The Beauty of the Liturgy
Friday, Jul. 29, 2022
Our Church is beautiful. I reflected on this truth in my last column, and am returning to the theme of beauty this week because I just finished reading Pope Francis’ most recent apostolic letter, Desiderio desideravi (I have earnestly desired).
Given on June 29, the letter is subtitled “On the liturgical formation of the People of God.” The pope notes that the theme of liturgy “is vast and always deserves an attentive consideration in every one of its aspects,” but that “with this letter I do not intend to treat the question in an exhaustive way.” Instead, the letter is meant “to offer some prompts or cues for reflections that can aid in the contemplation of the beauty and truth of Christian celebration.”
It succeeds in doing just that.
The Holy Father writes in a style understandable by everyday Catholics. For example, discussing the Last Supper, he notes that, “Peter and the others are present at that table, unaware and yet necessary. Necessary because every gift, to be gift, must have someone disposed to receive it. In this case, the disproportion between the immensity of the gift and the smallness of the one who receives it is infinite, and it cannot fail to surprise us. Nonetheless, through the mercy of the Lord, the gift is entrusted to the Apostles so that it might be carried to every man and woman.”
These four sentences are worthy of a reflection all their own. Our catechism teaches that the Eucharist is a gift, but I can’t recall ever considering that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross cannot be extended to me unless I am inclined to accept it. When I receive the bread that is not only symbolic of but also in fact the Body of Christ, it’s not a passive reception but rather an act that by its very nature draws me into communion with the Lord.
And who am I to be worthy of such a gift? I’m not. No one is. During the liturgy we acknowledge our sins, pray for forgiveness for what we have wrongly done and failed to do, and admit that we are not worthy to receive the gift prepared for us by the one whose grandeur we praise, glorify and affirm throughout the entire Mass.
“No one had earned a place at that Supper,” the pope’s letter continues. “All had been invited. Or better said: all had been drawn there by the burning desire that Jesus had to eat that Passover with them.”
More food for reflection. Reading this, I immediately thought of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. This story always makes me squirm. I pretend I’m like the tax collector, who stands in the back of the temple, not daring to lift his eyes to heaven and begging for God to have mercy on him. But, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit I’m more like the Pharisee, who prays about all the good things he does and gives thanks that he’s not like sinners such as the tax collector behind him. I catch myself doing that at times (“God, I know I’m not perfect, but unlike some people I at least come to church every Sunday, tithe 10 percent, and – what do you mean, ‘Judge not lest you be judged’? You mean that guy there, whom I see in the pew only once a month and who ignores the collection basket – you mean you gave him the same invitation you gave me?”)
The encounter with Christ at the Eucharist is the supreme beauty of the liturgy, and in his letter Pope Francis discusses some of the symbolism that can help bring us to that encounter. He also speaks about the art of celebrating, and addresses several paragraphs to priests about the care they should take in presiding.
Francis ends with a plea to “abandon our polemics to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Let us safeguard our communion. Let us continue to be astonished at the beauty of the liturgy. The Paschal Mystery has been given to us. Let us allow ourselves to be embraced by the desire that the Lord continues to have to eat his Passover with us.”
If we do this, I think, we will participate in the beauty of the Church.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.