Liturgy and Gospel: St Basil the Great

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

A former youth pastor of mine once quipped, ‘If you aren’t preaching the Gospel, then what the h-ll are you doing?! It’s all mumbo-jumbo!’ A very evangelical sentiment, if not expressed quite the way your average Baptist would choose. So: What of liturgy and the Gospel? Is it all mumbo-jumbo? Is it just hocus-pocus (allegedly from ‘hoc est corpus’)?

Let’s take a Eucharistic liturgy from one of the most ornate liturgical assemblies out there, the Eastern Orthodox. I am particularly fond of this one, the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. I do not know enough about the history and criticism of liturgy to know if St Basil (330-79) actually composed any of it; if he did, it was probably the Anaphora or Canon of the Mass.

This text had a powerful impact upon me when I read it one night during one of my many ecclesiastical crises a while ago. Perhaps it can move you, too! We’ll start with ‘Lift up your hearts’ (the Sursum Corda), using the text found at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
People: It is proper and right.

This is in every eucharistic liturgy I’ve seen from the Apostolic Tradition c. 230 to Common Worship (2000).

Priest: Master, Lord, God, worshipful Father almighty, it is truly just and right to the majesty of Your holiness to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You, to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only true God, and to offer to You this our spiritual worship with a contrite heart and a humble spirit. For You have given us to know Your truth. Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts? Or to make known all Your praises? Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times?

Here we have worship, praise, glory and honour. It may look like a mere piling up of attributes and actions, but is it not all true? This the worship of our minds and spirits! And we need to remember that worship is the endgame of evangelism; as John Piper argues ad nauseam in the popular evangelical book on evangelism, Let the Nations Be Glad, mission only exists because worship does not. So here, the priest is leading the people into worship, into the glorification of God.

Next comes our first glimpse of the Gospel riches to come as the Trinity is introduced — and don’t forget the link between Trinity and mission:

 Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light. Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.

And in the final, complicated sentence we see the all-important evangelical doctrine of grace! It is by Christ that ‘every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping’ God.

We turn again to worship, drawing images from Scripture (that all-important evangelical source) as throughout:

For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and everresounding praises:
Priest: Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.

And now we enter into salvation history:

Priest: Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages.

This is precisely the history of salvation as you’ll read it not only in the Bible but in Reformed discussions of the structure of Scripture, such as Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture (a re-working of Graeme Goldsworthy’s work). It culminates in God’s oikonomia in Jesus Christ.

He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ.

Central to our Gospel is the Person of Christ — Who is Jesus? as Nicky Gumbel puts it. This passage above gives Basil’s — and the Bible’s — answer.

And what did Jesus do?

He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

This is the Gospel, is it not?

WAIT! ‘Each according to His works’! This is not evangelicalism, is it? Well, this is the awkward reality of Christianity that we have obscured through our incessant harping on ‘justification by faith alone’ and penal substitutionary atonement — Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that we are saved by works of mercy; James says that faith without works is dead; Paul says to work out our faith in fear and trembling. And the Gospel descriptions of the Final Judgement do feel a bit ‘works-righteousness’, don’t they?

Here is my solution — St Basil has already brought grace into play. Grace saves us. Absolutely. And once we are saved, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to actually do good works. The works are the evidence of our faith, the seal — they are not what will justify us before the dread judgement seat of Christ. But He Himself will make them a reality in our hearts. This, perhaps, goes against Graeme Goldsworthy, for it draws us towards Orthodox synergy contra Reformed monergism.

Nonetheless. Gospel. Rich. Beautiful.

Moving along:

As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Likewise, He took the cup of the fruit of vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it.
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim my death, and you confess my resurrection. Therefore, Master, we also, remembering His saving passion and life giving cross, His three; day burial and resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and enthronement at Your right hand, God and Father, and His glorious and awesome second coming.
Priest: We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.
People: We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You, Lord our God.
Priest: Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to serve at Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon the earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth the symbols of the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. We pray to You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness, Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify, and make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Bread.
Deacon: Amen.
Priest: And this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Cup.
Deacon: Amen.
He blesses them both.
Priest: Shed for the life and salvation of the world.
Deacon: Amen. Amen. Amen.

I’ll close here — but, for me, this is it: the Words of Institution, the body and blood of Christ ushering us into the heavenly banquet, into the wedding feast of the Lamb, being united to Christ and each other through the Blessed Sacrament. This is Gospel in action.

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Abbot Suger on precious objects at worship

Vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

In discussing the many wondrous things he provided for the church at St-Denis, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) writes:

To me, I confess, one thing has always seemed preeminently fitting: that every costlier or costliest thing should serve, first and foremost, for the administration of the Holy Eucharist. If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood o f goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service. If, by a new creation, our substance were reformed from that of the holy Cherubim and Seraphim, it would still offer an insufficient and unworthy service for so great and so ineffable a victim; and yet we have so great a propitiation for our sins. The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too, explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels, and to nothing in the world in an equal degree as to the service of the Holy Sacrifice, with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way — Him Who has not refused to provide for us in all things in a universal way and without any exception; Who has fused our nature with His into one admirable individuality; Who, setting us on His right hand, has promised us in truth to possess His kingdom; our Lord Who liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. (From this website)

The final sentence points us to an approach to liturgy and worship very different from either a simple Presbyterian chapel with a cappella Psalms or a mega-church stadium with a rock band, ‘For it behooves us most becomingly to serve Our Saviour in all things in a universal way.’ What matters to Suger, whether he’s providing beautiful vessels for the liturgy or inventing Gothic architecture, is offering the highest worship to the highest God; the greatest goods to the greatest good.

Crystal vase provided to St-Denis by Suger

I do not write this post to condemn either approach to worshipping God. I, myself, would prefer something in the middle. Instead, I simply want to highlight this mindset, this outlook, this worldview — once you start to grasp it, you will come to appreciate high liturgy more, whether you agree with everything its supporters say or not.

What, I would argue, Suger is saying here and in the context of the passage, is that Jesus Christ is excellent and praiseworthy. He communicates to us, with us, through the Blessed Sacrament, celebrate by the assembled faithful in church. Therefore, we should go all-out in worshipping him. No expense should be spared in worshipping Jesus. Build beautiful buildings. Craft beautiful liturgical vessels. Sing beautiful songs. Extend the worship. Stand. Bow. Kneel. Use stained glass; use gold; use crystal; use alabaster. Sing Scripture. Do processions. Wear fancy clothes.

Nothing is more wonderful than the Body and Blood of Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Nothing is more wonderful than worshipping Him and praising Him.

He is the best, most excellent, most sublime.

He deserves, therefore, the best we have to offer. No half-measures in liturgy, then. No half-hearted worship. Do your best, even if your best isn’t very good. Hold nothing back. Throw yourself at his feet, for He is more excellent than anyone you will ever meet.

It’s a different approach.

How can it inform your private devotion today? Your church’s act of worship on Sunday, whether liturgical or not?

Sir Bors and the Host: The Orthopraxy of Transubstantiation

Campin-mass-of-saint-gregory-1440
Robert Campin, ‘The Mass of St Gregory’, 1515
When I came across the following passage in P M Matarasso’s translation of The Quest of the Holy Grail (my review here), all I really thought at first was, ‘Look! Sir Bors believes in transubstantiation!’ The book being from 1225ish, that’s no big surprise — this is a decade after its official promulgation as dogma at Lateran IV. It’s what follows that interests me, though.

First, the text. Bors is spending some time with a hermit, as Knights of the Round Table do:

So the good man began mattins; and having sung that office he robed and commenced the mass. After the blessing he took the Lord’s Body and beckoned to Bors to come forward. He obeyed, and knelt before the priest, who said to him:

‘Bors, do you see what I am holding?’

‘Yes indeed, Sir. I see that you are holding my Saviour and Redeemer under the guise of bread. I should not be looking on Him in this wise were it not that my eyes, being mortal clay, and thus unapt to discern the things of the spirit, do not permit my seeing Him any other way, but rather cloak His true appearance. For I have no doubt that what I look on now is truly flesh and truly man and wholly god.’

At these words he was overmastered by weeping, and the good man said to him:

‘You would surely be insensate if you received so holy a thing as you describe, without manifesting your love and loyalty all the rest of your living days.’

‘Sir,’ affirmed Bors, ‘while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands.’ (The Quest of the Holy Grail 9, trans. P. M. Matarasso, p. 180)

Sir Bors demonstrates here his great faith — the faith that will sustain him to the very end of his journey to and then with the Holy Grail. He believes the faith handed on to him from Mother Church. What he sees is not what the truth. Transubstantiation is an almost Platonic thing, isn’t it? This is not the reality, the reality is something other.

‘Do not mistake what something is made of with what it is,’ as famously stated by a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

But whether we believe in transubstantiation or not, it is Bors’ chivalrous response to the Eucharist that should humble us all:

while I live He shall have my whole allegiance, and I will ever do as He commands

We should, ourselves, give our whole allegiance to Christ the King, should we not? But do we? Where do our real allegiances lie? With our family? With our nation? With a political party? With a social movement? With a business organisation? With a cause? With our job? Any of these may be worth supporting, but always second to the Kingdom of God:

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Mt 6:33)

Bors beheld a miracle at the Mass. Bread and wine become Body and Blood. Who would not pledge allegiance to a God who worked such wonders?

Shouldn’t we?

Maundy Thursday: ‘Pange, Lingua’ by St Thomas Aquinas

Tell, my tongue, the sacrament
of glorious body and precious blood
poured out by the king of nations,
by the fruit of a noble womb;
by which means he paid the ransom
to redeem the world from sin.

To us given, for us begotten
from the virgin Mary’s womb,
and in the world’s confines abiding,
having scattered the world’s seed,
he his term of dwelling with us
closed with wondrous ordering.

On the night of the last supper,
with his brothers he reclined,
and observed the law in fullness
with foods by the law ordained;
as food he to his band twelvefold
gave himself with his own hands.

Word-made-flesh transforms the true bread
by the word into his flesh;
wine is changed into the Christ’s blood;
and, if sense fails to discern,
faith alone is found sufficient
to strengthen devoted hearts.

We this sacrament of greatness
will revere on bended knee,
and the observance of the ancients
yield to a new form of rite.
Let faith make its own addition
to our senses’ failing powers.

To the Father and Son likewise
praise and exultation,
faith, honor, and power also
be, and benediction.
To the one from both proceeding
equal be laudation.

-St Thomas Aquinas (1264), trans. P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns #98

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)
Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)

Corpus Christi

‘Communion of the Apostles’ — I’m pretty sure this is Panayia Podithou, Troodos, Cyprus (I couldn’t take a photo of my own when I visited)

Today is Corpus Christi. Because Baden-Würrtemberg is fairly balanced between Protestants and Roman Catholics, it’s a holiday here. So for the first time I’m aware of this feast and not by accident.

A few weeks ago, when the upcoming holidays were under discussion, someone asked what Corpus Christi is. I said that it celebrates the Body of Christ.

I was asked, ‘Yes, but what does it celebrate?’

I said, ‘The Body of Christ. The Eucharist.’

‘That’s what it celebrates.’

‘Yes, it’s a special feast just for the Eucharist, and Thomas Aquinas wrote a liturgy and a number of hymns for it. They had just come out of a time of debate about what the Eucharist is, and this feast was a way of celebrating the church’s official line. Although I wouldn’t go as far as a Roman Catholic about how it’s the Body of Christ, but that’s what Corpus Christi celebrates.’

‘I guess you would be the one to know!’

‘I guess so.’

Somehow, I remember my interlocutor asking about three times, ‘What does it celebrate?’ and me stubbornly say, ‘The Body of Christ,’ but I wonder if I’m remembering falsely, because that sounds dumb.

Anyway, it’s Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh historically broken on a Cross and mystically broken in bread.

A worthy celebration, whether you believe in Transubstantiation like the Roman church or in consubstantiation, or are defiant against saying more than, ‘Is means is,’ or believe that we eat it only after a heavenly and spiritual manner (Article of Religion XXVIII), or believe it is only a symbol — the celebration is worthy.

Why should we celebrate the Body of Christ? Why rejoice and commemorate the Eucharist? Because it is one of the two sacraments ordained of Christ during his lifetime on Earth, and the word sacrament signifies thus:

I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. (Catechism, 1662 BCP)

Unlike baptism, this is a way we can repeatedly join with Christ in an outward and visible way, receiving his inward, invisible grace. We are psychosomatic unities; sacraments are how God uses our bodies to touch our spirits. And, if the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP has anything to say about it, he can also touch our bodies:

… that our bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.

It is commended to us by Scripture, by both Jesus and St. Paul, and is repeatedly commended to us by the Fathers, mediaeval saints, magisterial Reformers, and more. John Wesley believed that weekly communion was important, and every day during certain feast periods of the church.

So be happy about the Body of Christ today!

I leave you with two things, then, this Corpus Christi. One is ‘Panis Angelicus’, one of Aquinas’ hymns for the feast, as sung by Pavarotti. The other is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth. –The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

The Mass in 40 Parts (Striggio, ‘Missa: Ecco Si Beato Giorno’)

I have been getting into Renaissance music recently. While I have enjoyed Palestrina in the past, I didn’t really listen to much Renaissance music until my friend Frank made me aware of I Fagiolini & Robert Hollingworth’s recording of Alessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts, then Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno. Out of curiosity, having viewed the YouTube video that discusses the recording, I listened to it on Spotify enough times to make it worth purchasing.*

When I first heard the Mass in 40 Parts, I almost cried, it was so beautiful. This mass is a very fine example of Renaissance polyphony — polyphony is what the word appears to mean, many sounds. Like its Baroque successors, this music tend to utilise counterpoint rather than harmony — Renaissance harmony (I think) tends to be chord-based, unlike what we experience in Beethoven or Wagner.

Counterpoint is the overlaying of multiple melodies, each doing something different. A fugue is a popular manifestation of Baroque counterpoint.** Usually, as in a fugue, music is written in four parts (like what I had to write when I took Harmony with the Royal Conservatory). What makes this particular piece of Renaissance Polyphony mindblowing is not just the expected beauty of it all but —

FORTY PARTS.

That means, at the height of the majesty of Striggio’s Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno there are forty parts at once. Not simply forty musicians or singers or anything like that. 40 different parts, multiple melodies laid over strong, chordal harmonies at the base. Forty. Parts. Hence polyphony.

Alessandro Striggio (b. 1536/7) was a court musician of the Medici family of Florence. It recorded that in April 1561, a ‘song for 40 voices’ of his composition was performed for two papal envoys on their way to restart the Council of Trent (the ‘counter-reformation’ council; council of the Catholic Reformation?). The liner notes of this CD reckon that the 40-part song was the magnificent first track of the album ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ a glory of Renaissance majesty. This song is performed again in 1568, it seems.

In 1567, we first hear of Striggio having produced a Mass in 40 parts. This Mass is partly derived from the 40-part ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ partly innovative — it is ‘polychoral’; the forty parts are divided between five choirs each singing eight parts. A clever strategy to achieve the wonder that this piece of music is.

Words cannot properly describe music. The Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio as recorded by I Fagiolini with Robert Hollingworth is … mindblowing, majestic, triumphal, heavenly, beautiful. It brings about those moments when your soul itself feels literally ‘uplifted’, those moments when you are drawn entirely into the moment itself — a moment of beauty, of peace, of wonder.

The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion — the liturgical event for which this Counter-Reformation Renaissance polyphony was composed — is an act of worship to the holy, Triune God, who is worshipped by the angels with their thrice-holy cry. In the Eucharist, we enter the throne room of God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, the unmoved mover, uncreated creator, whose throne is the heavenlies and footstool is earth.

Should it not be a time to catch your breath? A time to be filled with wonder? A time to weep? A time to be filled with joy? A time for wondrous beauty?

I look forward to I Fagiolini’s 1612 Italian Vespers on 4 June.

*Spotify users: The artists themselves generate very little revenue from Spotify. If you enjoy little-known bands or classical music, purchase your favourites to give them royalties. More money for artists = more art = a better world.

**Like this one, by Bach. 2:40 gives you a good visual representation of a fugue. If logic doesn’t convince people there is a God, Bach might be able to ….

Too Awesome Not to Share

The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:

Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)

The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.

Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)

Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno”the Mass in 40 Parts.

I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’

God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!

Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.

Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).

How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:

St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.