December 2007 – January 2008
Vol. XIII, No. 9
Beauty of Worship Bears the Truth and Light of Christ
by Bishop Salvatore Cordileone
Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, auxiliary bishop of San Diego, was the principal celebrant and homilist at the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary, given on the occasion of the Adoremus conference on the Liturgy, November 3, 2007 at St. Mary’s Parish, Escondido, California. Scripture readings for Mass: I Chr 15:3-4.15-16; 16:1-2; Rom 5:12.17-19; Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23 (text below). Bishop Cordileone’s homily is published with his kind permission.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you: for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son”…. But when Herod died, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead. And he rose and took the child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
— Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23
I realize that the Mass we are celebrating today is not the typical experience in a typical parish on a typical Sunday. But as I mentioned to our deacons assisting at Mass today at our practice last week, this is an “experimental Liturgy”. That remark was met by reactions characterized by no little uneasiness, especially on the part of our new Master of Ceremonies. So I hasten to add that that expression does not carry nearly the same meaning now that it did when I entered the seminary thirty-five-plus years ago.
What we are about here is the project of preserving and promoting the Church’s Tradition, her rich patrimony: her spiritual, cultural, intellectual and moral patrimony. But we do this not for its own sake, but for the sake of the Church’s mission, her mission to evangelize, to transform hearts and transform cultures with the truth, the beauty and the goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be complete, then, that is what we are about. We are about preserving and promoting the Church’s Tradition in a way that makes her mission ever more effective in this time and place. We know well, in fact, that — in perhaps what has become a worn-out cliché — the living Tradition of the Church means that the Church must speak eternal truths in a language that the people of any particular age, and therefore of our own age, can understand. If it is a worn-out cliché, that is unfortunate, because it is certainly true. At the same time, we must remember that if the Church — or rather, if we, the members of the Church — lose touch with our Tradition, then no matter how eloquently we speak we will have nothing to say.
That Tradition is eternal, but we live in this world subject to time, and so that timeless Tradition enters into this world of time. And in fact, it is a Tradition that reaches very far back into history. I am sure you all remember the classic movie, “The Ten Commandments”, starring Charlton Heston as Moses. In the scene in which he receives the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai, God is depicted as a swirling fire coming from heaven which strikes the tablet at each commandment as His voice from above announces it. It’s a dramatic way of portraying the truth of what happened there on Mt. Sinai 3,400 years ago: a Law was given which came down from heaven. It was not produced by any human being or group of human beings. No matter how the agency of Moses was involved in inscribing that Law on those tablets, the author of that Law was not Moses, much less some committee of elders. No, its author was the one, true, living God. This is the beginning of the light of Revelation, a Law which would define God’s people and set them apart from everyone else, and eventually lead to what would change the course of world history and indeed all of civilization. And so God’s people of old built an Ark to enshrine and protect those tablets of the Law, the Law of the Covenant that their God, the one true God, had made with them. And now, as we heard in our first reading, they celebrate that enthronement. They had entered into and occupied the Promised Land, and so they enshrine the Ark in a tent, a tent which serves as a reminder and a continuation of their desert experience, when they were a nomadic people. This is much the same principle which Father Fessio spoke of in his talk this morning, regarding how the extraordinary form of the Roman Liturgy serves that precise purpose for us today: a reminder and a continuation of the Church’s liturgical Tradition. A little later on in First Chronicles we read that David vows to build a house for the Lord. That was to be the temple, a permanent residence for the Ark. What is the response of the Lord? The Lord responds by saying that He does not need a house. He hadn’t dwelt in a house up to that point in time, even though David built a palace for himself. Instead the Lord promises to build a house for David, that is, a dynasty: from the house of David a great king would arise.
The problem is that the security of the Ark which contained the tablets and was designed to protect them did not correspond to the people it defined. The Revelation which that Law contained was first carried as a fragile flame by God’s people wandering in the Sinai desert. But the history of that people was one of a tendency to slip back into the old ways, to make covenants with their pagan neighbors and worship their false gods and therefore break the Covenant that the true God had made with them. David’s desire to build a temple, a permanent fixed house for the Lord, indicates that this once nomadic people had now set down roots. They were there to stay in that Promise Land which they conquered and occupied; however, the people became too comfortable. Nomads in the desert are much more at risk, it’s not a comfortable life. And even if they, too, slipped back to the old ways even while wandering in the Sinai, they were also more aware of their dependence on God. When we become too comfortable we forget about that, and that is what happened to God’s people of old. And so their kingdom was destroyed. God already knew this would happen and knew what He had to do, and so already at this point He makes a promise to David about this house He would build for him: from this house of David a new King would come who would seal a new Covenant with His own blood, a Covenant that would last forever. That blood of the new Covenant would be protected in a new Ark of the Covenant. Mary carried in her womb the blood that would seal this new Covenant, the blood that would accomplish our reconciliation with God. She is, then, the Ark of the New Covenant.
Through that blood made present on the altar the long historical trajectory of that Tradition, that light of Revelation, reaches us here and now as it has reached all throughout the world in every age since then through the evangelizing mission of the Church.
That blood has washed us clean, it has called us out of Egypt — not the darkness of slavery and oppression in a foreign land as suffered by the first generations of God’s people, but the darkness of sin and the oppression of evil. The ancient curse of the first Adam has now been removed by the blood of the new Adam. As Saint Paul teaches us, we are all sinners because of the disobedience of the one man, but we are all made righteous by the obedience of the one man Jesus Christ.
This is our true freedom, our justification before God, our salvation and our life. God does not remain hidden; in every Mass He steps out of the Ark of the Covenant to make that Covenant present in His body and blood, as He came from Mary to establish that Covenant once and for all, with His body broken and His blood spilled out. How can we not rejoice and sing to God hymns of praise with all of the beauty and strength we can muster? We heard of how God’s people of old celebrated the enthronement of the Ark with music and song, making a joyful sound unto the Lord as the Ark was placed in the tent which David had pitched for it. How much more then should we! In our worship of God, how can we not but offer Him the most beautiful act of praise that we can? As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in the Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, beauty is evangelizing, it draws the soul close to God. Specifically with regard to the Liturgy he says, “beauty is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action since it is an attribute of God Himself and His Revelation.”
The Church’s Liturgy should be celebrated in such a way that it may be an effective expression, reminder, indeed sacrament, of the beauty of the Tradition we have received, the Revelation begun at Sinai and now fully revealed in God’s Son. It started as a flickering flame bringing the light of truth into this world darkened by sin: through the beauty of our worship and the beauty of a holy life, may God imbue this world with that light, that all may come to gaze upon the beauty of His countenance in His Kingdom which has no end.