The Noble Simplicity of Liturgical Vestments

Author: Father Uwe Michael Lang, CO


The Noble Simplicity of Liturgical Vestments

Offering the Best to God in the Liturgy Is Expression of Love

By Uwe Michael Lang, CO
ROME, 26 NOV. 2010 (ZENIT)
The biblical sapiential tradition acclaims God as "the author of beauty" (Wisdom 13:3), glorifying him for the grandeur and beauty of the works of creation. Christian thought, taking its cue above all from sacred Scripture, but also from classical philosophy, has developed the concept of beauty as a theological category.
This teaching resounded in the homily of Benedict XVI during the dedication Mass of the Basilica of the Holy Family in Barcelona (Nov. 7, 2010): "Beauty also reveals God because, like him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness." Divine beauty manifests itself in an altogether particular way in the sacred liturgy, also through material things of which man, made of soul and body, has need to come to spiritual realities: the building of worship, the furnishings, the vestments, the images, the music, the dignity of the ceremonies themselves.
Reread in this connection is the fifth chapter on "Decorum of the Liturgical Celebration" in the encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" — of Pope John Paul II (April 17, 2003), where he affirms that Christ himself wanted a fitting a decorous environment for the Last Supper, asking his disciples to prepare it in the house of a friend who had a "large upper room furnished" (Luke 22:12; cf. Mark 14:15). In face of Judas' protest that the anointing with precious oil was an unacceptable "waste," given the need of the poor, Jesus, without diminishing the obligation of concrete charity towards the needy, declared his great appreciation for the woman's action, because her anointing anticipated "that honor of which his body will continue to be worthy also after his death, indissolubly linked as it is to the mystery of his Person" ("Ecclesia de Eucharistia," No. 47). John Paul II concludes that the Church, as the woman of Bethany, "does not fear to 'waste,' investing the best of her resources to express her adoring wonder in the face of the incommensurable gift of the Eucharist" (ibid., No. 48). The liturgy calls for the best of our possibilities, to glorify God the Creator and Redeemer.
In the end, the care for the churches and the liturgy must be an expression of love for the Lord. Also in a place where the Church does not have great material resources, this duty cannot be neglected. Already an important Pope of the 18th century, Benedict XIV (1740-1758) in his encyclical "Annus Qui Hunc" (Feb. 19, 1749), dedicated above all to sacred music, exhorted his clergy to have the churches well kept and equipped with all the necessary sacred objects for the worthy celebration of the liturgy: "We wish to stress that we are not speaking of the sumptuousness and magnificence of the Sacred Temples, or of the preciousness of the sacred furnishings, we knowing as well that they cannot be had everywhere. We have spoken of decency and cleanliness which it is not licit for anyone to neglect, decency and cleanliness being compatible with poverty."
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council pronounced itself in a similar way: "Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 124). This passage refers to the concept of the "noble simplicity" introduced in the same Constitution in No. 34. This concept seems to originate in archeologist and historian of German art Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), according to whom Greek classical sculpture was characterized by "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur."

At the beginning of the 20th century, the known English liturgist Edmund Bishop (1846-1917) described the "genius of the Roman Rite" as marked by simplicity, sobriety and dignity (cf. E. Bishop, "Liturgica Historica," Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1918, pp. 1-19). This description is not without merit, but it is necessary to be attentive to its interpretation: the Roman Rite is "simple" compared to other historical rites, such as the Eastern which are distinguished by great complexity and sumptuousness. However, the "noble simplicity" of the Roman Rite must not be confused with a misunderstood "liturgical poverty" and an intellectualism that can lead to the ruin of solemnity, foundation of divine worship (cf. the essential contribution of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae III, q. 64, a. 2; q. 66, a 10; q. 83, a. 4).
From such considerations it is evident that the sacred vestments must contribute "to the decorum of the sacred action" ("Ordinamento Generale del Messale Romano," No. 335), above all "in the way and in the material used," but also, though in a measured way, in the ornaments (ibid., No. 344). The use of the liturgical vestments expresses the hermeneutics of continuity, without excluding a particular historical style.

Benedict XVI furnishes a model in his celebrations when he wears either the chasuble of modern style or in some solemn occasions, the "classical" chasuble, used also by his predecessors. He follows the example of the scribe, who became a disciple of the kingdom of heaven, and who Jesus compared to "the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old" (Matthew 13:52).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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Father Uwe Michael Lang, a member of the Congregation of the Oratory, is Consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, and an official of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

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