F YOU PRAYED MATINS yesterday morning (Saturday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time), you read a passage from St. John Chrysostom that might have made you feel uneasy. Anyone reading this post is presumably a lover of liturgy, and Chrysostom’s words could easily, at first, appear like a challenge to liturgy lovers.
The passage is from a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25 (“Whatever you did to the least of My brethren, you did unto Me”). In the first paragraph of the selection, Chrysostom launches his first salvo: “What we do here in the church requires pure heart, not special garments. God does not want golden vessels, but golden hearts.” Fair enough, we say. It is agreed that the sacrifice of a humble, contrite heart is more essential than ecclesiastical finery. But, we would eagerly add, beauty in the liturgy—from architecture, to music, to vestments—is not merely superfluous. Not only is it integral to the sacred liturgy, but it is also essential for the health of the human soul.
Chrysostom would not disagree. He continues:
Now, in saying this I am not forbidding you to make such gifts; I am only demanding that, along with such gifts and before them, you give alms. God accepts the former, but He is much more pleased with the latter. In the former, only the giver profits; in the latter, the recipient does, too. A gift to the church may be taken as a form of ostentation, but an alms is pure kindness.
So often, the impression is given that there are sides to be taken, as though it were impossible to share an interest in both liturgy & social justice. Many who work with the poor are sharply critical of those who live in the realm of “impractical” things such as sacred music. Conversely, if we’re honest, there are many liturgists who are too quick to accuse those in the trenches of social advocacy of irreverence and disinterest toward divine worship. Need these things be pitted one against the other? Are they really such entirely separate domains?
Chrysostom speaks strongly about the moral duty to serve Christ in the poor:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when He, Himself, is dying of hunger? First, fill Him when He is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn His table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ, Himself, with the clothes He needs? . . . What if you were to see Him clad in worn-out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing Him and instead were to set up golden columns for Him, saying that you were doing it in His honor? Would He not think He was being mocked and greatly insulted?
No one has ever been accused for not providing ornaments, but for those who neglect their neighbor a hell awaits with an inextinguishable fire and torment in the company of the demon. Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all.
We Catholics ought not to apologize for building beautiful churches or celebrating grand liturgies; the Catholic Church ought rather to be thanked for contributing these humanizing gifts to the world. Nor should the Church apologize for her missionary efforts to serve the underprivileged; she ought instead to be esteemed for the immeasurable aid given to the poor and suffering day after day throughout the world through the auspices of Catholic parishes, institutions, and associations.
As with so many aspects of theology, the best Catholic approach here is not one of “either/or” but one of “both/and.” Beautify the liturgy, yes, but also serve the poor. Work for social justice, to be sure, and also render to God the best of everything. These things are not incompatible. As my fellow blogger, Richard Clark, has written, it is not hypocritical for a parish to be both reverent and welcoming. Similarly, being a proponent of beautiful liturgy and being an advocate for true social justice are not mutually exclusive realities. In fact, it is hard for me to imagine the one not naturally leading to the other.
The words of St. John Chrysostom are challenging. They might serve as a good examination of conscience for folks invested in the careful celebration of the sacred rites. Am I as committed to serving the poor as I am to celebrating the liturgy?