Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 2: Sacraments

I am in favour of forms of worship and devotion (liturgy) as well as church order (episcopal structure) that reflect the ancient church for reasons of doctrine, as discussed last time, as well as the sacraments and, more nebulously, devotion.

As a good Anglican, I believe that ‘There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.’ (Article of Religion 25) My understanding of the sacraments, as well as of ancient Christian history, leads me to embrace the liturgical life of the Church.

Holy Baptism

The sacrament of holy baptism is as old as Christianity. It is all over the book of Acts, and different angles on baptismal theology are found in the letters of St Paul. Baptism is biblical (so I guess the Salvation Army, for all its good, Christian service, is not?). Baptism is, in fact, part of the foundation of Trinitarian belief, as I wrote about in this blog post.

The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition show me a baptismal practice that is liturgical, from as early as the year 90. And it is from the baptismal liturgy that our rules of faith emerged. And from the rule of faith emerges the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.

To reject baptismal liturgy is to reject the foundations of my credal faith. And that faith is central to my self-understanding as well as to historic, orthodox Christianity.

More than this, however, I believe that sacraments are ‘outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace’ (Anglican catechism). Baptism, as Article 26 reminds us, is not simply a symbol. It is never treated as such in Scripture, and never by the ancient fathers. Indeed, in the ancient church, they took baptism seriously as the entry of a person into his’er new life in Christ and into the church, with a period of teaching, fasting, prayer, and discipline to precede the liturgical action. This makes sense to me — becoming a Christian is a big deal.

Historic baptismal liturgies take into account the ancient, biblical, patristic faith and understanding of the sacrament as a rejection of Satan, as a turning to Christ, as a grafting into the church, as either a seal (for adults) or a promise (for infants) of faith.

Baptism was handed down to us by the ancient church, who had a liturgy for it early on. How can I reject the baptismal practice of the people who gave us baptism?

Holy Communion

Of the two sacraments acknowledged by the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Eucharist is the only one that is repeatable. Once again, the ancient evidence shows a frequent celebration of Holy Communion as early as around 100, and this celebration seems to have been liturgical. If the Didache, Justin, and the Apostolic Tradition all use a liturgy centred on the death and resurrection of Christ and his words of institution from Scripture, why should I reject this practice?

Moreover, Holy Communion was believed by the ancients to be a potent reality. A true sacrament, whereby God communicates with us and is Really Present, giving us grace in a way that is distinct from his free-flowing grace that we may gain from silent, solitary prayer or word-centred preaching.

St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) calls it the medicine of immortality. St Ephrem the Syrian (4th-century) is similarly rich in his imagery for the Eucharistic feast. Holy Communion is a recapitulation of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an idea find rich and running through St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180). Through the ritual action and the eating of the consecrated elements, we are participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. St Ephrem the Syrian would say that the eternal significance of Christ’s salvific death-and-resurrection penetrates our ordinary time, and that through the Sacrament we are actually participating in his one-and-for-all sacrifice (oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world).

Every Sunday, as traditional Presbyterians like to remind me, is Easter. So every Sunday should be eucharistic. This was the practice as far back as 150, and probably earlier (I think at Antioch, as far back as Ignatius, at least?) and right up to the Reformation.

As I stated in a recent post about liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy brings forth the riches of the Gospel. A weekly, liturgical celebration of Holy Communion was the defining act of worship and, indeed, of corporate identity for the ancient church. And they did it using words you will still find in the BCP, BAS, Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Roman Catholic Mass, etc.

How can I be true to what I have learned over the past decade of study and prayer and struggle and spiritual growth and reject such worship?

Advertisements

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?

Mystery

When my wife and I were visiting our family back in Canada at Christmastide, a significant number of us dined at Boston Pizza in Prince Albert, SK, one day for lunch. As we enjoyed the tasty delights of our pizza and endless refills of pop, my brother who is an Anglican priest (as opposed to my brother who is a comic-book encyclopaedist or my sister who is an editor), sitting across from me, declared, ‘No one writes mysteries anymore.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘P D James does. They’re pretty good.’ I flitted through my memory, noting that Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie are all, indeed, dead.

Then he said something along the lines of, ‘I mean no one writes actual mysteries. All people write are solutions. Everything has an explanation in what we write. People don’t write books that are about mysteries anymore.’

Something like that. It was longer, but it was also early January, so I forget. But the gist of what he and I exchanged in that moment at lunch was, indeed, that we don’t write mysteries.

If we meet a mystery, we want an explanation. We are uncomfortable with vast uncertainties, so we come up with systematic explanations of them so the mystery will go away. I recall that I pointed out that this was the key to Luther’s sacramental theology, that he did not believe in either transubstantiation or consubstantiation, yet certainly not the Zwinglian vision of a spiritual symbol. According to This Is My Body, these were all insufficient because they sought to explain with human philosophy what was ultimately a mystery to be left in reverence. Is means is. This is Christ’s body; this is Christ’s blood. End of story. Receive it in faith, do not explain it with philosophy.

God Himself(s) is a mystery as well. No matter how well an Aquinas or a Bonaventure can go into the relations of the Divine Persons, the very doctrine of the Trinity remains always beyond reach. And that is mere doctrine; FatherSonHolySpirit Themself stands beyond us in a big way.

Yet he does invite us in.

A mystery is not simply hidden. It is a hidden thing, or a hard-to-understand thing, that invites us in. We are called to go further and further in. This is how it is related to mystery cults, religions that involve secret initiation ceremonies that unite their worshippers with a god in some way. God invites us in, and we are drawn further into his mystery as we go through life with Him.

Thus the mystic enters the mystery of the Triune God through prayer, ascetic practice, meditation, contemplation, worship, sacrament, daily work, and daily life, finding These Person everywhere and pervading everything. St. Hildegard and Lady Julian are granted visions; St. Thomas Aquinas is given insight; St. Gregory Palamas enters the mystery of God and finds Him beyond articulation. Evagrius Ponticus says that contemplation of the HolyThree is the highest goal of the Christian life.

And the more we know El, the more we realise how little we know of This OneThree Who isare everywhere yet beyond everything.

And so, having delineated the boundaries of what it is safe to say in our tomes of systematic theology, having uttered the Creed with utter sincerity, having sought to see the Creator God in the face of the poor, we reach a place where only groans can express these thoughts.

We enter the cloud of unknowing, having ascended Mt. Sinai.

The apophatic takes over.

The DivinePerson(s) — ‘God’ as we like to call ‘Him’ — is without beginning and without end. Temporally and spatially.

Is not human.

Is not made of matter.

Is invisible.

Is unchangeable.

Is unchanging.

Is uncaused.

Is immortal.

Is a variety of things of which we can only really say what He is not.

He is a(3) Person(s) and ready to for us to encounter, love, and experience Him.

Are we ready to enter into this glorious mystery? Or shall we play in the shallows of definites and clear answers instead?

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)

Idolatry?

Back in 2005, when JP2 died, a lot of people had a lot of really nice things to say about him.  In response, an evangelical started circulating an e-mail full of nasty things about JP2 and the Church of Rome at large. This e-mail made its way to me, including a preface by a friend of a friend calling bowing to the Host ‘rank idolatry’ and said that, when the monstrance came out, he and his family

felt like Shadrack [sic], Meshack [sic] and Abednego, as most everybody bowed down around us and we remained standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs, in faithfulness to Christ and God’s 2nd Commandment.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s not a way out of such a situation and if we may not find it profitable to form a synthesis of St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here), the ‘last’ Church Father of the East, and Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer.

John of Damascus on Holy Images

First, if you haven’t read St. John of Damascus, you really should. Now. Here’s the link.

John of Damascus speaks about veneration of the holy images rather than adoration. Veneration is the sort of thing you might do, for example, to an emperor, or a potentate, or a something like that. It is not what we would call, in current English usage, worship. Worship, or adoration, is reserved for God alone. Veneration can go around. It is a way of treating people or things with a special honour due to them.

When we kiss an icon or a cross, we are not adoring them. We are venerating them. In and of themselves, they are but

Idolatry?

wood, paint, metal — they are things crafted by human hands. The sort of thing that is here today and firewood tomorrow. An icon cannot talk to you. An icon cannot answer your prayers. However, by treating this physical objects that are here in front of us with a special honour, we are reminding ourselves of the greater honour due to the invisible God.

FACT: You cannot kiss Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can kiss an icon of Jesus. It’s right in front of you.

Kissing these objects is a way of honouring Christ, whom, in an Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, you would kiss. Not full-out on the mouth or something, but on the hand or maybe the cheek, the former because He is the Great Teacher, the latter because He is our Brother.

Luther: ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ (1523)

Martin Luther, in ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ annihilates many points of view concerning the Lord’s Supper. Is means is, not signifies, not is a participation in. Thus, when our Lord and Saviour says, ‘This is My Body,’ and, ‘This is My Blood,’ He means just that. They are not symbols or signs thereof. They are not a participation therein.

Furthermore, the Body and Blood are there, but the sacrifice cannot be repeated, and the bread and wine are not destroyed. The text of Holy Scripture calls them bread and wine. While they must be Body and Blood, transubstantiation is merely Aristotle playing Sacramental theology. Finally, the action that takes place on the altar is not a sacrifice of Jesus. That only happened once.

FACT: You cannot touch Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can eat Him. He is in the Sacrament of the Altar. It’s right in front of you.

If Christ’s life-giving ‘Body and Blood are truly present,’* then that little bit of Bread is His Body. While what matters most to Luther is the spiritual act of worship that goes on in our hearts, we are allowed to engage in physical acts of worship as well. Therefore, monstrances are allowed but not necessary.

Synthesis?

Now, not everyone believes in the Real Presence. These people are wrong. However, they exist, and they love Jesus.

If John of Damascus is right, we can kiss an icon or a cross or a book of the Gospels and do so out of honour and love for the immortal, invisible God only wise. Our physical acts are in front of physical objects, but our hearts are turned to the metaphysical divinity, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth.

If we consider this along with Luther’s contention that monstrances — Host-holders — are indifferent, then there is no

This is a monstrance

reason why anyone who believes in the Real Presence or not need feel uncomfortable. Right? You are not bowing to a piece of Bread. You are bowing to the living, dynamic Christ Who is in your very midst, Who is glorious beyond compare, Who can see into your heart.

What matters is the inward person and the intention thereof. The Host is bowed to not because we think a bit of stale, circular bread is special but because we think that the living, risen Christ is superspecial, beyond special, holy, magnificent, majestic, glorious, all-powerful, worthy of all praise and all honour.

Part 2: What this means for me, and where on earth I’m going.

*’Corpus et sanguis vere adsint’ — Augsburg Confession, Article 10.

Medieval Marriage Ceremony (trans. by me)

If you are interested, I have translated and posted the Order for the Consecration of Marriage, Sarum Use, in the right-hand sidebar.

If you were wed in mediaeval England, this ceremony would have been what you’d have used — except that everything save the vows would be in Latin.  This ceremony, like all traditional liturgies, is rich in symbol and beauty.  When the groom gives the ring, he also places a bag of silver and of gold on the priest’s Bible for all three items to be blessed.  Thus, he says by his action that he can support the new family that is made that day.  Once the ring is blessed, it is given thus:

With this ring I thee wed, this gold and silver I thee give, and with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Then the husband shall place the ring on the thumb of his wife, saying: In the name of the Father,

Then on the forefinger, saying: And of the Son,

Then on the middle finger, saying: And of the Holy Ghost,

Then on the ring finger, saying: Amen.

Then he shall release the ring.  For it is [taught] in medicine that there is a certain vein proceeding all the way to the heart, and in the melodiousness of silver is symbolised internal love, which now young ought always to be between them.

That manner of exchange of rings — without the gold and silver — was that used by my sister in her mediaeval wedding.  Thus is the Holy Trinity invoked in the most common symbol of marriage, the endless circle of a ring.  God is present with us in our marriages, Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

I like the canopy that is held above the bride and groom as the priest blesses their marriage.  My sister also used this aspect of Sarum in her own wedding ceremony, and I understand that it symbolises the new household the bride and groom are creating that day.

Something you may wonder at in the ceremony is the Pax during the Communion.  The Pax was a physical object, of wood or stone, with a picture of Christ or a saint on it, that was kissed and passed around during the Eucharist in the Sarum Use.  This was a tangible symbol of Christ’s peace which He communicates to us in the Eucharist.  We share it with him.  We share it with one another.  And with the Pax, it is sealed with a holy kiss.

This ceremony, as is common in mediaeval liturgies, comes complete with a wide variety of prayers, chiefly blessings upon the couple.  The blessing upon the bride following the Sacramental benediction includes this lovely phrase:

May she endure among the saintly women.  May she be as loveable as Rachel to her husband; as wise as Rebecca; as long-lived and faithful as Sarah.

Liturgy is not simply words upon a page, as we often imagine when we think of “liturgical” vs. “non-liturgical” churches or worship.  Liturgy, or leitourgeia, is the work of the people.  It include standing, sitting, kneeling.  It includes hymns and prayers.  It includes symbolic actions, powerfully demonstrated herein with the canopy, the exchange of rings with gold and silver, the Pax.  In liturgy, we enact in the sanctuary the spiritual reality of our lives.  We worship God there and leave there to bring the truths and symbols of the liturgy into “daily life” — the blessings upon our homes (canopy), the provision for our families (gold & silver), endless love between husband and wife (the ring) bound up in the Trinity, the peace of Christ that passes all understanding and permeates our entire existence (the Pax).

These symbols are all evangelical truths enacted for our benefit.  Alas that the liturgies of today are so bereft of such depth and beauty!

Eucharist and Christ’s Sacrifice

A few Sundays ago, we had a modern variant on the Eucharistic liturgy at my local Anglican church.  The Eucharistic prayer had a few lines in it regarding us congregants “giving” and “sacrificing” things to God.  The Rev. Chris King, our priest, warned us beforehand that he would be saying things a bit differently from what was printed, for he believes the idea of us bringing anything to the Communion Table is nonsense — the sacrament is entirely a gift from God and our action does not make it happen and adds nothing to it.

I agree with Chris.  And what he had to say was the reason I am a bit uncomfortable at some of the Anglo-Catholic doings of the Eucharist, for they tend to include a prayer beseeching God to accept the sacrifice we or the priest offers.  I am not sure how old that prayer is, and I don’t really have the time to research it right now.

However, the idea of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, or the Holy Eucharist, or the Mass being a sacrifice is, indeed, very ancient.  You can find a Patristic catena testifying to this fact at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism.  I dare not presume to say that the Fathers were pre-Reformation Evangelicals.  Clearly they thought of the Sacrament of the Most Precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as a sacrifice.

Today, reading Worshiping with the Church Fathers, I became a bit more comfortable with the idea.  Christopher A. Hall, in discussing the Eucharist as a memorial of that His precious death, notes that “Holy Communion is a remembrance that makes Christ’s sacrifice present to the church in time and space.” (65)  When that sacrifice is made present in the Eucharist, the crucifixion is not repeated.  This is what many Protestants think the Roman position on the question is, including some former Catholics.  Rather, Hall writes, “It is the introduction into present time of a past event.” (65)

He quotes St. John Chrysostom:

We always offer the same oblation: therefore it is one sacrifice. . . . Christ is everywhere one, entire in this place and that, one body . . . and so, one sacrifice. . . . We offer now what was offered then, an inexhaustible offering. . . . We offer the same sacrifice: or rather we make a memorial of that sacrifice. (66, Homilies on Hebrews 3.17)

Just as the Eucharist brings back into our time the future marriage banquet of the Lamb, the eschatalogical feast we shall enjoy in the ages of ages, so also does it bring forth the past sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice once offered, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  We are not offering the sacrifice; Christ already has.  Yet we are seeing it reenacted with the elements of the bread and wine, and Christ’s saving grace is poured forth upon those elements, the same grace he shed with his blood on the Cross.

Sarum Again

I have posted previously on the Use of Sarum here and have a translation of Sarum Vespers available here.  The Use of Sarum was the most popular liturgy in the British Isles at the time of the Reformation and is the foundation for the Book of Common Prayer and other traditional English liturgy.

Last night, the Classic Christian small group went on a field trip to St. Thomas’ Anglican Church on Huron St.  There we worshipped as our ancestors would have worshipped 500 years ago.  We worshipped in Latin*, using England’s most popular pre-Reformation liturgy.  This event was more than a re-enactment of a deceased/little-used ritual.  It was more than a performance for our benefit.  It was, indeed, worship — “To pay homage to or, literally, to ascribe worth to some person or thing.  Hence, worship embraces the whole of the reverent life, including piety and liturgy.” (Eerdmans Bible Dictionary)

The occasion for our worshipping in this archaic yet beautiful manner was Candlemas, aka The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, aka The Presentation of the Lord Jesus in the Temple, aka the Occursus Domini (Simeon’s encounter with the Lord Christ).  It’s called Candlemas because before the Mass there is a procession with lighted candles through the church — both the processing and the congregation hold said candles in hand.

Before the procession, there were some prayers in Latin sung in plainsong by the priest (the congregation had, here and elsewhere, the role of singing, “Et cum spiritu tuo.”), and then they processed — clergy in fancy robes, three crucifers walking abreast with quite a tall cross in the centre, a banner-carrier (Andrew from the small group, in fact), a choir (which included four “Rulers” in white copes), various other people.  Two large tapers were borne before them all.  The choir sang beautifully in Latin throughout, concluding with “Videte Miraculum” by Thomas Tallis as they stood at the back of the church.

During this procession, the incense was abundant.  I have said on other occasions, “The air was thick with incense.”  This time it was very true, up to the ceiling, with a haze of smoke between us and the holy table.  When the censer was near our pew, I even had trouble breathing.  Smokey Tom’s, indeed!

Following the procession was a form of the Sarum Ordinary of the Mass.  It was an interesting experience.  The choir sang beautifully in Latin, singing a psalm and the Kyrie while the priest prayed the Preparation and Confession quietly at the holy table.  This was the general practice throughout, in fact.  We heard the Collect of the Day, the lessons, the Gospel, the Creed, the homily (of course), the offertory sentence, the preface, and a few other prayers, but the bulk of the actual Eucharistic liturgy was said silently by the priest, including the Words of Institution.

While the priest prayed quietly, the choir sang beautiful things, mostly by Thomas Tallis, and all focussed on the feast of the day.  It was very beautiful, the sort of singing that raises the spirit up to God.  I spent some of the time while the choir prayed praying quietly, some just listening, sometimes thinking, sometimes reading the prayers of the priest.  When the choir sang the Creed, I joined because a loud man behind me also did.

Liturgy, however, is not just the words.  This was evident in the engagement of all my senses in the worship last night.  The incense and the thrice-snuffed candle in my hand drew my sense of smell into the worship.  The vestments, the banner, the statues, the crosses, the light from the candles at the front drew my eyes into the act of worship.  The sound of beautiful, heavenly singing engaged my ears.  At the Eucharist, I felt the Body of Our Lord on my hand, on my tongue.  I tasted the bread and the wine.

We also stood, bowed, sat, and knelt.  Apparently, kneeling is not part of the Use of Sarum, but old habits die hard, and after the choir had sung the Sanctus, we all hit our knees.  The leaflet told us when to bow; most of the rest of the time we stood, though we sat for the homily and part of the Canon of the Mass.  When the time came for us to partake of Holy Communion, we walked to the front of the church to the holy table, and knelt at the railing.  This, too, is a liturgical act, a reenacting of our choice to stand and walk to Christ every day of our lives.  So we stand and approach his Table and feast on the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb.

Thus, although we of the congregation did not pray aloud as much as I prefer, I worshipped the Lord last night.  I read the prayers in my heart as the choir sang, I prayed the Jesus Prayer several times, I praised Him for his beauty and the majesty set forth before us.  The rarity of such beautiful, majestic worship is one of the tragedies of the Reformation (and Vatican II).  I’m not sure I could worship according to Sarum Use every Sunday, but I would not be opposed to worshipping in such an ornate, florid, beauteous manner on occasion.

*If an English translation is provided, does it still contravene the Articles of Religion?