Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Last night we had our second meeting about John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. We were discussing Chapter 2, which is about the wild heart of God, especially as it is manifested in Jesus. At one point, Eldredge says that all the images of Jesus we have around are limp and passive — at least, all the ones he’s seen in churches are.

And I thought, ‘Well, clearly he’s been to all the wrong churches.’

So I went through my postcard collection to bring a few non-limp Jesuses to show the other guys. These aren’t the exact postcards, but here are the images of Jesus I brought to study last night:

San Marco, Venice

Sacré-Coeur, Paris

A twelfth-century piece of Limoges work of Christ in majesty now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris

The stained glass window of the Last Judgement from St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Inverness

Jesus and Apa Mena, a sixth- or seventh-century Coptic icon now in the Louvre

The dome of Machairas Monastery, Cyprus

The Cross as Tree of Life from San Clemente, Rome

The apsidal mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Triumphal Arch and apsidal mosaic of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The images of Christ we see inevitably influence us and our faith, they affect how we view our Lord and Saviour. This is part of why the Reformed reject them — they can skew just as easily as uphold a right faith in Christ. And it must be admitted that Eldredge is not wrong about so much Protestant religious art.

One of the guys last night said that so much Protestant art is sappy and sentimental because it’s made for children, to illustrate a story or make the Bible accessible. It is not art for adults. He is probably right, which troubles me — my toddler likes Art of the Byzantine Era, Pauline Baynes’ illustrated Nicene Creed, and the occasional bookmark of the Sistine Chapel right alongside his Dr. Suess, Paw Patrol, and Beatrix Potter.

Why do we sell our children short and underestimate them?

What sort of messages about Jesus are we communicating to them and ourselves through this art?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

against which Wild at Heart is reacting.

I think John Eldredge wants,

Mighty Jesus, fierce and wild.

The art above, most of which is medieval (with one each of modern Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican items), presents us mighty Jesus, King of Kings. He sits enthroned, passing judgement. He reigns as he dies, bringing life to the world. He can certainly be your Friend. And he blesses us from his majesty. Loves pours forth from his Sacred Heart.

Christ the King, throned in glory — this is the great theme of so many medieval mosaics and frescoes.

Yet he is the upside-down king, and here is why the Reformed are concerned about these images. Christ in glory — certainly true. But not wholly true.

One image I did not bring but wish I could have was the crucifix from Vercelli:

Christ is standing on the cross, in power. As King. Not hanging in weakness as in the later, Gothic crucifixes. At the moment of his greatest human weakness, at the point of his death, Jesus is at his most powerful. Some Byzantine crucifixion icons have the inscription, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Glory,’ to emphasise the point.

Whatever our position on any of these images in particular or images of Christ in general, Eldredge has a good point — the carpenter of Nazareth Who refashions the crooked timber of humanity into something beautiful was neither limp nor passive.

Ancient – no, historic – religion got me into this mess: Beauty

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?


Ancient Religion Got Me Into this Mess: 1. Doctrines; 2. Sacraments; 3. Devotion

Western-facing Churches of Rome in Late Antiquity

Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West
Santa Maria Maggiore, facing West

The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Trevor Jalland, The Life and Times of Pope St. Leo the Great (as you do), and he mentioned the fact that Rome’s most ancient churches are all western oriented. That is, when you walk in and look towards the altar and apse, you are facing West, not East. At first, I didn’t believe Jalland. I had been told that all traditional churches face East — and, taking stock of a few I know (St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Duomos of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey, Ayia Sophia in Nicosia), this is broadly true.

Then I thought about it and realised that Jalland was right — St Peter’s, St John’s (Lateran), Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere — these churches, two in place of fourth-century foundations, one fifth-century foundations respectively, all face west. This isn’t the sort of thing one says and is wrong, of course. Still, I was a bit taken aback.

You see, there is a bit of controversy about ‘facing East’ and ‘facing West’, liturgically speaking. Regardless of the compass points at your church, if your priest faces liturgical East during the celebration and consecration of the Eucharist, then you and the cleric are facing the same direction (sometimes called ‘facing away from the congregation’). If your priest faces you, that is facing liturgical West. Until Vatican II, most churches faced East — all in the same direction — and now, outside of the Eastern communions, only a few scattered congregations maintain previous practice in this regard.

Those who uphold facing East tend to quote St Basil of Caesarea (330-379) in their defence:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. (On the Holy Spirit 66, quoted [& presumably trans] by Andrew Louth, ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83)

Elsewhere, I have heard the reference to facing East because the rising sun symbolises the resurrection and Christ’s return in glory. Another argument in favour of the practice is the idea that priest and people are praying together, so they face the altar together.

What does the western orientation of ancient roman churches mean, then?

According to Jalland, the priests would still have faced East. Thus, they would have faced the congregation, facing, in contemporary terms, liturgical West.

This changed, he says, when the Via Ostiense and local topography forced them to build San Paolo fuori le Mura facing East. This is the first eastern-orientated church in Rome. The priest continued to face East, but now, so did the people, so they all faced the same direction, the priest with his back to the congregation.

Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East
Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, facing East

I don’t know how true or accurate this is — Jalland gave no references for how we know which way people faced, and his book is from 1941. I do imagine, based upon what I’ve read in J Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, that facing East, if it is as common in the East as we imagine, would likely have become more and more common after Justinian’s mid-sixth-century Reconquest, when the Roman liturgy took on a variety of Greek influences, often because of a growing Greek population in Rome and Greek clerics (sometimes refugees from eastern problems) in the city.

It is certainly the case that San Teodoro and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, both sixth-century foundations, face East, as does Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, a seventh-century construction.

Anyway, it is interesting to think about how architecture, theology, and liturgical practice can all influence one another.