Incarnation and Eucharist

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, alleluia!
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.

Advertisements

“Cherubim with sleepless eye”

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, ‘The monk ought
to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim: all eye.’

Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Bessarion 11 (trans. B. Ward)

Today is the Feast of St Ephraim the Syrian, of whom John Wesley wrote, ‘the most awakened writer, I think, of all the ancients’ (Journal 12 October 1736), and ‘the greatest poet of the patristic age, and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante’ (quotes found here).

Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)
Cherub from the Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily (c. 1200)

I thus felt it quite fitting that my iPod Shuffle got around to ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence‘ (whence comes the title of this post) this morning as I prepared to work — for that hymn is taken from the Divine Liturgy of St James, an ancient Levantine liturgy. There is something in the fecund soil of Syria-Judaea that expresses Christian truth in a particularly way when writing poetry.

And St Ephraim is one of the greatest patristic poets.

For some reason, Cherubic imagery always makes me think of St Ephraim — perhaps it’s the combination of the saying of Abba Bessarion quoted above with the title of Sebastian Brock’s book about St Ephraim (which I’ve yet to read), The Luminous Eye.

It is worth thinking of, for St Ephraim’s highly-charged, deeply theological poetry is, in fact, hymnography. Hymns are meant to be sung — to be sung, in fact, in praise of Almighty God. While Bessarion’s reference to the Cherubim is most likely a reference to the need for vigilance (a la St Isaiah the Solitary, d. c. 470), I think it is more appropriately, in fact, praising Almighty God without end.

For this is what the Cherubim with their sleepless eye do, is it not?

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory. Hosanna in the Highest!

St Ephraim, then, could be called Cherubic in this truest and highest sense of the word.

In his Hymns on Paradise, number XI, Ephraim writes in the first stanza (trans. Sebastian Brock):

The air of Paradise
is a fountain of delight
from which Adam sucked
when he was young;
its very breath, like a mother’s breast,
gave him nourishment in his childhood.
He was young, fair,
and full of joy,
but when he spurned the injunction
he grew old, sad and decrepit;
he bore old age
as a burden of woes.

The response: Blessed is He who exalted Adam / and caused him to return to Paradise.

Paradise for Ephraim is not a physical place. Ephraim’s Adam is like George Herbert’s:

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother,
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

from ‘The Holy Communion’

In the third stanza of St. Ephraim’s hymn we meet the Cherubim:

The fence which surrounds it
is the peace which gives peace to all;
its inner and outer walls
are the concord which reconciles all things;
the cherub who encircles it
is radiant to those who are within
but full of menace to those outside
who have been cast out.
All that you hear told
about this Paradise,
so pure and holy,
is pure and spiritual.

With this spiritual reading of Paradise, the Cherub is no longer solely ‘full of menace’ as at the end of Genesis 3, but now ‘radiant to those who are within’. We can encounter this Paradise; it is the telos of the Christian life, where we hope to abide for Eternity with our Lord Christ.

For now, let us seek to hymn our Lord, being vigilant not merely to avoid sin, but to praise God at all times — perhaps St Ephraim can be an entry into praise for you today (read him here)!

Let us, then, praise our holy, holy, holy God like the Cherubim — with sleepless eye.