The Transcendence of Beauty in the Liturgy

By Alphonso L. Pinto STD

This is the final column in an original four-part series on art and theology.

This last article in this series on Beauty and the Liturgy would not be complete unless we end on a short discussion of its transcendence. Transcendent beauty is evident to us in times of suffering, it is a paradox. As I suffer, I realize more and more how much I need God Who is Beauty Itself. Why this paradox? Amongst other reasons, is that we do not see God "as He is" on earth; we are still on pilgrimage towards heaven. Even the beauty of the Church and her Liturgy are to us as symbols and analogies of heavenly beauty.

Helen Iswolsky gives us a glimpse into the aesthetic spirituality of Russian Christianity. She recounts that in the time of Prince Vladimir, emissaries were sent to Constantinople to witness the Divine Liturgy. Helen quotes the Povyest, "We came to the land of the Greeks and we were led to the place where they serve their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or in earth." [Helen Iswolsky, Christ in Russia: The History, Tradition, and Life of the Russian Church, Bruce Publishing, Milwaukee 1960, p. 28] She further recounts that the emissaries were impressed by the beauty of the Church of Hagia Sophia thinking that it was a "foretaste of Heaven;" but though "uncouth" emissaries, they would have easily understood through symbolism and liturgical ritual that the Holy Sacrifice was brought "into the very midst of the congregation."

Divinity is evident in the beauty of the Liturgy. One can intuit that these emissaries needed to see Beauty to know where God dwells in our midst. Our conscience asks us, "Who is the Lord in our lives?", "Is it God or is it mammon who dwells with us?" We try to free ourselves from any attachment that we may have to sin as remorse for Confession. St. Paul teaches us that we have to die to the "old Adam" of sinfulness [cf. Rom 5:14] so as to be resurrected in the "New Adam" Who is Christ [cf. 1 Cor 15:21]. The old Adam was clothed in shame of his sins; Old Adam disobeys the will of God and is banished from His Presence. God no longer walked with Adam "in the cool of the day," [cf. Gen 3:8] nor did Adam converse with God after the great offense. He committed sins, further and further taking him away from the presence of God and plunging him with the darkness of intellect and a weakened will. He is a slave to sin; though made in the image of God, his likeness to the Creator grows dimmer and dimmer. Sin causes man to be unlike God, and thus taking him into the ugliness far away from Beauty Itself.

In contrast, Christ the "New Adam" is heavenly [cf. 1 Cor 15:42-50], he is a perfect offering and High Priest to the glory of God the Father [cf. Heb 8:27], who has opened for us the sanctuary in the heavens by redeeming mankind by His blood [cf. Heb 9:11-14]. He is the Only Son of God made flesh, pleasing to the Father. He is transfigured in light on Mt. Tabor and though suffering a brutal crucifixion, He rose on the third day, and he ascended into the heavens. Early Christian art portrays him depicted in tombs and catacombs as the Shepherd, the Philosopher, the Teacher, and finally Apollo - the Greek god with attributes of youthful beauty. The Word of God made flesh shows us the true human beauty united to divine beauty. Because of his sinlessness his appearance is pulcher, i.e. beautiful, in both his humanity and divinity [cf. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 44, 3]. He is triumphant over death; as depicted in Orthodox icons, by His Resurrection he leads Adam and Eve by the hand from the darkness of Sheol to the brightness of His radiance.

Meeting Christ in the Liturgy as Our Redeemer is extremely important. We have concrete examples of this in the lives of the Early Fathers, amongst these is St. Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote letters to various dioceses while persecuted and imprisoned. One of the most striking characteristics of his spiritual life is his adamant refusal to be rescued from martyrdom. For the early Church, martyrdom was a way in which one can attain union with God. Thus, martyrdom was considered sacred. St. Ignatius sees himself as being fashioned in the image of Christ who died for our salvation on the Cross, and also in the Eucharist, the re-presentation of the perfect sacrifice for the remission of sins. Through giving himself up to martyrdom, Ignatius is the likeness of Christ Who gave himself up for our salvation, and gives himself to us in the Eucharist voluntarily. The following excerpt from Ignatius' Letter to the Romans is evocative of his particular Eucharistic spirituality:

Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God's wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb . . . Beseech Christ that I may be found a sacrifice through these instruments. . . But if I suffer I shall be Jesus Christ's freedman, and in him I shall rise free. [Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, IV, in, The Apostolic Fathers vol. 1, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1998].

Ignatius thus, like a work of art whose beauty lies in its likeness to an original, fashions his prayers, his thoughts, his actions, that is, his very person as an imitation of Christ, sacrificed and risen. The closer to the original, the more beautiful Ignatius becomes. Whatever was lost in Adam is healed by the grace of Christ. Ignatius' likeness to Christ allows him to participate in the Lord's very life, even unto death with the hope of resurrection. Like the Eucharistic Bread, which is made from crushed wheat, like the Eucharistic Chalice, which is made from crushed grapes, Ignatius was killed in the jaws of a lion. Ignatius' assimilation to the Eucharist reveals the intimacy and understanding that he had of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament itself.

St. Justin Martyr experienced the same intimacy in defending the Eucharistic rituals against the attacks of Pagans. His writings reveal that the Eucharist is the nourishment of the Mystical Body of Christ. One can say that Justin and the Second Vatican Council agreed. The Council described the Eucharistic Liturgy as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows." [Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10] Justin Martyr described the Eucharist as the "font" of life and transformation into a Christ-like life:

For we do not receive these things as common bread nor common drink; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior having been incarnate by God's logos [i.e., word] took both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food eucharistized through the word of prayer that is from Him, from which our blood and flesh are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who became incarnate. [Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66. Justin Martyr, The First and Second Apologies, trans. Leslie William Barnard, vol. 56 in Ancient Christian Writers, Paulist Press, New York 1998]

How much more then, should we be aware of such beauty in a consecrated building, the house of God, the Church especially if it houses the "fount of immortality" - the very words in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used to describe the Eucharist. In the House of God, our entire person "receives" Christ through the eyes in a vision of sacred and artistic beauty. Images not only teach us about Christ's mission, but we see His Person represented in front of us in painting, icon and sculpture. We "receive" Christ through the chanting of the Sacred Scriptures which move the depths of one's soul; but most of all, we receive him body, blood, soul and divinity in the Holy Eucharist. Our very person, human and creaturely, is united to His very Person - ineffable, eternal, omnipotent, the Son and Word of God Who is Love and Beauty itself, made flesh for our salvation.

Though we may never experience the same martyrdom of an Ignatius or a Justin, we can for sure partake of their spirit. God's gift to us of Himself can only be reciprocated by the gift of our very selves to Him. Ignatius exemplifies this by not fleeing from martyrdom, and neither did Justin flee from his persecution. Active participation involves our entire being in the spirit of the Liturgy: our wills, minds and hearts must be lifted up to God in order for our mouths to thank and praise Him.

If we want to actively participate in the Beauty of the Liturgy, we must remain pure to do so. Like martyrdom, the spiritual life is ascetical, a struggle. We are continually dying to our own sinful desires and attachments. Only in the purification of our minds and hearts can we see the beauty even beyond martyrdom. Through spiritual struggle and in the suffering of life, can we finally see the true import of beauty that leads us to eternity which gives consolation and a Sabbath rest. By revealing the difficulties of our situation, suffering makes salvific beauty even more evident and desirousówe need to be saved from sin's ugliness in order to contemplate the beauty of the New Adam. The contrast between the violence of Ignatius' own situation and Christ's own Beauty propelled him towards martyrdom for his own salvation. Just as in the shedding of Christ's blood on the cross is a beauty that transcends all suffering because of a most pure and divine Love that gives it definition. There is always something providential and spiritual behind the merely physical aspects of Christ's mission.

Even under the Christian persecution in the 20th century was it possible to celebrate and participate in the beauty of Christ in the Liturgy and attain to union with Him. I am reminded of the Archimandrite Tikhon who recounts a visit made to nuns "exiled" from their own ancient monastery. Amidst their poverty, huts and hovels, away from the magnificence of their monastic church, the beauty of the Liturgy still pervades their circumstances:

There is no way to capture the sublimity of this service in words. Candles flickered, and the limitlessly kind and wise face of St. Seraphim looked down from his icon upon us . . . These incredible nuns sang the entire service virtually by heart. Only very rarely did one of them glance at the thick old books, for which they needed to use not just eyeglasses but gigantic magnifying glasses with wooden handles. They had risked death or punishment saying this service in concentration camps and prisons and places of exile. They said it even now after all their sufferings, here in Diveyevo, settling into their wretched hovels on the outskirts of the town. For them it was nothing unusual, and yet for me I could scarcely understand whether I was in Heaven or on Earth. [ Accessed: September 21, 2012. This amazing book by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, Everyday Saints and Other Stories, was released for sale on October 1, 2012 from Pokrov Publications. Excerpts as well as further information is available from the website mentioned above.]

Alphonso L. Pinto graduated with a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Dr. Pinto researched the relationship between Art and Theology in Baroque Bologna. He is currently a professor of Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.
For more information, visit the Holy Apostles College & Seminary website at:
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