Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Priestly Character of Ad Orientem Worship: Guest Article by Zachary Thomas (Part 3)

Click to read the earlier parts of this article: part 1, part 2.

At the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, at the heart of Christ’s preaching, where he appears most merciful and gentle, where he is most incorrectly caricatured as a “nice guy” or modern peace activist, precisely here the Sinai prophecy is fulfilled, that when God comes among us we must die. How is this so? Because the Beatitudes lived so perfectly by Christ lead inexorably to the Cross, a reality foreshadowed in the last and longest part of that holy list: “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.”

Christ’s startling new revelation requires that every disciple take up his cross and die with him. Monastic asceticism just takes seriously the work of killing the old man. In other words, communion with Christ is essentially found on the cross, and there is nothing more terrifying to sinful flesh than that idea. In the old system, God’s mercy spared us and only the animal had to die, while we were left whole. Now, if we would truly follow Christ, we must follow all take up Isaac’s cross and follow a new Abraham to a new martyrdom on Calvary. A palpable fear on Sinai is now made a positive command: we must all be willing to die in Christ. It is literally required of some of us, more today than ever. Therefore, in the Beatitudes and the martyrdom that is signified by our Baptism, the sacrificial system is not actually abolished, but shown for what it always was: a proleptic participation in the sacrificial rites of Christ’s priesthood in the Church.

The Sacrifice of Abraham, depicted in fresco in a church in Raduil, Bulgaria. (Image from Wikimedia Common by Edal Anton Lefterov)
The great sacrifice of martyrdom—red or white—is something we are all called to accomplish, at least mystically, by putting on Christ; truly, it is the heart of the Christian mystery. Nothing has changed metaphysically since the Old Testament: we owe our very being to God, and so cannot dare to approach him without our whole being in our hands, without acceptance of our condition as creatures, which is our death. Therefore, what is enacted on the altar is precisely our own martyrdom, in the person of the priest, who stands in the person of Christ. All the gory reality of martyrdom is entailed in each and every “unbloody” renewal of Christ’s sacrifice, as much as we affluent Westerners must struggle to see it. The Copts surely see it. (see note below) We must see that when the priest stands up there on the altar, he is re-enacting a martyrdom, a terrible ritual murder that in a mysterious way is the source of our salvation. If contemplation of that reality doesn’t call for a terrible reverence, and a profound gratitude for the role of the priest who represents Christ dying for us, I’m not sure what does. It is this spirit of the fear of God, born of the clairvoyant creaturely feeling of absolute dependence upon our Lord, that fashioned the forms of the old rites, with all of their mysterious ritual elements.

In complete opposition to our fears about “clericalism,” and some peoples’ demands for more “lay participation” in clerical roles, the ancient Hebrew saw nothing attractive about the role of the priest. The job was terrifying. The priest-prophet had to stand in the breach and bear in full the anger of God directed against his sinful people. Because he was closer to God, the priest was constantly in mortal danger, and the Old Testament has more than one story of the destruction of attendant offending God’s presence in the tabernacle. Any Israelite was perfectly glad that someone else had that role, and wanted to stay as far away as possible!

“But that is the Old Dispensation – Christ’s followers need not fear, for they have a loving Father in heaven!” St. John Chrysostom sees it otherwise:

“For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within.
very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.

But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels (2 Cor. 3:10). For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?” (On the Priesthood, III.4)

This “casting off of every carnal thought” is the martyrdom of the flesh we are all called to. And we ought to be glad that we are not held to account as a priest standing in persona Christi, for we are not worthy, our faith is too little, our devotion too tepid. If his martyrdom were asked of us, could we take it up? Against whom will God’s judgment burn more intensely at the Judgment? Each time we allow the priest to go up to the altar of God, we confess again our unworthiness, our unreadiness and failure to enact our daily martyrdom. Each time the priest goes up to the altar to face God, confessing his unworthiness, it is a reminder of the great Substitution Christ made for our own sins, of his entry into the Holy of Holies to intercede on our behalf, and so an incitement to make the same total sacrifice, in imitation of him. Traditional liturgies forcibly present this drama of sacrifice to us in their ceremony, and thus allow us better to enter into the mysteries of our redemption.

In the modern ritual, we are scarcely permitted to think that the priest, and therefore the Christ that he represents, is doing any great work. He seems to be there, watching, approving; he has something to say to us in the homily. But there seems nothing of majestic instance, nothing awesome or indispensable about his presence. This insignificance of the priestly role reflects, of course, directly on our reverence for Christ and our perception of his work for us. If Father does not have a manly priestly role, I suppose Christ didn’t do much either! Why should he have to die anyway? All these doubts can fill the vacuum left by a ritual that no longer focuses on priestly mediation but on vague “participation” and “inclusion.” This ritual also removes all the expressions of unworthiness, fear, and reverence with which all traditional liturgies are replete—Confiteor, Domine non sum dignus, bows and genuflections and signs of the cross—in favor of a cool and casual confidence in the sanctuary.

The force of ritual symbolism ought to be mostly independent from the sanctity of the priest himself, which again leaves the priest free to be a sacramental channel instead of an imposer of liturgy. This is the genius of truly sacramental ritual, that by yielding to it we become effective sacramentals for one another, even if our own lives leave something to be desired. Many priests say the new Mass with presence of mind and true holiness. But before the denuded symbolic language of the modern rite, the people are entirely at the mercy of the celebrating priest, his personal holiness and charisma. That means many such masses are reverent and effective instruments of grace. But since this an accident of the celebrant’s charisma, not the internal logic of the forms themselves, we are still left with a dangerous clericalism that puts liturgical efficacy in the hands of an individual celebrant.

Courtesy of the Fraternity of St Peter (from this post back in January.)
Therefore, the “priestly posture,” as we ought to call it, in opposition to the protestant “presider” posture, preserves the possibility of true fear of God, of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit perhaps the most under-valued in our day. It teaches us that God is not one to be treated lightly, by just anyone, in just any manner. Of course, he extends the offer of adoption to each and every person, his mercy endures forever, and he always knocking sweetly at the doors of our hearts. But this is not the whole picture; the God of mercies is also the God of judgments. The two truths must be held in tension.

So, let our priests turn East to face the Risen Lord. Let them turn to denounce theologies of merely political liberation and the sociological assembly that would reduce the Church to a social service organization at best, to political revolution at worst. But let them also face East to show that there is only One who dispenses the food that alone can satisfy all human thirst, only one Savior who brings us, all unworthy, the blessings of that divine life which is the only acceptable material for constructing God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Note: Fr. Roberto Spataro meditates on this connection between sacrifice and the widespread martyrdom of Christians today: “On the peripheries, or the eastern part of the world, especially where the majority, radical form of Islam holds sway, the believers ‘going forth’ and even those who prudently remain at home undergo a bloody or semi-bloody martyrdom caused by vexations of various kinds. According to trustworthy statistics, the numbers are horrifying: every five minutes a Christian is killed. As of this year, the word has acquired a new entry, with a sinister sense: Christianophobia. The Church ‘going forth’ of the twenty-first century is a Church of martyrdom.

It is unfortunate that even shepherds with grave responsibilities and Catholic intellectuals who have wide platforms—when according to their own tastes they design the profile of what they call, in a rather debatable expression, the ‘Church of Francis’—forget this drama that ought to have an absolute priority in the teaching and action of the Church ‘going forth’. True, the VO Missae—as we know well—is not that ‘happening’ party to which the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar is sometimes painfully reduced. It is the Mass in which we all rise mystically to Calvary and not just for a pleasant stroll. We are immersed in a story of persecution, that of the Holy Innocent par excellence, His blood is poured out, His Passion is renewed, the Martyr at the head of all the martyrs is immolated on the Altar. The believer is so escorted, admonished, prepared to confront his martyrdom, whether white or bloody. (From a lecture given at the conference ‘The Latin Mass for a Church Going Forth?’, held last 20th March in Lecce. Forthcoming in the May edition of Altare Dei magazine)

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