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?

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship, Part 2

After the priest et al. process in, a bunch of stuff goes on up front. You may notice that this happens every once in a while. People change clothes, wave incense around, bow to one another, and so forth. Not quite so casual as life with a modern worship band. Nonetheless, each of those garments carries with it a symbolic meaning tied to the worship of God and/or to the Gospel. All that bowing is a sign of respect and siblingly affection — a very evangelical ideal, indeed. And all the care is due to the idea that every act that takes place up there in the chancel is not just utilitarian but, in fact, worship. Whether it looks effeminate to you or not.

Getting everybody wet At many High Church services, such as at my local Anglo-Catholic congregation or at the Tridentine Rite Latin Mass I went to in Ottawa, the priest marches solemnly down the aisle while the choir sings, all the while sprinkle the congregants with water. If some gets in your eye, fear not — ’tis but water, blessed by a priest.

This sprinkling with a tool called the aspergillum symbolically represents the cleansing of the congregation. Only God can make us holy. The water is a reminder that we all need to be cleansed. Repentance and the pursuit of holiness are key to the evangelical ethic — and in a good High Church service, you will have at least one opportunity to repent as well as to get sprinkled with water.

All that incense You will find incense at traditional Roman Catholic services, Eastern Orthodox services, and high Anglican services. Incense is about as old as the organised worship of YHWH gets. They had it in the tabernacle, they had it in the Temple, and we have it in many churches. It is a living link with our spiritual forebears, the Jewish people. It is also a symbol, a physical and sensory representation of the prayers that everyone in the church is to be lifting up to God as the service goes on. Prayer is the heart of the evangelical’s life of worship.

After various hymns and prayers, whose Gospel-meaning ought to be clear if one pays attention, the Gospel is processed out. It is held aloft in a shiny, pretty book. This is not just because the Mediaeval and Byzantine Churches had more money than they knew what to do with so they started gilding everything in sight and it became tradition. It is because the words of the Gospel are words of life. In them are found the riches of the glory of God, the pathway to salvation. These words do not fall to the ground. Or, to use a different ancient image, they do not return to God empty.

Out of honour to the living, saving Christ whom the Gospel proclaims, we stand when they process out this book — often accompanied by incense. Some people make a wee sign of the cross on their forehead, their lips, and their heart. This is meant to be a reminder to them that the words of God’s living Word in the Holy Gospel are ever to be in their minds, on their lips, and in their heart.

The Creed We continue to stand, a sign of respect and, if you stand long enough as the Orthodox do, a way of worshipping God with your tired, achy body. Then we recite the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Some people of Low Church backgrounds say silly things about the Creed, like, ‘The Orthodox believe in the Creed more than in the Bible!’ The Creed is a distillation of the teachings of the Bible, a combination of the ancient Rule of Faith with the ancient baptismal code tweaked to combat ancient heresies. It is a proclamation of the Gospel. So mean it when you say it; it is more than mere recitation.

Facing East Those of you with an inbuilt compass or who pay attention to the orientation of architecture when entering buildings will have noticed that many old churches are aligned so that the congregation faces East. East is the traditional direction of Christian prayer, adapted from the Jewish practice of facing Jerusalem, because East symbolises the resurrection and the second coming of Christ who is the Sun of Righteousness. Mindful of the one and hopeful for the second, we face East in solidarity with the ongoings of our historical faith.

‘Facing East’ also means ‘away from the congregation’ — ie. when the minister prays the prayer of consecration of the elements of bread and wine, he or she faces away from the gathered faithful. I prefer, when I’m in a church that ‘faces East’ in this way (not all High Churches do), to think of the orientation not as ‘away from the congregation’ but ‘with the congregation.’ We and the minister are praying to and worshipping the same God, and his or her actions are representing us all. Therefore, we are praying together with the minister when we face East liturgically.

Elevating the Elements The minister will, at certain points of the liturgy, lift the bread and lift the cup. In many High Churches, bells will ring. The bells are to alert you that this elevation is going on. The bread is Christ’s body, the wine his blood. We lift them up in thanksgiving for Christ’s saving death, and the giving of himself for our salvation. Whether or not you believe that when Christ says, ‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink,’ he means that bread and wine, if you are used to acting symbolically, you can see the evangelical value in lifting these consecrated elements for the people to see. Lifting them high is lifting high the cross — it is proclaiming the love of Christ.

Kneeling again In most Anglican churches, high or low, you will go forward to the Holy Table and kneel at the communion rail. A clergyperson or lay assistant will bring you a piece of cardboar — I mean, bread, and a sip of wine. I know of at least one evangelical uncomfortable with kneeling at this point.

We kneel because Christ is coming to us, giving us his grace, and we are, once again, in the presence of holiness. We kneel because it is an act of humility before the Christ who is ruler of the cosmos. We kneel because we revere the living Christ who is everywhere present and promises to be with us in a special way in this eucharistic act of remembrance. We kneel because, in kneeling, we join with millions of western Christians who have knelt in worship of Christ at any time and proclaimed, ‘My Master and my God!’

When better to kneel than at the most special of Christian worship acts?

These are all the things I can think of right now. The symbolic nature of the actions and events and images and clothing and prayers of High Church worship are infused with the Gospel and are a way of doing with our body and senses what we ought to be doing with our heart.

I know that not everyone you’ll find at such services and liturgies will have these meanings in mind, that many of them will be more concerned with the liturgy as a performance than as worship of the Triune God in His splendour, that many may not truly know Christ, that many may live in fear of an angry God whom they believe will smite them if they don’t worship this way, that many will be proud and arrogant about the way they worship, dismissive of others. However, not everyone will be.

And I’m fairly certain many of us who worship in Low Church fashion are guilty of all the same things, from Stott’s query, ‘What are they Alleluia-ing about?’, to those who do not know Christ, to those who do not know the Gospel of freedom, to the proud and arrogant, to those there for a good show.

I’m not expecting or even hoping or wanting people to join High Church parishes as a result of this. I’m just hoping that things that seem strange can become less so and that those are brothers and sisters in Christ can realise this fact even more so.

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

A church I know that made the transition from ‘High Church’ to ‘Low Church’ removed the statue of its patronal saint from the sanctuary into the vestry. This move was made on the grounds that, ‘This an evangelical church, not an Anglo-Catholic Church.’ The same minister, who had worn a cope in the past, refused to wear one on a later occasion on the grounds that you don’t wear High Church Vestments in an evangelical church.

The following has been floating around in my head for a while, but I feel it is appropriate to write now, since I was at the Duomo in Milan for Morning Prayer this morning. (I didn’t stick around for Eucharist because I felt uncomfortable with the guards staring down anyone who didn’t speak Italian.)

By evangelical, I mean Gospelly. Gospel-focused. Something or someone focussed on the Incarnation of God as a man and His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory for the salvation of the human race, with a strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning death. Someone evangelical has a very high regard for Scripture as the revelation of God and our way of learning about Jesus and his life on earth. Evangelicals believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, available to those who believe.

By what follows, I don’t wish to minimise the differences between High and Low Churchmanship. Nor do I wish to downplay the worthiness of Low Church worship — I grew up Low Church, worshipped at my dad’s Low Church parish just recently, and worship with the Free Church of Scotland.

I hope, rather, to help Low Church Evangelicals to be more comfortable with their High Church siblings, and for High Church worshippers to realise the levels of Truth and Gospel witness found in their rituals — these rituals ought not to be dead, for in them is contained a witness to the glorious Truth of God made Man for our salvation.

Genuflection & the Sign of the Cross When you join your High Church friends on a Sunday morning, you may notice that many of them genuflect before entering the pew, and that many also make the sign of the cross. This is not mere superstitious nonsense, a hangover from those dark days of Roman Christianity.

Look to the front of the church. What stands on the Holy Table or hangs from the ceiling or is mounted on the back wall (or all three)? A cross or a crucifix. Why genuflect to a cross made of brass or wood? Is not the Lord Jesus risen and ascended to heaven? Yes, He is. And, ascended to glory, He is now everywhere, for heaven has not a fixed location (despite silliness from J S Spong). Yet you cannot worship Christ who died for you everywhere unless you worship Him somewhere.

In kneeling briefly before being seated in the pew, the worshipper acknowledges his or her debt to the One who died on the historical cross on a hill far away. He or she worships in his or her spirit, using the body and the physical space to honour the invisible God. It is a spiritual act of worship.

The same, needless to say, goes for making the sign of the cross, an act I am much in favour of (see this post and this post).

Regular, old kneeling If a person of particular outward piety, your High Church friend will probably proceed to kneel and pray for a bit. It used to be the case that most, if not all, western Christians knelt to pray. Most have a tendency to sit these days. Kneeling is a physical act of submission and humility. No matter how intimate we get with God — and He does call us friends and we are called his Bride — He is still God; still holy; still other; still wholly other; still almighty; still King.

We are to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. It is His will to lift us up. When we present our prayers and petitions unto the Most High, is there any posture more fitting than that of kneeling?

Standing There is always standing, of course. This is the first ritual act the whole congregation performs. As the clergy, assistants, and choir enter, everyone stands up. The cross, that great symbol of our salvation and the very reason we are present at church, goes before them. Out of honour to this cross, we stand. Out of respect for the clergy who have a duty and role to teach us and instruct us in the Faith and to lead us in worship and to draw us near to God through the sacraments, we stand — we stand even though so many, high and low alike, fail at most or all of the above often or sometimes.

And so they process in, the choir singing something, hopefully in English. Preferably, in my opinion, a congregational hymn. But maybe not. Maybe in Latin, even.

Things are just beginning. Stay tuned for more …