Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):
…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)
What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.
Later he writes:
For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.
Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)
Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’
Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.
I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)
I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.
First the hymn as we know it:
1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.
2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.
4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, Lord most high!”
This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’
Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:
O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies
Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.
Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).
Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.
Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.
In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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