I’ve heard this point made time and time again in homilies: “You shouldn’t be coming to Mass just because of the choir or the church architecture, because those things aren’t really important.” This statement isn’t necessarily untrue. The most important part of a Catholic Mass–the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ–occurs no matter where Mass takes place or what kind of music is playing in the background. A deficiency of beautiful churches and skilled choirs should not keep the faithful from participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. With that being said, the intent of this post is to make an argument for why Mass should be beautiful.
Quick side note before we begin: While I will be talking quite a bit about the Eucharist, I won’t be getting into the nitty-gritty of why Catholics believe Jesus Christ is really, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. For more about that, click here.
When I began research for this post, the first book I turned to was Treasure and Tradition: The Ultimate Guide to the Latin Mass from St. Augustine Academy Press, a wonderful book that delves deep into the meaning of the Mass. Although I have only attended the Tridentine Mass a few times, I think this book is a helpful and informative resource for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the liturgy, even if you attend the Novus Ordo. I was particularly struck by this quote:
Here, upon the altar, is the Most Holy. As the Priest elevates the Host–which is now Christ’s body–angels, saints and men hasten to adore Him just as on that first Christmas, when He became man for our sake. At every Mass, we experience the great privilege of being in His presence. And it is these layers of mystery and solemn beauty within the liturgy that serve to remind us that, for this brief moment, we are experiencing Heaven on Earth.Treasure and Tradition
Yes, you read that right. In the Mass, we experience a foretaste of Heaven, a glimpse of complete and eternal communion with the Trinity, and we participate in the adoration and worship of Father, Son, and Spirit along with the saints and angels. The inimitable St. John Paul II says, “The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.” And the “layers of mystery and solemn beauty within the liturgy,” by engaging our senses, reinforce this truth. Beauty, by its very nature, elevates the soul and leads the mind to contemplate higher things. This means that beauty, not only in the liturgy itself but also in the externals (music, church architecture, etc.), can help us be more aware of what’s happening on a spiritual level during Mass.
JPII elaborates on the significance of the Eucharist in his papal encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, describing it as both a mystical return to the hour of Christ’s death on the Cross and “the anticipation of heaven, the ‘pledge of future glory’.” The Eucharistic Sacrifice is the source and summit of our faith, so much so that St. Maximilian Kolbe remarked, “If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion.” The importance of the Blessed Sacrament, and its centrality to the Catholic faith, cannot be overstated. And objects of great holiness deserve great reverence and are generally kept in containers of great beauty. The construction of the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments, is described at length in Exodus and was distinguished by skilled craftsmanship and rich adornment.
Moreover, if Mass is indeed Heaven on earth, then its surroundings should reflect that. Beautiful church architecture, rather than being a distraction, actually draws our eyes–and our thoughts–Heavenward. And choral music is often described as “heavenly” for a reason: it evokes the angelic choirs that declared Christ’s presence to the shepherds so that they could seek Him out and adore Him. We might not know exactly what Heaven looks like, but we do know it will be unimaginably beautiful, if only by virtue of God’s presence. Beauty in the liturgy, the music, and the church itself foreshadow the perfect beauty of Heaven. A beautiful Mass, as a reflection of the Divine, is not an “extra bonus” but something we should strive for.
Treasure and Tradition: The Ultimate Guide to the Latin Mass by Lisa Bergman (2014).
Ecclesia de Eucharistia, On the Eucharist (17 April 2003).