Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some Thoughts on Liturgy, Truth, Beauty and Good

I delivered the following talk at a Theology on Tap in Norwood this afternoon.  Thanks to the several dozen folks who came out to the talk, some all the way from Brighton!

I want to begin by showing you something beautiful.

It is a reproduction of a chalice which was given to me by some friends in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of my priestly ordination, more than a decade ago.

Here is an object, a sacred object, a liturgical object, a chalice based on an eighth century original of Anglo-Saxon design.  We believe that the original chalice was commissioned by Luitpirga, the wife of the Bavarian Duke Tassilo III on the occasion of the establishment of the Benedictine Abbey at Kremsmünster in Austria, as evidenced by the inscription on its base: TASSILO DUX FORTIS + LIVTPIRG VIRGA REGALIS. On this copy, fortuitously, the inscription is replaced by the Latin per ipsum.

Its material was and is not strikingly precious, the original being made of plated bronze and this of plated base metals.   So what makes it particularly beautiful?

First, the artistic technique and attention to detail.  Every square millimeter is lovingly inscribed with those long, broken interwoven knotted cords or plaits so characteristic of Northumbrian art in this early periodThe techniques for its decoration are lovely, including extensive niello engraving and chip-carving, expertly executed.

The design is balanced and sumptuous, dominated by five oval portraits around an oval cup, sitting on a graceful node held up by a base adorned with five more oval portraits, each interwoven by the same Celtic tracery to which I have referred.

But, for the Christian, there is still something more beautiful here in the iconography of the chalice.  Christ the pantocrator peeks out from a little celestial window, his right hand raised in blessing, his left clutching the law, as in many ancient Roman mosaics and sarcophagi.  Above are the letters I and S for Iesus Salvator.  The other ovals contain the four evangelists in typical stylized Northumbrian fashion, each accompanied by their proper iconographic signs of the bull, the angel, the eagle and the man.

While the portraits at the base differ from the original chalice, the ones you are looking at are of the  Apostles Peter, Matthew, and James and the young Bishop Timothy.

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I have provided you with an encounter with this Chalice precisely so that you could experience in it the beauty with which it has enriched my life throughout the years.  The artistic skill, the exquisite design and the extraordinary craftsmanship which went into creating that delight for eye and heart and spirit is a wonder to behold.

We need such beauty in life, precisely because it draws us closer to the source of all that is beautiful and good and true.  Indeed, what we call beauty is nothing but a reflection of the face of the Lord, a glimmer of the refulgence of his glory, and to sprinkle our lives with such glimmering reflections is to sanctify each corner with what Dorothy Day used to call the “sacrament of the present moment.”

Such beauty, Dostoevsky once wrote, saves the world..."it has its own integral organic life and it answers man’s innate need for beauty, without which, perhaps, he might not want to live upon earth".  Our need for beauty is our need for the light of the face of God to overcome the shadows of our every day lives.

But, lo, there is something even greater here!  For the object which I have chosen to share with you this evening is not just an art object fit for a display case in the MFA or an honored place on that well lit table in your entry way.  What makes this object truly beautiful is the use for which it is destined.  It is not just an object, but a sacred object, made sacred by its use in the sacred liturgy.

How many times has this chalice been lifted up to offer “our spiritual drink”?  It is, in the words of the Roman Missal, the chalice of his Blood and the chalice of everlasting salvation, the Chalice of the new and everlasting covenant, the new covenant in his Blood the chalice of blessing, and the Chalice of the Christ, Christ’s chalice of suffering, the Chalice of the Lord.

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For the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the “source and the summit of the entire Christian life,” is, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends"! (9 September 2007, Heiligenkreuz Abbey, Austria)

In his Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict reminded us of “the inherent link between the liturgy and beauty.”  “[the Liturgy] is veritatis splendor...a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendor at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love...The truest beauty is the love of God, who definitively revealed himself to us in the paschal mystery.(Sacramentum Caritatis, no. 35)

And herein lies an important point for my brief reflection tonight.  If it is true that the truest beauty is in the paschal mystery, and that the clearest image of the presence of God this side of Heaven is in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, then it is not the mere loveliness, the exquisite form or artistic execution of this magnificent chalice which makes the Liturgy beautiful, but its service of the holy and living sacrifice which consecrates it with a beauty which is beyond all imagining.

A concluding story.  This afternoon I sang the Church's prayer of Commendation of the Dying for a woman in her last days of life.  For many years her devoted husband has been her constant caregiver and now he and her loving family gathered around her bed.  She smiled when we began to pray and she was beautiful.

Not with the beauty she once bore in her wedding picture, wherein a lovely bride grasps the hand of the man to whom God would wed her, not with the beauty of youth and good health, not with the beauty of a devoted mother running after her little children....no, the beauty which shown in Barbara's eyes was the beauty of faithful love, of a race well run, and of undefeated love.  And it was more beautiful than all the beauties which had preceded it, for it reflected most clearly the perfect beauty of the paschal love to which we now entrust her soul.  In those eyes, as they grow dim, we see the light of Christ and his eternal love.

And is there anything more beautiful than that?