This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Apocalyptic Mystery of the Eucharist

That we may receive the King of all, invisibly upborne by angelic hosts. Alleluia!
- from the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

The year is 988 AD, and the place is the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople. A small but ragtag group of befurred delegates from a far-north land are observing the Divine Liturgy in its full glory in this, the crowning jewel of the churches of Constantinople and indeed of Christendom. The overwhelming experience of this Liturgy leaves these roughshod northern travelers completely speechless. They later report to their monarch, Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus, telling him "we knew not if we were in heaven or on earth!" Now, Prince Vlad at this time was in the market for a religion that would make his nation more received on the world stage, but what began as purely a political decision soon turned into a vibrant faith for the young Prince, as through the first Liturgy to be held on Russian soil Jesus Christ got hold of Vlad, and the formerly rowdy prince of the rowdy Rus was born again by the power of the Gospel! Soon too was his kingdom. This story represents something that is absolute fact - the Liturgy is indeed "heaven on earth," and as such it has an impact on those whom are open to what it has to offer. Detractors often scoff at this, saying "oh, it is just the smells and bells," or "yeah, the beauty just provoked an emotional response and is not a true spiritual experience!" However, they fail to understand something very important - the Liturgy is our dress rehearsal for the kingdom to come!! Many people - particularly predominantly Protestant North America - would never think of seeing the connection between the earthly celebration of the Liturgy and the Second Coming and the coming Kingdom of God. However, it is there, and the Liturgy has an almost other-worldly quality to it, a fact that Eastern Christians have known and accepted for centuries. Therefore, is the Liturgy a foretaste of the Coming of the Lord? Many early Church Fathers, as well as even some Jewish rabbinical authorities of the same period writing about the worship of the Temple, seem to have thought so as one reads their books on the subject. Being I believe personally the evidence is compelling for this idea, that is what we wish to explore this week.

In early 2003, Barb and I had the privelege of visiting a local Serbian Orthodox Church close to where we lived at the time. The sheer beauty of the sung Liturgy in that church, which was further accentuated by the sea-blue and gold-trimmed iconography of the church, so moved me that I actually felt as Isaiah did in chapter 6 of the Bible book bearing his name - so unworthy, yet so drawn. The experience was similar to a Russian word, umilenie (roughly meaning, an unspeakable feeling of sadness, joy, and awe that moves one to tears). I felt, simply, as if I were in the very throne room of the Almighty Himself. That is why in our study now I am going to be drawing a lot from the liturgical expressions of the Christian East, for although the West also has a rich and beautiful liturgical tradition, there is just something about the reverence, pageantry, and awe of the Eastern Church that makes one truly homesick for the Kingdom. In that regard, the "heaven on earth" aspect of the Liturgy is often more pronounced in the East than it is in the West. Additionally too, I am Eastern-rite myself, and as such the spiritual pilgrimage that has brought me to where I am today identifies more with the East than with the West, albeit I was raised in a traditional Pentecostal tradition and currently attend an traditionalist Anglican parish at this time. The impact that the Christian East and its liturgy and spirituality, as well as the prophetic emphasis of my own Pentecostal roots, have come to be synthesized in a beautiful way in my own personal spiritual life and identity. And, that is why I want to share this with you now.
For many years, I have tried - often with great pain and labor - to fuse the two diverse elements - the prophetic charismatic/Pentecostal influence of my youth and the strong Eucharistic element that pervades much of Eastern Christian spirituality - together. The two seemed hopelessly and diametrically opposed until I attended a conference at a Roman Catholic parish in Tampa where Dr. Scott Hahn was speaking. Dr. Hahn is a former Presbyterian minister who, some 20 years ago, became Catholic, and being a very brilliant man and a Biblical scholar, he spoke at this conference on the subject of how the book of Revelation is a liturgical book as well as a prophetic one. Understand now, that as a kid, I was SCARED TO DEATH of even looking at Revelation, and it wasn't until my early college years until I began studying it myself with more interest. So, this information (Dr. Hahn later published it in book form entitled The Lamb's Supper, if anyone is interested in studying further - it is well worth your read!) rocked my world, and I had one of those "AHA!" moments then. Inspired by this information, the wheels of thought within my head began to turn, and it seemed as if things started to come together like a giant jigsaw puzzle forms a picture. Coupling all of that with my Eastern Christian experience (I am a validly chrismated Maronite-rite Catholic, although independent at present due to some other issues I will elaborate on at another time), it really became obvious to me what was going on - I had discovered that the Divine Liturgy is an icon of the Second Coming of Christ!!! In that regard, we in a sense do participate, as Catholic Christians, in the Second Coming every time we partake of the mystery of the Eucharist. However, the actual Second Coming is not yet, for as the old-time Pentecostal campmeeting hymn "Joy Unspeakable" says in its last stanza,"...and the half has never yet been told!" Thinking back later upon that experience I mentioned earlier at the Serbian Orthodox church, I realized that one day a similar experience of awe will probably come over us as we stand in the awesome presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in His heavenly throne room. This revelation to me was really quite an enlightening experience overall, and it has definitely caused me to approach the Sunday Liturgy in a totally new light than I once did.
Now, in order for us to see how this works, let us get into some teaching. One must examine the Book of Revelation and similar passages such as Isaiah 6, in a radically different way than they may have been taught. What both the Apostle Saint John and the prophet Isaiah saw were one and the same - God does not change, and the visions they had were identical. And, their visions give us a picture of what celebrating the Liturgy is truly all about. To understand the true form of liturgy (from the Greek leitourgica - "work of the people") one needs to understand the role of the individual Christian in the life of the Church as a Body. Eastern Christians, in particular the Syriac-Maronite tradition I have been "grafted into" myself, have always taught the essential truth of the individual believer as a temple of the Holy Spirit. An ancient Syriac document from the late 4th century called The Book of Steps even implies that the Church as a whole only becomes such when we as individuals consecrate our beings as places the Holy Spirit is welcomed in, and thus the heavenly things are revealed to us (Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and Spiritual Life. {Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1987} pp. 46-47). This particular passage goes on to say that "for everything in the church (our bodies) has been established in the likeness of that hidden church (the coming Kingdom?)." (ibid.) Saint Isaac of Nineveh, a 10th-century Syriac-Assyrian writer, is even more direct when he says in his Discourse XXII on Prayer that prayer is a sacrifice we offer on the Lord's altar, which in Syriac Christian terminology is the heart (Brock, 256). This is a theme that permeates the majority of the early Syriac Christian texts (see both Fr. Seely Beggiani's Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality - the Syriac Tradition and all of Dr. Sebastian Brock's writings for more information). Therefore, through all this, worship becomes personal and emphasizes the spiritual aspect of our being. Consecration of our human temples by the Holy Spirit, and especially the heart as the altar, is vital to our growth in the Christian pilgrimage we embarked on when Jesus washed our sins away with His shed blood and we were born again in Him. It is an especially vital component as we travel on the pilgrimage of what Eastern Christian spirituality calls Theosis (or in Syriac traditions, Ihidaya - literally "single-mindedness"). We thus become, in this process of growth, "living icons" of Christ.
However, as we are "living icons" of Christ, we are also called together in corporate fellowship in the life of the Church. This is so that the Kingdom of God might be manifest, as the Lord's Prayer we all know states "on earth as it is in heaven." This is actually the next step beyond our personal consecration, which starts when we are born again, and the mystery of the Divine Liturgy is its ultimate expression. As mentioned earlier, the Divine Liturgy is viewed by Eastern Christians as a microcosm of the coming Kingdom of the Messiah when He returns for His Bride (us). In a sense, I guess it could be said that just as a wedding party has a "dress rehearsal" before the actual ceremony, the Liturgy is our dress rehearsal to meet our Bridegroom!! The icon concept is one that is familiar to the Eastern Christian (although the West also has its own rich tradition of this as well), but for the unfamiliar person who reads this, let me say this: the icon is more than just portraits of dead saints that grace parishes and homes of the faithful. Indeed, some "icons" of our faith are not contained within the boundaries of paint and wood. For instance, the Bible is traditionally viewed by us Catholics and the Orthodox (as well as traditional Anglicans) as an icon of Christ in history and prophecy. The individual Christian is also viewed as a "living icon" of Christ in an evangelistic sense. And, our Liturgy (or Mass in the West) we celebrate every Sunday is an icon of the heavenly Kingdom to come. My mentor, Archimandrite Eusebius Stephanou, who is a Greek Orthodox priest and has been a leading proponent of spiritual renewal in the Eastern Church for over 50 years, says in his book, Renewal Pains in the Orthodox Church (Fort Wayne: Brotherhood of Saint Symeon the Theologian, 1982) that "Solomon's Temple was but a foreshadowing and prefiguring of the real Temple, namely the body of the Christian believer" (p. 119). He notes later that "it is on the inside of the believer himself that God meets man." (ibid.) Saint Paul affirms that in Scripture when we read I Corinthians 3:16, and 6"19, and again this is in accordance with Syriac Christian tradition that sees the "altar of the heart" as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and Christ's throne within our temple. Man is indeed, as Fr. Eusebius aptly points out, the new sanctuary of God and this is due in part to the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The true key to revival in Christendom today - this being said with many voices currently crying out for revival - is the Real Presence. That is something we need to grasp in order for us to move into that dimension Christ has called us into.
Isaiah 6 recalls a vision - the Prophet was transported in a vision to the very throne room of the Most High. Saint John the Apostle had a similar experience while exiled on the isle of Patmos when he received from Jesus Himself the Revelation. Both saw the heavenly kingdom and a world to come, and that the court ceremonies of that heavenly throne room was where the drama of history was being played out. Liturgy is more than, as some skeptics and detractors say, mere "dead works" and "smells and bells" - often, voices of ignorance who wish the Church to be an entertainment venue rather than the sanctuary of the Most High cough and sputter like so many alligators with laryngitis. Liturgy is in reality proper court etiquette for the King of Kings. Being as we Catholic Christians, East and West, believe in the Real Presence, the Divine Liturgy (or Mass in the West) provides both a "dress rehearsal" for the age to come as well as a present visitation with the Lord when we participate. We are ushered into the very presence of the throne room of God by it. Scott Hahn writes of this in his study of John's vision in Revelation:
As I described in Chapter 1, it was only when I began attending Mass that the many parts of this puzzling Book suddenly began to fall into place. Before long I could see the sense in Revelation's altar (8:3), its robed clergy (9:4), candles (1:12), incense (5:8), manna (2:17), chalice (16), Sunday worship (1:10), the prominence it gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary (12:1-6), the "Holy, Holy, Holy" (4:8), the Gloria (15:3-4), the Sign of the Cross (14:1) the Alleluia (19:1,3,6), the readings from Scripture (ch. 2-3), and the Lamb of God (many, many times). These are not interrruptions in the narrative or incidental details; they are the very stuff of the Apocalypse. (Scott Hahn, The Lamb's Supper {New York: Doubleday, 2001} pp. 66-67)
Look at all those liturgical elements a Roman Catholic theologian - and a former Protestant minister at that! - discerned from the text of Revelation - wow!! I have said many times, in my own writings and in correspondence with others, that Scripture and Revelation in particular are not to be read like any old book; no, it is multi-dimensional due to its supernatural character and authorship. It actually should be read more like a Rubik's cube than a regular book, although even that limited understanding fails to fathom the many layers of spiritual richness contained within its words. If more people would open up and see this, I have a feeling that so many of the fights, divisions, and schisms that have occurred over the centuries between Christians could have been avoided. The problem is that people get one dimension of the truth of God's word, and assume they have "gotten it." Although they delude themselves into thinking this somehow gives them an edge over others, they in reality have failed to even scratch the surface. The nugget they have obtained is but a small piece of the bigger picture. The more I grow and mature in my own Christianity, the more I realize how much more I need to learn, as things become more obvious every time I open the Holy Writ. I feel kind of like Isaiah in his vision, in other words. It is much like Fr. Peter Gillquist, an Antiochian Orthodox priest and former Campus Crusade worker, says in his book Becoming Orthodox (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992) on page 80 when referring to Catholic theologian and former Protestant Thomas Howard's description of Liturgy as a multimedia event - it is more though, as we are active participants!! We engage all five senses in worship, if we truly do so in spirit and in truth, which is the point. The "smells and bells" many detractors deride are actually powerful tools of worship - worship that involves the whole being and all senses. "Smells" often refers to incense, which we use as a symbol of prayer and intercession. In the Byzantine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated every week during Lent, a prayer is chanted that sums this idea up well - let my prayers ascend to you as incense, and the lifting of my hands as a living sacrifice. Many Charismatics have the hand-lifting part down to a science; now if they would only get the rest of it! The "bells" likewise are important, as they both symbolize our praises and they also signify a reverence for the Almighty. In the Trisagion Hymn (Holy, Holy, Holy) both incense and bells are used together, as our petitions rise simultaneously with our praises. I want to deal separately later with bells and incense, as there are powerful teachings that need to be shared on them specifically.
There is much more to be discussed with this teaching that unfortunately time does not allow me here, but I hope you see the correlation between the Liturgy and the Second Coming of Christ. The true key to genuine revival is to understand that connection. Whether or not one has specific beliefs regarding the timing of the Rapture - or some who may not even believe in a Rapture at all - is of no consequence here. The point is that Christ is coming again soon and we experience this to a degree when we participate in the celebration of the Liturgy. Are we prepared to meet the Lord today, either in Rapture or repose? If we are not prepared in our hearts for the Eucharistic Feast, how shall then we be ready for the real thing when it happens (and mind you, it will happen!)? As we pray each day and continue upon our own individual Christian pilgrimages, let us always take these matters seriously and to heart. God be with and bless all of you.