Monday, May 07, 2012

Too Lavish for Liturgy?

One of the sisters found herself put a little bit on the spot in a conversation about art history. After a presentation depicted a lavishly bound Bible or altar missal, complete with inlaid gold, mother of pearl and precious stones, someone made the inevitable comment that something so valuable "could have been sold for two hundred days' wages and the money given to the poor." (Well, those were Judas' words, but it was along those lines.) Even the presenter admitted that it seemed hypocritical for the Church to possess such splendors. The sister there felt put on the spot, and did not know how to respond in a way that was respectful of the presenter, the questioner and the good motives invoked. So we talked about it here. A lot.

First of all, and most obviously, the whole matter was being taken out of context (judging the actions of a different age by the criteria of our own age). But there is so much more involved in this! I think that one of the first things the presenter failed to note (I can't completely fault a non-Christian art historian on this) is that treasures like hand-written books meant for the liturgy belonged to the poor members of the community, who saw and enjoyed and participated in the beauty of the liturgy no less than the wealthy brethren. But even more, the liturgy itself (and not only the wider life of the Church in the first millennium) included provision for the poor. So there is a wider historical context for those splendid liturgical artifacts, and that was when and how they were used.

As the congregation gathered for Mass, they brought bread and wine with them from their own tables, and handed it over to the deacon.  The deacon's job before Mass was to set aside what was needed for the Eucharist, and put aside what remained so that it could be distributed to the poor. That happened Sunday after Sunday. Church storerooms included not only bread and wine, but basic goods like oil and flour and clothing, especially clothing for women (some ancient registers of these goods still exist!). The deacons (and deaconesses) made sure that these provisions reached the needy.  In our day, that diaconal task is largely subsumed under the umbrella of Catholic Charities, but it still goes on.

And even today, I suspect that if we were to make a calculation of the  resources expended on "Church stuff" and those expended on the poor, we would find that each and every day, more is poured out in the care of the needy than in the support of Church structures and personnel.  But those expenditures are invisible, as are the people who benefit from them. And so we can expect to hear the complaint again about how uselessly beautiful our churches are, and how sad it is that we maintain these buildings when there are so many people in need.


Anonymous said...

What a provocative topic - thank you, Sister, for shedding light on this matter, by bringing in historical context. Many could offer the same argument about the richness of polyphony in our liturgy, as being out of touch.

P French

Anonymous said...

This conjures up the criticism of Mary Magdalen's anointing of the feet of Jesus."What a waste".