Friday, July 29, 2011

We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth...

The oft told story of the emissaries of Prince Vladimir of Kiev searching out the various options for religion is so beautiful it matters not if it were true or not.  In 988, the story goes, his representatives sought out the worship and theological life of the choices of the religious alternatives.  It was said that when they entered the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, they were so caught up in the chant, the incense, the icons, the liturgy, and the sense of the holy presence of God, that they were overcome.  In their report to the Prince they said they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth -- they had never seen such beauty!  They could not describe it except to say, "there God dwells among men..."

As wonderfully quaint as this story is, the sad truth is that those same people would hardly be moved to such a conclusion upon visiting the average Christian Church in America.  Sure, there are those Ralph Adams Cram buildings and some places of extraordinary liturgy and music and some with breathtaking art and some with some puffs of incense where people do not cough away the holy smoke... but... the vast majority of church buildings (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant or Lutheran) are pretty bland and what happens within them fairly pedestrian on Sunday morning.  Whether the lecture hall style that emphasizes the mind or the cushy seated theater setting and lights of the entertainment style, architecture has decided the less is more and more is even less.  Even Roman Catholic buildings (from the LA Cathedral to the suburban religious mall) are not immune from the banal and trite that passes for church architecture.  Protestant buildings are all about size, screens, and seating (from Osteen's converted arena to the strip mall settings with their exposed metal beams and ductwork).  Lutherans tend to follow the same bland setting with some blond, plain chancel furniture thrown into the mix to make it "Lutheran."

What happens in them is also fairly bland.  Few would mistake the average Roman Catholic Mass with its strumming guitars, gauche vestments, lackadaisical singing, and throw away newsprint missalettes as heaven on earth.  Before we get too smug about it, we Lutherans tend to go through the motions without much enthusiasm, singing generic hymns that have little to do with the pericopes, and preach justification in a thousand ways that all sound the same.  That is not even to mention those churches without sacraments, without the liturgy, without any sense that Christ is present except in the feeling of the heart or the thought of the mind.

Scott Hahn wrote convincingly of the Mass as Heaven on Earth and I only wish we thought it were true!  His is hardly a new idea but is as ancient as Christianity but we seem to have done a pretty good job of masking our awareness of this age old thought.  He mentions a host of things that should be routinely identified with what happens in our churches on Sunday morning (I will leave it to you to judge whether or not they happen where you are):

In the Spirit on the Lord's Day... Rev. 1:10;  around the High Priest... 1:13; and the altar...8:3-4, 11:1, 14:18;  surrounded by the priests... 4:4, 11:15, 14:3, 19:4; wearing vestments... 1:13. 4:4, 6:11, 7:9, 15:6, 19:13-14; with candles...1:12, 2:5; and penitent sinners... 2-3; with incense... 5:8, 8:3-5; with the book (of life)...5:1; the Eucharistic meal... 2:17; with chalices... 15:7, 16, 21:9; the sign of the cross (Tau)... 7:3, 14:1, 22:4; the Gloria... 15:3-4; the Alleluia... 19:1, 3, 4, &; 6; calling God's people to lift up their hearts... 11:22; singing Holy, Holy, Holy... 4:8; giving the "Amen" of faith to what God has done... 19:4, 22:21; acknowledging the "Lamb of God"... 5:6 & all over; with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints... 12:6, 13-17, 5:8, 6:9-10, 8:3-4; the chanting of the songs of praise... 4:8-11, 5:9-14, 7:10-12; reading from Scripture... 2-3, 5, 8:2-11; with the faithful fulfilling their baptismal and priestly vocation of worship... 1:6, 20:6; the catholic and universal church... 7:9; silent moments of contemplation... 8:1; with this feast pointing to the everlasting feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb which has no end... 19:9, 17....

Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!  It is not simply a list of details but the various individual things that represent the fullness of the heavenly vision that God has made known to us NOW in Christ, which is coming and not yet fully come, and which we shall know face to face to come...  These are certainly heavenly images but they are seen within the framework of an earthly setting.  Heaven has come to earth!  Time and eternity stand still to pause as God gives Himself to us now in this chronological moment in time as He will finally give us in the everlasting day which is to come.

We have not been to church on Sunday morning... we have been to heaven! Where we get that right, so many other things will be right as well. It is this sense that caused Philip to respond Nathanael as he did:  Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.
Would that we had such as sense of heaven on earth on Sunday morning that we called to the world:  Come and see!!


Anonymous said...

In the spirit of this post, here is a heavenly modern "Sanctus" sung by a chorus of 20,000.

Men, women, grannies and school children singing together.


Anonymous said...

Since Christianity was not a legal
religion in the Roman Empire until
312 AD, we forget the humble places
of worship for the early Christian
church. Caves, Catacombs, and their
homes served as worship centers.
Their order of worship was similar
to the synagogue. The point is that
the early Church grew by the power
of the Holy Spirit through the Word
and Sacraments.

Anonymous said...

It is true that the ultimate truths are revealed to us only by the Holy Spirit, but there are some truths which even the heathen can figure out – which is why Luther loved Aristotle’s logic and hated his metaphysics. This is what Petronius wrote sometime before committing suicide at the time of Nero, “Beauty and wisdom are seldom found together.”

Petronius’ saying is particularly a propos to the message of Vladimir’s emissaries because they described an experience from Hagia Sophia. Two of Vladimir’s sons were the first martyrs of the new church, killed by a third, so that apparently some of the finer points of the new religion had not taken root yet. It is a long and complicated history, but cutting to the quick: I do not know whether the Gospel was brought to Kievan Rus together with the “beauty”, or whether it was lost later. During the next 1000 years it was hard to find it in the Russian Orthodox Church in spite of the fact that the liturgy is filled with it. The problem is that it was never proclaimed or lived by the leaders of the church (with rare exceptions), so the words in the liturgy became an empty ritual.

It has been proposed that the horrors of the Soviet regime were not the result of the sins of the people, as the last few Patriarchs have insisted, but God destroying the church that had become unfaithful. Revelations 13:3 and 4 brought this to my mind, “One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. 4 And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it’?"

My point is that within the Church it’s all about the proclamation of the Gospel. Those whom the Holy Spirit moves to love that Gospel are likely to love the liturgy as well, because it puts them in touch with the saints of all time, the communion of saints, if you will. But it’s a cart and horse thing; putting the wrong one in front results in disaster. The church in Russia is a prime example, although a similar case could be made for Germany in the early twentieth century.

But to show that the Holy Spirit works His will apart from man’s doing, even contrary to the traditions we inherit, the founders of the Orthodox Church in America, Fathers Meyendorff and Schmemann, were deeply devoted to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

I remember the state churches of my native Germany. Magnificently appointed, full of the finest ecclesiastical art human beings have produced.

And for the most part, today silent and empty.

Anonymous makes good points. While Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire the early Christians worshipped with a heart felt fervor in humble circumstances, walking by faith, not by sight, led by the Spirit, not the trappings of the world.

My Catholic husband recalls how some of the most meaningful Masses have been celebrated on the hood of a Jeep during times of war by the local chaplain. It really stripped one's motivations down to the bone, where faith alone was sufficient to carry them through.

No, I have nothing against using the arts in the service of God and to edify the faith of Christians. But I will not measure my standing as a Lutheran Christian by the norms of either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, both of which have forgotten what it means to live a theology of the cross.


Anonymous said...

One more thought I forgot to add - the same sentiments of "otherworldliness" have been expressed by Westerners who have visited Hindu and Buddhist temples with their candles, incense, and gold.


Sage said...

It saddens me to see that so many depend upon the outward trappings to dictate whether or not God is present in an assembly. For those who recognize how God comes to us, He is always there no matter the externals.

Terry Maher said...

Indeed, Sage.

The present Hagia Sophia is the third such. The first was consecrated 15 February 360 by Bishop Eudoxius of Antioch -- an Arian bishop. The second was consecrated by the Emperor Theodosius II on 10 October 415. The present structure was ordered by Justinian I and built from material gathered from throughout the Empire, and consecrated by him and Patriarch Eutychius 27 December 537, and remained the cathdral church of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the site of Imperial coronations and other state functions. Until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed after winning the seige of Constantinople converted it into a mosque, which it remained until 1935 when Ataturk converted it into a museum, which it is to-day.

Prince Vladimir's experience of his emissaries in 987 should be seen in this context.

And also in this: in his religion shopping he rejected Islam, which the emissaries visited among the Volga Bulgarians, on the high theological grounds that the emissaries reported they are sad, they stink, and you can't drink alcohol or eat pork. He rejected Judaism saying the loss of Jerusalem meant God was no longer with them. He rejected Western Christianity because the emissaries said the German churches were not nice enough.

And also in this context: very firmly right here on earth, Vladimir had much to gain from an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II who was facing a full scale revolt, rival emperors and all. So as part of his conversion he proposed marriage to Basil's sister Anna and, whereas previous such offers from barbarians were summarily rejected, this was accepted. He was baptised and married Anna on the same day in 988, went home to Kiev an international power broker, destroyed the native religion and built Orthodox churches and monasteries and sent 5,000 troops to put down the rebellion against Basil.

Who damn well knew whether they were in heaven or on earth.

And indeed, Second Anonymous. Word and Sacrament, not the degree of elaborations. How wonderful the words of the General Rubrics in The Lutheran Hymnal:

Congregations are urged to let the basic structure of the Service (that's singular!) remain intact. The wide choice permitted in the Rubrics makes it possible to have the Service as simple or as elaborate as the circumstances of each congregation may indicate.

Word and Sacrament. Not a modern version of the criteria of Vlad's emissaries by those acting as emissaries on the own behalf.

Anonymous said...

I need to add a few words to my previous diatribe: first, from what is known of the history of the time, there is every reason to believe that Grand Duke Vladimir underwent a true conversion, together with his wife and mother. From the time of their Baptism they devoted themselves to helping the poor and needy, an activity unheard of at the time.

Secondly, during the years following Vladimir, before the establishment of a single ruler in Moscow, most of what is today European Russia was split up into a number of territories ruled by Grand Dukes. These often fought one another for any number of reasons. When they finally made peace with a former enemy, it was the custom to “kiss the cross” to seal the agreement. The historian Karamzin tells of two such Grand Dukes who “kissed the cross” and afterwards one of them attacked the other and killed him. Karamzin writes, “This was the first time a Grand Duke killed his opponent after kissing the cross.” No doubt a sad event, but a significant one in the history of Christianity in Russia, but not out of character with subsequent events.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

And here we have some interesting perspectives from an Orthodox theologian about the need for the Gospel to inform Orthodox liturgy, "beauty" notwitstanding:


Anonymous said...

Christine: thank you. That is a great article, but the link got distorted somehow. I hope this one copies correctly:

It is heartwarming to read such an article from a member of the Orthodox faith. I realize it is not possible to write everything there is to say on the subject in an article of limited length, but I would love to hear from Fr. Nassif just what the Gospel is, and how the Holy Spirit is involved in our understanding of the Gospel.

Surfing through the website, I found the following by Dr. Bradley Nassif: “The Bishop’s Apostolic Mission.”
“The apostolic mission of a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church can be summarized in five points.
1. Preach the Gospel.
….What is the gospel? The gospel is the “good news” that God became human in Jesus Christ, took upon himself our fallen humanity in order to restore it into communion with God, conquer sin and vanquish death. This he did pre-eminently through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.”

What I find missing here is the “Gospel of the Kingdom” which our Lord preached, and any mention of the “rebirth by water and the Spirit” which He also proclaimed. Chrysostom himself mentioned somewhere that it is not his eloquence that made people believe the Gospel, but the working of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks again.
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

the link needs to have php after the final period. For some reason it fails to copy.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that the article is of some value. Nor do I agree with everything stated therein. As imperfect as our denominational system is I believe it is still needed. Yes, the Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. show a great zeal for Jesus Christ and that cannot be faulted, but without the proper understanding of the means of grace, i.e., Word and Sacrament the danger of enthusiasm always lurks in the background.

I think the article clearly shows, at least from the viewpoint of the author, that ritual, beauty, etc. can be quite empty because of his very important question:

“Are our people really evangelized, or are they simply sacramentalized?”

I might add that the same question was posed in the Roman Catholic communion while I was there.

I developed a new appreciation for the Word of God and its place in the life of the Christian.


Terry Maher said...

It's so nice when true conversions work out well politically and militarily too and you get to decide everybody else's religion for them on top of it.

Saves them the trouble of truly converting I guess.

Anonymous said...

Liturgical arts and man's cure

Yet, in what way are the therapeutic method and the stages of perfection the background of liturgical arts?

This is a right question, because there is a trend nowadays to chant in a Byzantine way, to make icons in a Byzantine manner, to build churches according to Byzantine architecture, etc. This is good. Yet, it must be done in parallel with the effort to find and use the therapeutic treatment of the Church. For, liturgical arts as well as the entire teaching of the Church are the expression of this inner life. In other words, liturgical art was developed by sanctified people who had personal experience of the stages of spiritual perfection. In their attempt to create art they infused into their art all the experiences they had. The iconographer passed down in the Byzantine icon the therapeutic method and the way in which man reaches to theosis; he even imparted the state of theosis itself. When he paints the Saint in glory, he also renders the transfiguration of the human body. The same thing applies to the sacred hymns, the church building, the chanting. The healed person, he who has acquired the experience of noetic worship, knows how the intellectual worship must be expressed, so that it is attuned, as much as possible, with the inner state of the soul. I think that the revival of the liturgical arts which do not express and do not lead to purification, illumination and theosis is not Orthodox despite its external conformity. It is just a culture of the tradition and of art. The Apostle Paul, for example, lived the whole rabbinical tradition of his age, however he fought Christ. He had zeal for God but his zeal was not according to knowledge. The same thing may happen with us. Also, it is possible that a contemporary deified person may express tradition differently, concerning the liturgical arts, without naturally being estranged from the basic structure of the Byzantine tradition. This occurs because the Saint obtains the tradition, he is a bearer of tradition and, therefore, he creates tradition.

"Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos"

Pastor Peters said...

Apparently I do not communicate well... those who felt it was undo attention given to beauty and majesty. I merely ask if beauty is fitting and given to other circumstance or situation, why would give God any less? Is that such a terrible thing to ask? Come on. I never said the grace of God depended on such things but why would God be worthy of less than we do in the public sphere or we do for ourselves. Please, people, read and listen. I know I am not a great communicator but this is so often the case that people run from comments such as this claiming that the simple things are best -- but best for whom? Our utmost for His highest, someone said. Cannot we agree???

Anonymous said...

A timely post: On July 28, the commemoration day of St. Vladimir Equal-to-the-Apostles, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, His Holiness and Beatitude Catholicos-Patriarch Iliya II of All Georgia and His Beatitude Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev and All Ukraine celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Kiev Laura of the Caves.

Patriarch's sermon in Russian:

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters, we are reading your comments.

If beauty were the be-all that it is presumed to be, there wouldn't have been such a mass exodus of both clergy and laity from the preconciliar Catholic church in which ecclesiastical art was richly appointed in the churches and the bulletin at the Russian Orthodox Church in my neighborhood wouldn't contain the lament that more people aren't showing up for the liturgy, and this in a church that is darn near as richly decorated as the Hagia Sophia.

No one is saying our churches should look like Puritan meeting houses, but I, too, am tired of Lutherans who look back at Rome and Constantinople like Lot at the pillar of salt.


Pastor Peters said...

Beauty is no substitute for faithful preaching and the Sacrament. Beauty is not in competition with faithful preaching and the Sacrament. Beauty is no guarantee of orthodoxy. Beauty is a friend of faithful preaching and the Sacrament.

Heaven on earth is not in the beauty but in the Word and Sacrament, from which the beauty of the surrounding proceeds. But the point remains, do we realize what God is doing in the Divine Service? Do we give that its due in providing a setting which complements and does not compete or conflict with that Divine Service reality of heaven on earth?

Anonymous said...

Do we give that its due in providing a setting which complements and does not compete or conflict with that Divine Service reality of heaven on earth?

Not my point, Pastor Peters. I have no objection to aesthetics in worship. But we have authentically Lutherans forms for models.

It is also interesting that Orthodoxy and Roman traditionalism still find the paradigms of the old testament temple operative in their own communions and how that led to the eventual reshaping of the Sacrament of the Altar into an "true, propitiary and efficacious" sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead.

But I imagine Scott Hahn doesn't much go into that when he's speaking at a Lutheran gathering.

Word and Sacrament. Not Word without Sacrament nor Sacrament without Word.

That's our treasure as Lutherans.