"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 9 March 2013



During my first couple of years in Peru, I used to wonder why images are so important to the peasants.   They have fiestas in their honour and spend extended periods before them, holding a bunch of lighted candles in their hands and staying there until the candles have burned themselves out.   They kiss them, touch them with their foreheads, and talk of them as though they are people.   It was difficult to find out from the peasants the reasons behind their behaviour because they certainly live their faith, but few can explain it; at least, that was true when we first arrived in 1981.    Few had received a formal education, especially in the Faith.   Then, one day, I met a highly articulate peasant with a large vocabulary and the imagination to understand what I wanted to know.   I asked him about the importance of images.   After thinking for a little while, he said, "When an image receives the blessing of the Church, it becomes for us a manifestation of God's presence, a point of contact between God and us."

It could have been the Fathers of the Second Council of Nicaea speaking.   They argued that the Incarnation had brought about a completely new relationship between material creation and God, so new that it rendered the old absolute prohibition against images obsolete.   In Christ, God and man became one in such a way that, "He who sees me sees the Father."   Since his Ascension into heaven, Christ lives in the Presence of the Father, and in him "all things hold together." (Col. 1, 7)   Since that time, everything can be and, at the end of time, will be a symbol of Christ's presence.   Whenever we see Christ in anything or anybody, this is part of the process by which God claims back for himself a fallen world;  and the painting, blessing and use of icons (images) is part of that process, as is the blessing and use of a church or shrine, the consecration of chalices, and the blessing of medals and of anything else under the sun which puts the material world at the service of God's rule.   This includes whatever we do under obedience if it manifests Christ's obedience, any act of love that manifests Christ's love.   Mother Teresa and her nuns, Dorothy Day and her houses of Christian hospitality and monasteries united in their love of God, all help to make Christ visible as well as heard.

In spite of the fact that God lives "in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen, or can see," (1 Tim. 6, 16), there is a visual element in Christian revelation, an anticipation of heaven, where "we will be like him, for we will see him as he is" (1 John 3,2).   "we declare to you...what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life" (1 john 1,1).   "Whoever sees me sees him who sent me" (John 12, 45).   "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14,9).   "In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live" (John 14, 19).   "Blessed are the pure in heart,  for they will see God" (Matt. 5,8).  "Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear" (Matt. 13, 17)   "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation" (Luke 2, 29).

There is an instinct in Catholicism to use all our senses when we seek God because God has a human face and has stooped in the Incarnation to meet us at a human level; and our faith has the ability to transcend, not only what we hear to discern the word of God, but also to use the others senses, including sight, to discern the presence of God in Christ through all that is good, beautiful and true.   Hence faith hears through our ears, sees through our eyes, touches through our hands, tastes through our mouth, and even smells through our nose.  

Moreover, Christ, whom we receive in holy communion, can work through our senses to the degree that we put them at his disposal; and we can become extensions of his body in the world, one of the myriad of ways that Christ charges the world through and through with his presence.

As St Gregory Palamas said, the whole of creation is one great burning bush, shot through with the energies of God without being consumed. When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, it wasn't an isolated event: it was the unveiling for a moment of reality as it really is, all the time.   As Jean Paul de Caussade wrote, every situation, every moment,  is a kind of sacrament, wherever we go, whatever we do, it is absolutely filled with God without altering it in any way,just like the burning bush.  As St Francis said, a believer sees and believes, while the nonbeliever simply sees. All that is needed is faith to recognise his presence in the present moment and to respond to the duties and invitations of that moment.  

 We use all our senses to discern God' presence and to discern what he wants from us; and we use all our senses in reaching out to God in  worship, as any liturgical celebration will show, whether of the old Mass or the new, if it uses all the facilities that Tradition offers us to praise God.

If God communicates to us through what is visible by the power of the Spirit, as well as by what is audible, certain questions are raised.   For instance, what do the faithful see when they are at Mass?  What should they see to help them realise the truth they are celebrating?  What vision do we portray in our liturgy?

According to the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the chief characteristic of the liturgy in general and of the Mass in particular is the presence and active participation of Christ from the very beginning to the very end:
The liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ.   In the liturgy, the sanctification of man is manifested by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way proper to each of the these signs: in the liturgy full public worship is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. (SC 1, 7)

If Christ is not present, it is not liturgy.   If the Church is not present, it is not liturgy.   Liturgy is always the activity of both, working together in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
"Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever".   THAT is liturgy.

St Augustine of Hippo puts it another way:
When the body of the Son prays, it does not separate itself from its head, and the same saviour of the body, our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, is he who prays for us, prays in us, and is invoked by us.   He prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our head, and is invoked by us as our God.   Therefore, we recognise our own voices in him, and we recognise his voice in us. St Augustine of Hippo: Commentary on Psalm 85 (1: CCL. 39, 1176-1177) 

Does this appear to be the case? Does the celebrant in the Mass so conduct himself that both he and his congregation are aware  that he is only the instrumental cause of the sacrament, acting in the presence of Christ the Priest as a pen is in the hand of a writer; or does he act as though he is using his priestly power in the absence of his Lord, that he, rather than Christ, is in complete control and is the centre of attention?   Does his manner of celebrating draw attention to himself or to Christ? 

  The best rubric is the oldest and is Scriptural:  St John the Baptist said that Christ  must grow while  he must diminish. St John Chrysostom said, in the same spirit, that for Christ to appear, the priest must disappear.   It seems to me that, too often, whether priests are celebrating the old rite and are prancing around like princes in cappa magnas, birettas and lace, or are celebrating the new rite as though they were pop stars or television hosts, inflated egoism can soon become part of the rite.   

My own suggestion is that a bad theology of liturgy that limits Christ's presence to what happens after the consecration and thus distorts the understanding of priesthood, of liturgy and of the Eucharist, has been passed on in spite of Vatican II and continues to influence good men, now as then, to do the wrong thing while thinking they are acting appropriately.   

  The appropriate attitude of the priest is one of humble obedience, of service to Christ and the Church, all too aware, if possible, of the awesome presence of Christ and his own unworthiness.   If he is not aware of Christ's presence, who else will be? 

The antidote is to have a liturgy that expresses the presence of God, of approaching the Holy of Holies and passing through veil that is the flesh of Christ into the presence of the Father.

 I am not attacking splendour and beauty in the liturgy - that is contrary to my intention - but it must be a means of making people conscious of the Divine Presence and inclining the whole community to worship , not towards dressing up the ego of the celebrant.  I advocate the kind of splendour that belonged to the Divine Liturgy in Constantinople when the delegates of Prince Vladimir of Kiev attended.   It was a splendour that talked of God.  They said afterwards:
 “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget the beauty!”

I have been to many a Catholic mass, both before the changes and afterwards, where I could have said the same thing; though I do not suppose they matched up to the splendour of the Mass celebrated in Hagia Sophia in the tenth century!!   The important thing is for those who celebrate  to be humbly aware of the presence of God who is the main actor in the Mass, of the Father who is the ultimate Source and Object of worship, of the Son who prays in us and we in him, and of the Holy Spirit who is our connection with the Son and, through him, with the Father.   The splendour  is only good in so far as it enhances that awareness.

In fact, the Mass is only possible because of the synergy (harmony of two activities) in the Holy Spirit between the humble obedience of Christ unto death, and the humble obedience of the Church in obeying his command to "do this in memory of me", this latter obedience reflecting the humble obedience of the Blessed Virgin who said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word."   

The priest needs the humble obedience of Christ and of the Church to confect the sacrament and offer the sacrifice, because he is the voice of both; but if he wants to spiritually benefit from the Mass himself like all the faithful, the only route is through his own humble obedience    The priest prays at the Offertory:
With humble spirit and contrite heart may we be accepted by you, O Lord, and may our sacrifice in your sight this day be pleasing to you, Lord God.

By the very nature of the kingdom of God which is about theocracy, God reigning, the only form of authority that can actually function in a way that allows God to reign  is through the meek and humble of heart.    The Beatitudes say that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are merciful, who thirst for justice, who are persecuted  etc are blessed:  such people will be instruments of God's will, people through whom God will reign in his kingdom where the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.   It could be said that the Beatitudes are a job description for servants of the kingdom who are also sons and daughters of God.   Jesus said, 
  You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority on them. 26But it shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27And whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

St Bede recounts a scene in which the Celtic bishops were about to meet Augustine of Canterbury who was Pope Gregory's envoy.  They were not sure whether to work with St Augustine or not; so they decided on a test: if he stood up out of respect when they entered into his presence, they would accept his authority; but, if he remained seated, they would not. Let us read this in St Bede'a own words:  

"This being decreed, there came, it is said, seven bishops of the Britons, and many men of great learning, particularly from their most celebrated monastery, which is called, in the English tongue, Bancornaburg, and over which the Abbot Dinoot is said to have presided at that time. They that were to go to the aforesaid council, be-took themselves first to a certain holy and discreet man, who was wont to lead the life of a hermit among them, to consult with him, whether they ought, at the preaching of Augustine, to forsake their traditions. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him."— "How shall we know that?" said they. He replied, "Our Lord saith, Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; if therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it is to be believed that he bears the yoke of Christ himself, and offers it to you to bear. But, if he is harsh and proud, it is plain that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words." They said again, "And how shall we discern even this?" – "Do you contrive," said the anchorite, "that he first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he rises  to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he despises you, and does not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you."
They did as he directed; and it happened, that as they approached, Augustine was sitting on a chair. When they perceived it, they were angry, and charging him with pride, set themselves to contradict all he said. He said to them, "Many things ye do which are contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal Church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three matters, to wit, to keep Easter at the due time; to fulfil the ministry of Baptism, by which we are born again to God, according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and to join with us in preaching the Word of God to the English nation, we will gladly suffer all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered that they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they said among themselves, "if he would not rise up to us now, how much more will he despise us, as of no account, if we begin to be under his subjection?" Then the man of God, Augustine, is said to have threatened them, that if they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war from their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should suffer at their hands the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgement, fell out exactly as he had predicted."

It was unfortunate that St Augustine did not have Pope Gregory's humility.  If it is true that all authority exercised within the context of God's kingdom must be so humbly open to God, so that God can truly rule through that authority,  a Pope who is not humbly obedient cannot effectively function as Pope.    Pope St Gregory's title for the Pope as "servant of the servants of God" not only showed the proper interior disposition of a pope, but also the nature of his authority.

   Within the orbit of the kingdom of God, whatever the role, lay or clerical, from the priest celebrating Mass, a father and mother educating their children, to the bishop and  even the pope, all must so operate that God can operate through them.   Unlike other institutions, humble obedience is the number one essential for anyone exercising authority of any kind at all because it is the only dimension of the person through whom the Lord may act.
This disponibility, based on sheer trust when we obey God, even when we do not understand, and all we can do is trust, is one of the meanings of "faith" as in the "faith of Abraham".  This faith is an absolute necessity if the pope, bishops are to exercise their authority effectively as members of Christ's body and must be clearly expressed by priest and people alike in the celebration of Mass.

Before we depart from this question, we must examine another passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium which speaks of our participation as Church in the Liturgy of heaven.
8. In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle [22]; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. 

Our participation in the heavenly liturgy is expressed very well in the Letter to the Hebrews, and it is assumed in the Apocalypse; but, within the liturgy itself, it is most clearly expressed in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I.   This canon excludes any thought of coming down to us.   Hence there is no real epiclesis, asking the Father to send his Spirit on the bread and wine to make them the body and blood of Christ: the only mention of the Holy Spirit is in the upward movement of the final doxology.  There is no mention of the Second Coming.   All is ascent.For consecration, the prayer asks:
In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar, receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.  
 Apart from a few necessary additions, the number of apostles and martyrs in the two lists on either side of the words of institution are the same as that of the elders before the throne Of God and of the Lamb in the Apocalypse.   No other eucharistic prayer is so insistent on our participation in the heavenly liturgy; but that is where it ends.   Neither in the old liturgy nor in the new is there any further adequate expression of this dimension of the liturgy; so that it remains just  an interesting thought in the mind of theologians, in contrast to the Byzantine Rite where the idea is central to the celebration and to Christian piety.   Here is a commentary by a monk of St Tikhon's Orthodox monastery on the iconstasis which separates the sanctuary from the nave:

The Holy Fathers envisioned the church building as consisting of three mystical parts. According to Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, a Confessor of Orthodoxy during the iconoclastic controversies (7th-8th Centuries), the church is the earthly heaven where God, Who is above heaven, dwells and abides, and it is more glorious than the [Old Testament] tabernacle of witness. It is foreshadowed in the Patriarchs, is based on the Apostles..., it is foretold by the Prophets, adorned by the Hierarchs, sanctified by the Martyrs, and its high Altar stands firmly founded on their holy remains.... Thus, according to St. Simeon the New Theologian, the [Vestibule] corresponds to earth, the [Nave] to heaven, and the holy [Altar] to what is above heaven [Book on the House of God, Ch. 12].
Following these interpretations, the Iconostasis also has a symbolic meaning. It is seen as the boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. The Holy Icons denote that the Savior, His Mother and the Saints, whom they represent, abide both in Heaven and among men. Thus the Iconostasis both divides the Divine world from the human world, but also unites these same two worlds into one whole a place where all separation is overcome and where reconciliation between God and man is achieved. Standing on the boundary between the Divine and the human, the Iconostasis reveals, by means of its Icons, the ways to this reconciliation. (my source, click here)

I believe that this indicates that the "reform of the reform" needs to go further than recuperating some of the things that have been too easily taken out of use.   Perhaps that is the next stage.   However, once the Church has the stomach for it, it needs to do more to digest the teaching of Vatican II, because there is more to that teaching than has been expressed in the new form of Mass.   Perhaps it was too much to expect for the liturgists who had the job of expressing that teaching in concrete liturgical forms to be able to do so successfully with all its teaching.  Perhaps it was too much to expect them to digest all the teaching themselves.   Perhaps it will take generations to do justice to the whole teaching.   After all, Vatican II was a charismatic experience, a great movement of the Holy Spirit,  and liturgists are just people.

Meanwhile, our task is to live our faith so that we can present to the world a vision that does justice to the Gospel we preach.   To do this we must climb the ladder of humility because it is the only way to God, and turn St John the Baptist's statement into our rule of life: "He must grow, and I must diminish" and become more and more conscious of God's presence, both in the liturgy and in our everyday life.  If creation is like the burning bush, supercharged with the energies of God's presence, then humility opens a window that allows the light of God's presence to shine through into the world of men.


(Orthodox Homily)


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