Christopher McElroy

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Beauty and the Liturgy

What makes a beautiful liturgy?  The music, the preaching, the architecture, the people?  Much ink has been spilt, music composed and many churches re-ordered in the name of restoring or creating beauty.

Let us return to the central act of the Christian faith: the last supper.  On the night before he gave himself up, Christ showed his love for us all by giving thanks to God, and offering himself through his body and blood to us all.  This selfless act took place against the background of his preaching, healing and evangelising ministry and with the knowledge of the dreadful acts to come.  The selfless act of Jesus is the paschal mystery of love.

The aesthetic value of the liturgy then cannot be measured in human terms, nor be primarily dependant upon works of art, but rather it must be judged by its capacity to radiate the paschal mystery of love.  As Archbishop Piero Marini (Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations 1987-2007) put it:

‘If art is to collaborate with the liturgy it needs to be evangelised by love.’  

In our liturgy Christ himself becomes the gesture of the church.  As liturgical musicians our role is to enable the beauty of Christ to shine forth in the liturgy.  Does the music we choose, lead and sing express the paschal mystery of love?  Does it convey the message of Christ to the gathered community?

Our Sunday celebrations are not merely a remembrance of a past event, but an actualisation of the Church of God in a particular time and place.  We carry out this celebration through a ritual act we call the liturgy.  Just as Jesus did in the Last Supper, we follow an order.  Our liturgical order is the space through which Christ imbues us with his love.  We must guard against trivialising the power of ritual, introducing new fads or gimmicks, but rather allow the gathered community to experience Christ in all his beauty on their own terms.  The beauty of liturgy is not fully perceptible through a single experience.  Rather, like a rubbing away at a precious metal we seek to uncover the riches which Christ has revealed through his death and resurrection.  

We know we have experienced a beautiful liturgy when our words and actions are imbued by the love of Christ.  The liturgy is not an optional extra in our lives, or something aside from it, but rather the ‘source and summit.’  The beauty we experience in the liturgy guides our interpersonal relationships, our thinking and our actions.  Liturgical beauty, therefore, is not for its own sake, but rather it is to imbue each of us as disciples of Christ.  We cannot (or should not) dictate how we receive this beauty, but rather we must surrender ourselves to the possibility of the pneumatological encounter.

At each liturgical celebration through our music we should strive to allow the paschal love of Jesus Christ to radiate.  We must allow the music to speak in ways we cannot comprehend.  We must allow the gathered community the time, space, silence and detachment from themselves so that the music may speak to us all of the love of God, through his son Jesus Christ.

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