Liturgy and Gospel: St Basil the Great

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

A former youth pastor of mine once quipped, ‘If you aren’t preaching the Gospel, then what the h-ll are you doing?! It’s all mumbo-jumbo!’ A very evangelical sentiment, if not expressed quite the way your average Baptist would choose. So: What of liturgy and the Gospel? Is it all mumbo-jumbo? Is it just hocus-pocus (allegedly from ‘hoc est corpus’)?

Let’s take a Eucharistic liturgy from one of the most ornate liturgical assemblies out there, the Eastern Orthodox. I am particularly fond of this one, the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. I do not know enough about the history and criticism of liturgy to know if St Basil (330-79) actually composed any of it; if he did, it was probably the Anaphora or Canon of the Mass.

This text had a powerful impact upon me when I read it one night during one of my many ecclesiastical crises a while ago. Perhaps it can move you, too! We’ll start with ‘Lift up your hearts’ (the Sursum Corda), using the text found at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Priest: Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
People: It is proper and right.

This is in every eucharistic liturgy I’ve seen from the Apostolic Tradition c. 230 to Common Worship (2000).

Priest: Master, Lord, God, worshipful Father almighty, it is truly just and right to the majesty of Your holiness to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You, to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only true God, and to offer to You this our spiritual worship with a contrite heart and a humble spirit. For You have given us to know Your truth. Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts? Or to make known all Your praises? Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times?

Here we have worship, praise, glory and honour. It may look like a mere piling up of attributes and actions, but is it not all true? This the worship of our minds and spirits! And we need to remember that worship is the endgame of evangelism; as John Piper argues ad nauseam in the popular evangelical book on evangelism, Let the Nations Be Glad, mission only exists because worship does not. So here, the priest is leading the people into worship, into the glorification of God.

Next comes our first glimpse of the Gospel riches to come as the Trinity is introduced — and don’t forget the link between Trinity and mission:

 Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light. Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.

And in the final, complicated sentence we see the all-important evangelical doctrine of grace! It is by Christ that ‘every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping’ God.

We turn again to worship, drawing images from Scripture (that all-important evangelical source) as throughout:

For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and everresounding praises:
Priest: Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying:
People: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.

And now we enter into salvation history:

Priest: Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages.

This is precisely the history of salvation as you’ll read it not only in the Bible but in Reformed discussions of the structure of Scripture, such as Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture (a re-working of Graeme Goldsworthy’s work). It culminates in God’s oikonomia in Jesus Christ.

He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ.

Central to our Gospel is the Person of Christ — Who is Jesus? as Nicky Gumbel puts it. This passage above gives Basil’s — and the Bible’s — answer.

And what did Jesus do?

He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works.

This is the Gospel, is it not?

WAIT! ‘Each according to His works’! This is not evangelicalism, is it? Well, this is the awkward reality of Christianity that we have obscured through our incessant harping on ‘justification by faith alone’ and penal substitutionary atonement — Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that we are saved by works of mercy; James says that faith without works is dead; Paul says to work out our faith in fear and trembling. And the Gospel descriptions of the Final Judgement do feel a bit ‘works-righteousness’, don’t they?

Here is my solution — St Basil has already brought grace into play. Grace saves us. Absolutely. And once we are saved, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to actually do good works. The works are the evidence of our faith, the seal — they are not what will justify us before the dread judgement seat of Christ. But He Himself will make them a reality in our hearts. This, perhaps, goes against Graeme Goldsworthy, for it draws us towards Orthodox synergy contra Reformed monergism.

Nonetheless. Gospel. Rich. Beautiful.

Moving along:

As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever memorable, and life-giving death, on the night on which He was delivered up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and pure hands, and presenting it to You, God and Father, and offering thanks, blessing, sanctifying, and breaking it:
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you and for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Likewise, He took the cup of the fruit of vine, and having mingled it, offering thanks, blessing, and sanctifying it.
Priest: He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles saying: Drink of this all of you. This is my blood of the new Covenant, shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.
People: Amen.
Priest: Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this Bread and drink this Cup, you proclaim my death, and you confess my resurrection. Therefore, Master, we also, remembering His saving passion and life giving cross, His three; day burial and resurrection from the dead, His ascension into heaven, and enthronement at Your right hand, God and Father, and His glorious and awesome second coming.
Priest: We offer to You these gifts from Your own gifts in all and for all.
People: We praise You, we bless You, we give thanks to You, and we pray to You, Lord our God.
Priest: Therefore, most holy Master, we also, Your sinful and unworthy servants, whom You have made worthy to serve at Your holy altar, not because of our own righteousness (for we have not done anything good upon the earth), but because of Your mercy and compassion, which You have so richly poured upon us, we dare to approach Your holy altar, and bring forth the symbols of the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. We pray to You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness, Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify, and make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Bread.
Deacon: Amen.
Priest: And this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
He blesses the holy Cup.
Deacon: Amen.
He blesses them both.
Priest: Shed for the life and salvation of the world.
Deacon: Amen. Amen. Amen.

I’ll close here — but, for me, this is it: the Words of Institution, the body and blood of Christ ushering us into the heavenly banquet, into the wedding feast of the Lamb, being united to Christ and each other through the Blessed Sacrament. This is Gospel in action.

Advertisements

Matching up Lactantius and liturgy

Today’s (12 September) passage from the Fathers over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network’s Chapel is the following from Lactantius (c. 240-320):

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.

Worship of the mind at Notre Dame de Paris

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.

Worship of the mind must be worship of the body.

Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 1

The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I did spend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.

Council of Chalcedon

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?

Final Thoughts

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?

Liturgy and evangelism/mission

One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.

Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.

If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.

The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.

Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?

Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.

To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.

Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.

The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.

Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?

Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.

I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?

This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.

How evangelical Anglican churches drive people like me away

My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.

We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.

Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.

But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.

There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.

It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.

It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!

And so where to go?

I don’t know.

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?

“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.