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July 20, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – What is one to make of the claim, apparently made in all seriousness, by Jesuit David Inczauskis, who rejoices in the Twitter handle @LibTheoJesuit?

Liturgy should not be beautiful.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washed stinky feet.
In the Garden, Jesus sweat blood.
At the cross, Jesus was violently murdered.
Upon rising, Jesus still had open wounds.
No, liturgy should not be beautiful. It should be ugly & scandalous.

I should like to engage with this tweet, which is of course a public statement intended to stimulate reflection and debate, with seriousness and charity. It is, nevertheless, presumably intended to shock. I had imagined, naively perhaps, that when we see ugly vestments and church decorations, or hear hideous liturgical music, it was the result of well-intentioned efforts which had failed somehow—or that perhaps others’ tastes just differ from mine. 

Was I wrong? Do some liturgists actually want to make the Mass repugnant, horrible, and off-putting? 

Suppose one were to make a Christmas card for a grandparent or benefactor. If we want to please them, we will in showing that we have taken trouble over it, and created something of aesthetic value. These are the twin aspects of any kind of gift or service. We value things which aren’t great works of art if they nevertheless demonstrate sincere effort: if, as we might say, love has gone into them. But what the love is trying to achieve, if it is indeed love and not indifference or dislike, is something of objective beauty.

Inczauskis imagines that the ritual washing of feet at the Last Supper would have been something unpleasant. Why? Our Lord was not mucking out a stable. Foot-washing was a common and decorous part of hospitality in the ancient world; its special significance here was that it was Christ, and not a servant or slave, doing the washing.

After the Last Supper, the Gospels tell us, the Apostles sang a hymn (Mat 26:30): this would have been part of the ritual of the Passover meal. Luckily Inczauskis was not there to tell them to sing it out of tune or to use a horrible translation instead of the original, sacred, language, Hebrew. This was almost certainly a psalm, songs of incomparable aesthetic and spiritual value. St Paul tells us that the tradition of singing “psalms and spiritual canticles” rightly continued in the liturgy of the primitive Church (Col 3:16), and of course, this has continued to this day. The point of having sacred texts and setting them to music is, of course, to have beautiful things to sing in the liturgy, rather than ugly or indifferent ones.

The Old Testament records God’s commands about worship. The Israelites are to make liturgical vestments, which must be—yes—beautiful: “thou shalt make a holy vesture for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2). The furnishings of the Temple are described: they are fine, dignified, and beautiful, using costly materials such as gold and cedar wood.

The key note of the Temple liturgy was glory. The Hebrew words used in this connection, kavod and shekinah, are of great importance: they indicate the very presence of the Lord. “And when Solomon had made an end of his prayer, fire came down from heaven, and consumed the holocausts and the victims: and the majesty of the Lord filled the house” (2 Chron 7:1).

The liturgy of the New Law continues this tradition. St Paul reminds us of the overwhelming glory of the Temple liturgy, which, as he explains, since it was unable to forgive our sins, served in the end only to confirm our condemnation: “if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more the ministration of justice aboundeth in glory” (2 Cor 3:9). And this is exactly what we find in the liturgical imagery and references in the Book of the Apocalypse, and the Letter to the Hebrews. God is worshipped with solemnity, ritual, and song, with incense and prostrations.

It is nice that Inczauskis wants to link the Mass with the Sacrifice of the Cross—this connection is usually avoided by liturgical progressives, who prefer to think of the Mass solely in terms of a shared meal. But he should notice two things. The fact that Christ’s death on the Cross involved the shedding of blood does not make it less like a ceremonious liturgy, but (in the ancient world) more like it. It was not Jesus simply being “murdered”, but put to death in a complex, indeed a ritualized, manner, which recalls the sacrifices of animals familiar in the Old Testament and in classical paganism. The wounds of Christ’s post-resurrection, glorified, body, are themselves glorified. 

The other thing Inczauskis needs to remember is that as the Church teaches us, the Mass is a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross in an “unbloody manner”. We have the opportunity to make this Sacrifice, and its Victim, present once more, in a ritual which is both solemn and beautiful.

Perhaps Inczauskis likes the idea of shocking people into paying attention in Jesuit-style Masses just as he wants to shock people into paying attention to his Twitter feed. The most appropriately shocking thing, however, might be a Mass which was truly beautiful, one in which we could glimpse the glory of heaven, and the face of Christ.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.