everyday.

Liturgy need not have a purpose, but it does have a purpose anyway, or precisely because of it. Liturgy and art have that in common. In church services, however, the fine arts such as music, painting or church building are also used to bring beauty to fruition. A beautiful liturgy has in common with the game that it appears as a waste of time that defies any consideration of usefulness and simply offers time to come to oneself, to one's neighbor and ultimately to God. All of this requires skill and practice, an ars celebrandi, namely the art of celebrating worship. And not just from the priest, but from everyone who celebrates.

Ultimately, beauty in worship is not "feasible", but requires openness and receptivity on the part of people who must be "liturgy" and thus able to enjoy the beauty of the liturgy. First and foremost, beautiful liturgy must give way: so that not only worship, but really God is celebrated.