Angels trapped in stinkin’ fleshMay 20th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
A recent post titled “Off-Duty Megachurches” on Christianity Today’s blog, led me to Joe Johnson’s Mega Churches gallery (at the gallery, click on “projects”, and then click on “Mega Churches”). The photos almost made me feel sick. (What I say below assumes that the reader has looked at the photos.)
Martini Simone (1312 – 1317)
Cappella di San Martino, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi
Yes, I’m privileged to worship regularly in one of the most beautiful buildings in North America. But, architectural beauty is not limited to cathedrals. Local St. Louis photographer Mark Abeln has given hundreds of hours over the last few years to capture the simple but stunning beauty of scores of Catholic churches in the Saint Louis area. Many of these photographs can be found on his blog, and in the recent book Catholic St. Louis: A Pictorial History. Some of his photos can be seen in the following video:
But St. Louis is not entirely exceptional in this regard. These beautiful churches exist all over the country, and many are now being shuttered, while American Christians choose to ‘worship’ in the architectural equivalent of a cross between a hockey arena, a Home Depot, and a movie theater.
Why? Why have we [American Christians] traded the beauty of these older churches for the hollow, plastic, artificial emptiness of a more technologically sophisticated form of Vaudeville meets the Truman Show? Why has what was called the sanctuary, and in which the central item was the altar, been replaced by a stage? Why does this eight-thousand member megachurch in South Carolina play Highway to Hell on Easter Sunday?
The answer to these questions is painful to hear, and I’m not speaking as someone entirely unfamiliar with this phenomenon. The “megachurch / emerging church” phenomenon is the natural outworking of a gnostic philosophy that is intrinsically dualistic. The sacred is reduced to the profane because in gnostic philosophy the spirit (heart, internal) is what is important, not the body, the physical or the outward. In gnostic philosophy God looks at the heart, and only at the heart. That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you meet in a warehouse, an arena or a polebarn. What drives ‘megachurch’ architecture is the same gnostic philosophy that justifies the pastor preaching ‘on stage’ in ripped jeans with his shirt hanging out, apparently without having recently bathed or groomed, and often using crude or profane language. We’re angels trapped in stinkin’ flesh.
That’s why reverence is irrelevant, not only because there is no such thing as sacred place or sacred space, but because there is no sacred posture, no sacred time, no sacred behavior, no sacred tradition. Those are all external. Nor is there any sacred sound or sacred sight. And if it need be said, gnosticism abhors the sacraments; gnostic Christianity doesn’t know what to do with sacraments. The sacraments do not fit into gnostic philosophy, so they are reduced to stipulated commands or ordinances. “We do this because Jesus commanded us to do it.”
If God looks only at the heart, and the external doesn’t matter, two factors take over by default: functionality and consumer appeal. And those two factors quite sufficiently explain megachurch architecture, and what goes on within those structures.
In addition to a recognition that humans are body-soul composites, another key principle that needs to be recovered is this: grace perfects nature. For that reason, in order to understand what Christian worship is, we have to understand not only Old Testament worship, but even pagan worship. So let’s step back and consider the fundamental basis for worship of God.
Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues; it is the virtue by which we give to each his due.1 We know justice by our natural power of reason. This is why children so easily recognize injustice: “Mom, he isn’t sharing.” Or, “He took my toy.” By the natural power of reason (i.e. in the form of the natural law), we recognize also that something is due to God. What is due to God? It is contained in the term ‘religion’. Religion is a species of justice, because religion is giving to God what is His due.2 Cicero explains this in his De Inventione, written almost a hundred years before Christ. And Aquinas affirms it again in Summa Theologica II-II Q.80 a.1.
Aquinas points out that religion has two sub-categories, one being internal, and the other external. The two internal acts of religion are devotion and prayer. Aquinas defines devotion as “the will to give oneself readily to things concerning the service of God.”3 Gnostic Christianity stops right there. If we were merely angels trapped in bodies, our acts of religion would be internal. But because we are by our very nature embodied beings, specifically rational animals, therefore our acts of religion are not merely internal, but are also, necessarily, external. And the first of these external acts of religion, according to Aquinas, is bodily reverence.4 Aquinas, quoting Damascene, writes:
As Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iv, 12), since we are composed of a twofold nature, intellectual and sensible, we offer God a twofold adoration; namely, a spiritual adoration, consisting in the internal devotion of the mind; and a bodily adoration, which consists in an exterior humbling of the body. And since in all acts of latria that which is without is referred to that which is within as being of greater import, it follows that exterior adoration is offered on account of interior adoration, in other words we exhibit signs of humility in our bodies in order to incite our affections to submit to God, since it is connatural to us to proceed from the sensible to the intelligible.5
The interior is more important than the exterior. But, (and here is what so many people miss, and what gnostic Christianity misses entirely) the bodily and the external is what incites our affections to submit to God. The exterior moves the interior. Why? Precisely because we are humans, and not angels trapped in bodies. This is why it is connatural to us, says Aquinas, to proceed from the sensible (i.e. the physical, external, material) to the intelligible (i.e. the internal, the spiritual). By kneeling in prayer we move our will to humility before God. By standing for the reading of the Gospel, we instill reverence for the Word of God internally, in our heart. By seeing and hearing the priest say “The Body of Christ” as he in persona Christi places the Host on our tongue, we are moved to joy and gratitude internally for what Christ is giving to us. Because we are animals, and not angels, not only does our heart influence our behavior, our behavior influences our heart.6
But bodily reverence is not the only external species of the virtue of religion. Just as religion is a species of justice, so sacrifice is another external species of religion.7 Sacrifice, like bodily reverence, is a natural virtue prescribed by the natural law. Aquinas writes:
Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him: and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God. Now just as in natural things the lower are naturally subject to the higher, so too it is a dictate of natural reason in accordance with man’s natural inclination that he should tender submission and honor, according to his mode, to that which is above man. Now the mode befitting to man is that he should employ sensible signs in order to signify anything, because he derives his knowledge from sensibles. Hence it is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain sensibles, by offering them to God in sign of the subjection and honor due to Him, like those who make certain offerings to their lord in recognition of his authority. Now this is what we mean by a sacrifice, and consequently the offering of sacrifice is of the natural law.8
Because grace perfects nature, therefore Christianity does not destroy or remove or abrogate sacrifice as a necessary component of the natural virtue of religion, due to God from man, on account of justice. We come together on the first day of the week to participate in a sacrifice. That’s why we need an altar. If in our “church” building there is a theater stage, and no altar, then there’s no sacrifice; grace has destroyed nature. Does that mean that we re-sacrifice Christ at every Mass? No. The Church teaches that “the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross”.9 “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.”10 In the Mass, the priest offers to the Father on our behalf one and the same sacrifice that was offered on Calvary. That has been the Church’s belief from the first century. The Didache (90 AD) reads:
On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks. But first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled.”11
And that is why the Council of Trent taught:
[The Mass] is, finally, that [sacrifice] which was prefigured by various types of sacrifices during the period of nature and of the law, which, namely, comprises all the good things signified by them, as being the consummation and perfection of them all.12
Frequently I hear people talk about finding a place of worship that meets their needs, a place where they are getting fed spiritually. That ecclesial consumerism [updated link] dominates the Evangelical mind. It derives from a failure to understand that Sunday worship is fundamentally about giving to God His due; we come to give something to God. That’s the nature upon which grace builds, the natural law that Christianity perfects. Our love for God does not destroy our natural obligation according to justice to give to God His due; rather, it perfects it. Love does not fall short of giving what is due by justice; love fulfills justice, and then gives even more.
Fundamentally, Sunday worship is not about meeting our needs, even though the Eucharist is a greater gift to us than any other gift, because it is Christ giving to us Himself, His very Body and Blood. Fundamentally, Sunday morning is not about getting to know each other, even though by sharing together in the Eucharist we are knit into a greater unity even than that between a husband and wife. Fundamentally, Sunday morning worship is about giving to God the sacrifice due to Him according to the natural law, as now specified and perfected by grace, through Christ, under the New Covenant. If there is no sacrifice, then there is no reason for us to come together Sunday morning; we can listen to preaching over the radio, TV, or internet. What Flannery O’Connor wrote about the Eucharist, applies equally to the whole Sunday morning event.13
Understanding that grace perfects nature does us no good if we do not understand nature, that is, if we do not understand the natural requirement of sacrifice due to God by natural law, and the fundamental nature of the human being as rational animal. That’s what the megachurch / emerging church communities need to recover, because fundamentally that is what explains the night and day difference between the ‘worship service’ of the South Carolina megachurch linked above, and the Mass, such as the one shown below at the Parish of St. Nicholas of Chardonnet in Paris, France.
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.58 [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.81 [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.82 a.1 co. [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.84 [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.84 a.2 co. [↩]
- See Fr. Riccardo being interviewed by a Protestant pastor in this four-minute interview, concerning how the fact of our embodiedness entails the need for the sacraments, and particularly the need for the Eucharist. [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.85 [↩]
- Summa Theologica II-II Q.85 a.1 co. [↩]
- CCC 1366 [↩]
- CCC 1367 [↩]
- Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, 14 [↩]
- Council of Trent, Session 22 [↩]
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, “A Charmed Life.”) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.
From a 1955 Letter to “A”. [↩]