Friday, October 13, 2017

Liturgical Splendor and the Image of God (Part 1): Guest Article by Zachary Thomas

Once again, we are very grateful to Mr Zachary Thomas for another fine essay on liturgical theology.

Christians believe that God created man and woman in his image, capable of knowing Him and living a transfiguring friendship with Him, and called to his likeness by being incorporated into the Body of Jesus Christ.

God’s image in man is not, however, something immediately apparent, nor, when he finds it, is it always clean. St Athanasius compares human nature before Christ to an icon disfigured and covered in dirt, which needs to be wiped off and restored before it can be read. What’s more, the vast arc of history, in which man fits, looms obscure and threatening until Christ the cornerstone is revealed. As David Fagerberg wrote:

“We cannot understand history’s plot because its end and its beginning are beyond the range of our natural eye, which has put some people in a quandary. They do not know if existence is beautiful or not, or if it is true or not, and, sadly, some even wonder whether life is good or not, because they are only seeing a piece of it—their piece, this particular moment. But there is a height from which to see the whole, the plot line of history from start to finish.” (“Doing the World Liturgically: Stewardship of Creation and Care for the Poor,” in Authentic Liturgical Renewal in Contemporary Perspective, Bloomsbury 2017, p. 73)
Indeed, the precise contours of the imago Dei in man and history are only revealed in the loveable face of Christ, perfectly man and perfectly God, wedded to his Saints in the Church perfectly conformed to him. The perfect form of Christ’s life reveals what man was always meant for: what it looks like to live a participation in the supernatural life of the Trinity through Eucharistic love. In Christ, the imago Dei, so long eclipsed by the darkness of sin, is raised and stands refulgent, so bright and terrible that the Apostles on Mt Tabor could not behold him.

But since Christ’s bodily presence has left us, where is this image? In this life, Christ’s glory, and the glory of his adopted sons, lies hidden under the veil of suffering, “subject to futility” as St Paul says. Too often we live not Tabor but Golgotha, under the brooding silence of God. Where, then, do we find the substance of things hoped for? How can we live without this image before our eyes, or arrive at our destination without a clear vision? The answer par excellence is in the holy liturgy.

Christ is on High, in the Holy of Holies, and as travelers we must follow him. We must be drawn out after Him, reformed, given the form of charity in Christ. What we are to look like, the aspect, shape, smell, taste of that land we are going to, is what the liturgy has always made it its business to show us.

In our in-between state, the image of God is not a possession, it is a projection. It is the ideal form of Christ toward which we progress in grace, into whose body we are daily insensibly knitted. Heaven is there and we are here, covered in our sins and weighed down in our condition as creatures. We suffer as beasts, but are meant to be above the angels. This beings an inherent tension, almost a contradiction in the Christian life, which must be spanned and consistently renewed in the liturgy. As Fr. Pavel Florensky put it:

“Man is the living unity of the infinite and the finite, of the eternal and the transient, of the perishing and the imperishable, the ineluctable and the casual, the fulcrum of the ideal world and the real world [....] And he can only create what is similar to himself, which is to say precisely these contradictions of earthly and heavenly of which he is composed.” (My translation from the Italian edition, La Filosofia del Culto, Edizioni San Paolo 2016, pp. 129–130.)

Sacred worship recapitulates this fundamental tension of man’s journey in dramatic fashion, enacting this metaphysical truth in signs and symbols. Liturgy is the ideal image of our journey. Indeed, what we see on the altar is not human nature nor this cosmos as we know them, but rather these unveiled, as in the apocalypse (unveiling) of what we are to be. Even for the redeemed, we know not what we will be like, “for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Liturgy is precisely the “glory about to be revealed to us.”

Our forefathers saw liturgy this way. The ancient apse mosaics of the Christian basilicas quite forcibly confront the worshipper with a glorified environment. They usually show images of paradise. The bishop and the priests ring around him in the apse are reconfigured by the sacred space to be identified with Christ and his saints in heaven. The altar was the tree of paradise from which we eat and live forever, the fount of living water.
The apsidal mosaic of Sant’Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna
Consider Charlemagne’s palatine chapel at Aix: the decoration is a programmatic image of the Apocalypse. The angels and saints look down, and the central lamp inscribed with a poem describing the apocalypse, represents the City of God descending even now nearly upon the heads of the worshippers. The Gothic and Baroque, each in their own way, also strive to embody the ideal city of God descending around the altar.
The Palatine Chapel at Aachen (image from Wikimedia Commons by Velvet)
Christian architecture throughout the ages has always brilliantly shone forth the imago Dei and imago hominis, an imago Dei homo facti et hominis Deus facti. Our forefathers grasped better than we do the nature of the action that takes place in churches, whose splendor is only a shadowy reflection of the splendor of the imago.

We often say liturgy is man worshipping God—and for one separated from a cultic worldview, unable to conceive of human participation in divine action, it is all he can say. But nothing could be further from the truth. Liturgy is when what is divine in us (Christ—the priest acting in persona Christi, in persona ecclesiae) communicates with the Divine Persons, and repeats the whole swirling cosmic drama of exitus-reditus before our eyes. It is an awesome, divine, life-giving spectacle that lifts us out of this earth to contemplate the entire universe sub specie aeternitatis, sub specie Christi, with the obscuring veils of this age lifted to reveal the true nature of the sons of God: a true revelation.

In liturgy we see ourselves acting as cosmic priests, the hands of the priest do truly divine acts, we are fed celestial food so that this power of doing divine acts extends to our whole body and our whole lives. But such an extension is impossible to conceive without the prior experience of liturgy! And because this role is so far beyond anything we were born for, so far beyond what we could ever dream of, it is super-eminently beautiful. Liturgy is like a refracting prism for human nature. As when white light enters a prism and breaks it into the full visible spectrum, a person entering the liturgy is astounded to encounter the depths of his soul displayed in the sacred actions—all his dearest wishes, sorrows, tears, guilt, joy, hopes, dreams, are realized here. The person blinks to discover concretely realized in the sacred actors and actions, the spiritual power and radiance of transfigured, spiritualized human nature. All his subjective straining toward his divine selfhood is raised up and established in the concrete ideal by the action of the Church, who is Absolute Humanity. “The liturgy is the activity that expresses the deepest essence of man, man in the depths of his being. It is the activity supremely proper to man, who is a homo liturgicus.” (130)

Liturgy is therefore the only place where man can come to full consciousness of himself, where all his scattered thoughts and emotions find their deepest unitary source, a concrete manifestation of his “I.” He can point to the liturgical year—or rather, his lived experience of the liturgical year—and say “this is my nature, to the depths. That is where I am going. That Thing is what I am meant to do forever and ever.” Nowhere else is this possible.

Liturgical action is a fully theandric act where the human and divine natures are mixed wondrously, like the water and the wine at the Offertory: “God, who did wondrous establish the dignity of man’s substance, and more wonderfully reform it, grant us through the mystery of this water and wine to become sharers in His, who deign to take part in our humanity, Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord...”

This wonderful joint action of God and man that writes large the countenance of Christ upon the sacred stage, requires the burning away of all impurities. Here every word is eminently pure and spoken only in loving song: “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire, purged from the earth refined seven times.” (Ps. 11) Every action is perfectly proportioned and circumspect, every syllable is a pure distilled ideal emotion from the beloved heart of Christ, speaking through the mouth of his Church. In the divine liturgy, man sheds his worm-like mortal coil for a few moments to fly with the angels.

Man brings here the choicest materials, whole mines of gold and silver, the collected creativity of whole generations of artists. This overwhelming weight of glory lavished upon the rituals and ritual buildings of the Church is an argument in its own right, apart from any theological considerations, that Christians have always viewed the liturgy as the doorway to heaven, a privileged place of encounter, a small garden of Earthly Paradise on the cusp of heaven.
The Eucharistic action is God made man, but also man made God; not just Christ’s death on Calvary, but also the application of his divinizing merits upon his Church, for the liturgy acts out the whole Paschal Mystery. And so the human element of the liturgy, if it is to accomplish its side of the deal, has to appear deified, has to “give everything it’s got.” The tabernacle we prepare must be fitting, or the Eucharistic action, even if valid, is incomplete, the incarnation is only partial. If the tabernacle we make for God’s presence is a golden ox, made in our own image, God will refuse his grace to this idolatry. The most perfect tabernacle of all, Mary Most Holy, who has become the type of all tabernacles, was creation’s most beautiful and perfect offering to the Father, when she spoke her “fiat.”

It can be no other way, if we really know what we are doing. Brought into contact with Christ’s self-immolation in the liturgy, the imago Dei in us glows like heated iron and its divine-human light illuminates the sacred stage upon which the Church enacts the divine sacrifice. That is why the greatest art works the world has ever seen have been the sacred arts of the liturgy.

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