This past Sunday’s Gospel lesson from the BCP was from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. When St Peter witnesses the miracle, here is his response to Jesus:
When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken
This is the biblical response to meeting the divine. When God the Father spoke on the mount of Transfiguration, St Peter went from, ‘Let’s build tents,’ to falling on his face terrified (Mt 17:6).
At the moment of his throne-room vision, the prophet Isaiah declared:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5 ESV)
When Ezekiel has his super-intense vision of the divine:
So when I saw it, I fell on my face (Ez 1:28 NKJV)
Moses was told by God that he would not be able to look on God’s face and live, so God hid him in a cleft in a rock and covered him with his hand as God passed by. Moses only saw the divine back. Later, when Moses descended from the mountain, even his own reflected glory was too much, and the people veiled his glowing face.
When St John had mighty things revealed to him by an angel, he, too, fell on his face (Rev. 22:8).
Angels and people who have been close to God are more than we can handle, so far as the Bible shows us. God Himself … well. He’s a different story.
And yet we figure that making the worship of the Most Holy Trinity a combination of rock concert and stand-up comedy routine will help us encounter the Most High God.
The Bible, on the other hand, says:
Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! (Ps. 96:9)
And so the tradition feels that incense and icons, Gothic architecture and polyphony, stained glass and the ringing of bells, the prostration of human bodies on the floor, are the way to best encounter the Most High God. God is mystery, and true mystery is not a puzzle to be solved but an immensity to be embraced and entered into.
This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!
For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.
And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?
It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.
It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.
That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.
It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.
What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?
Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.
That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.
For St Benedict, chanting the Psalms, singing the hymns, praying intercessions, and reading or listening to passages of Scripture and the Fathers — these are not enough in themselves to constitute true prayer. There must be an accord between internal and external when we pray.
It is very easy for those of us in liturgical traditions to allow the rituals to become ‘dead’, to become mere rote activity, for our minds to wander, for our hearts not to mean what we pray. There have been those (particularly within the charismatic movement) who have sought to move the Church of England away not only from the Book of Common Prayer but the modern liturgies as well, believing that the Holy Spirit is stifled by liturgy. In many churches, what matters most is the inner attitude of the worshippers’ hearts — not whether you are standing, sitting, kneeling.
St Benedict, perhaps merely reflecting his culture, perhaps reminding us that, as psychosomatic unities, as persons comprised of body, soul, spirit, calls for worthy bodily posture and rightly ordered thoughts:
let us stand to sing in such a way that there is no discrepancy between our thoughts and the words we are singing. (ch. 19, p. 44 trans. White)
He also notes the importance of the simple prayer of the heart:
And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. (ch. 20, p. 45 trans. White)
Prayer should not be something that is said and forgotten. You stand in front of an icon, recite your prayers, and go about your business. That is not prayer. (p. 113)
The attitude of the heart is not dependent upon incense and liturgy, nor upon lighting effects and evocative music. It is dependent upon the grace of the Spirit and upon our own cultivation of a quiet heart. True prayer can elude us as easily in the Vineyard as amongst the Anglo-Catholics — and it can come in either place as well.
Chapter 5 of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is ‘A Church for All Seasons’. In this chapter, Dreher takes on the fact that not only is our culture around us shifting and changing and rejecting Christianity, but our churches are shrinking and have, frankly, something of a limp witness to the Triune God Who made all the things.
This chapter is in many ways perfectly in tune with the spirit of St Benedict’s Rule, and some of the recommendations are definitely from the Rule. Others, I think, are simply the way pre-modern Christians did things. I don’t think they are special to Benedict, and sometimes he wouldn’t even have thought there was a question about doing church this way.
The sub-headings are: ‘Rediscover the Past’, ‘Recover Liturgical Worship’, ‘Tighten Church Discipline’, ‘Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty’, ‘Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom’. He doesn’t actually argue that any living American Christian is going to be martyred, but he does recommend preaching, teaching, and living the path of suffering in our churches rather than self-fulfillment.
I am broadly in agreement with all of this. It’s basically what this entire blog is about. By rooting ourselves in the Great Tradition, by seeking beauty and God wherever we can, by learning the history of theology, by singing old hymns and praying old prayers and engaging in ancient disciplines, we forge an identity that is connected to that of our forebears in the faith and radically different from the world around us.
Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.
I admit to being the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, the best book about the Council of Chalcedon is the translation of the acts by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.’ I mean, it is — but what normal Christian is going to put up with three volumes of arguing bishops? Better even a 6-page pamphlet that someone will actually read and which gives Leo in a nutshell, Cyril in a nutshell, who Eutyches was, why Nestorianism was rejected, who dissented the results of the council and why as far as the life of the local church and normal human Christian is concerned.
Of course, of course, of course — we should challenge our brothers and sisters to read, if not conciliar acta, at least books like St Augustine’s City of God or an abridgement of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or St Athanasius On the Incarnation or the Rule of St Benedict or Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer or Bellarmine/Luther/Lancelot Andrewes/Calvin (depending on your tradition).
But perhaps we academics should also help the local church get plugged into the Great Tradition, through book studies or lectures or our own writings or, I dunno, blogs?
Anyway, rooting ourselves in the tradition through beautiful worship and rich theology and the pursuit of holiness will help keep us moored in the midst of liquid modernity.
Beauty is not an added extra in our lives. In all sorts of areas, beauty enhances life, whether it is a walk by a river, a trip to a cathedral, a gaze upon your (own) wife. Or poetry, or rhythmic prose, or a well-cut suit. Or Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Byrd, the Beatles.
Beauty is an attribute of God. We are taught this. We are told, ‘Look at the world around you — rainbows, clouds, the stars at night, flowers, the South Pole of Jupiter, the Aurora Borealis.’ God is the Creator, and all creations reflect, to some degree, their creators.
Beauty is another reason, besides the three linked to at the end, that I tend towards liturgical worship. It nourishes my soul. I wanted to include it in my discussion of ancient Christianity and patristics, but I have to admit that, outside of some of the more beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (recently discussed here) and St John Chrysostom as well as of the Gelasian and Leonine Sacramentaries, my study of ancient religion has not had that much influence in terms of my philosophy or love of beauty.
Not that ancient Christianity was un-beautiful. Consider the mosaics of Rome’s ancient Christian basilicas, such as the triumphal arch of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dating to the 440s:
Nonetheless, my deep-seated appreciation for historic liturgy and beauty in our approach to God has more to do with mediaeval, Byzantine/Orthodox, and ‘Early Modern’ Christianity. First came the Book of Common Prayer; from ages 19-21, I found this book impossible to pray with at Sunday services. It was all lip-service for me. But when I was 21, I used Canadian 1962 Compline daily in Lent, and this re-shifted and re-shaped me. And — it was beautiful.
That Advent, I went to a high Tridentine Use Latin Mass at St Clement’s Church in Ottawa. This had a profound effect on me, and it is still difficult for me to put into words. Here I saw the worship of God in a way very different from the mix of pop music and modern liturgy I had been raised in and devoted to. It was an elegant, reverent dance. It seem that here was a way of approaching God that truly took into account his majesty. And — it was beautiful.
Then, the next September, I found myself in Cyprus. Icons, incense, Greek chanting. Not always actually to my aesthetic taste. But drawing me in over and over again to this day — I cannot help but find it attractive. Rich, powerful, involving all my senses. And, today, I find — it is beautiful.
I visited the Basilica San Marco in Venice, and the mosaics stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Glory be to God,’ slipped from my lips. I crossed myself. I can never be Truly Reformed. Lush medieval mosaics, delicate Byzantine icons, rich Victorian stained glass. Well — it is beautiful.
Architecture as well: Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s in London, San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Mario Maggiore — beautiful.
Running around throughout this, I find myself confronted with the beauty of John Donne’s poetry, the 1611 Bible’s prose, the BCP again and again. I am caught by the beauty beyond Christianity in my beloved Virgil and Ovid. And then I circle back to the elegant arguments of St Anselm and the theology of St Gregory Palamas which, if I do not always agree with it, is at least beautiful.
We worship a beautiful God, and we have centuries of rich resources of beauty at our fingertips.
Taken together with all the other things I have been saying about liturgy on this blog, why would we cast it aside in favour of un-beautiful forms of worship?
What is the most righteous way of worshiping God? For no one should think that God desires victims, incense, or valuable gifts. Since He doesn’t experience hunger, thirst, cold, or a desire for earthly things, the things presented in temples to earthly gods aren’t useful to Him. Just as physical offerings are necessary for physical beings, so spiritual sacrifices are necessary for a spiritual being. Since all the world is under God’s power, He doesn’t need the things He gave people to use. Since He dwells in the entire world, He doesn’t need a temple. Since the eyes and mind can’t comprehend Him, He doesn’t need an image. Since He kindled the light of the sun and stars for our sake, He doesn’t need earthly lights. So then, what does God require from us? Pure and holy worship of our minds. For those things that are made by hand or outside of people are senseless, frail, and displeasing. But true sacrifice isn’t from the purse but from the heart. It is offered not by the hands, but by the mind…. What’s the purpose of incense, clothes, silver, gold, or precious stones if the worshiper doesn’t have a pure mind?
First, I would say that I agree with the essence of Lactantius. Thus, automatically one asks how liturgical worship fits into this — especially the lush, lavish and beautiful worship of the Orthodox Church, the Anglo-Catholics, the Tridentine Catholics.
The really simple answer is that liturgical worship, when offered up in humility and love for God, is the outward manifestation of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Another strand of patristic theology will remind us that we are neither disembodied spirits nor entrapped ones. We were created by God to be psycho-somatic unities. The human person is, by nature, both body and soul; flesh, spirit, and mind. A united whole.
Therefore, we must ‘offer unto [God] ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ (The Book of Common Prayer). Everything we do is embodied; a good (evangelical!) Protestant discussion of such embodied Christianity is Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The result of our embodiedness is that our spiritual worship, our worship in the mind, will involve action.
Thus: Sitting, standing, kneeling. Genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. Orthodox prostrations. Lighting candles. Smelling the incense. Walking in processions. Singing with our lungs full to bursting with gusto. Closing our eyes in silence. Opening our ears to an organ voluntary. Tasting the bread on our tongues, feeling the warmth of the wine down our throats.
All of these, while offered with ‘the hands’, are means for our minds to offer unto God the sacrifice of pure and contrite heart. And the words we utter help us focus our thoughts, directing our minds to the truths of God and His salvific activity in the world.
The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I didspend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.
Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.
Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.
There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.
This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.
The Canon of Scripture
The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.
The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.
One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).
When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.
I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.
The Holy Trinity
When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?
It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.
Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.
If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?
The dual nature and complete unity of Christ
The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?
Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.
Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?
These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.
I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.
I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?