The Depth of the Splendor – St. John Chrysostom’s View of Liturgy

Nov 13th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

On a recent feast in honor of the Mother of God, (I think it was the commemoration of her Dormition), my priest made a great point about Tradition as it is compared to Protestantism. Many times we as Catholics and Orthodox try to explain how it is that our honor which is given to the angels and saints, especially that offered to the Mother of God, does not lead to idolatry. Some distinguish phrases like doulia and latria, to qualify the nature of worship that is offered to God, and the magnification of the holy ones united to God, such as the Virgin Mary. Others point to the connection of the splendor of the saints to their union with Christ. I’m not saying that that kind of qualification and context is a bad thing, but it is not the whole picture. On this recent feast, my spiritual father made a point that raised my eyebrows. In essence, he made the following reflection.

It’s true that what we offer to the saints and the Mother of God sounds like worship to the ears of a Protestants, and it may be good for us to just admit that that is exactly how our prayers and songs sound. What we say in these prayers sounds more flowery than what many Protestants ever say about God Himself. In that sense, we should admit that what we pray to the Mother of God is “worship”, from the Protestant perspective of the depth of praise that can be offered to anyone, God included. But in isolating our prayers to angels and saints, they have not considered what we think about actual our worship of God Himself. If they realized the depth of the splendor that we pour forth in our worship to God, they would not think that our prayers to the Mother of God were idolatrous.

It’s an interesting perspective-to say that our prayers and worship to God are so much more self-emptying that when you consider our prayers to saints, you will never consider those prayers to be idolatrous. It’s a completely different view of praise and worship.

And I think that a clear distinction between this view of our life of worship comes from the saint whose memory we commemorate today on the Byzantine Calendar. St. John Chrysostom, that great bishop who composed our chief liturgy as Byzantine Christians by modifying the other chief Byzantine liturgy of St. Basil, wrote about the priesthood. In fact, when his commemoration was celebrated on the Latin calendar Bryan Cross posted here on this same holy man, with reflections coming from his own perspective. I commend it to you as well, and you can read it here.

What I’d like to bring to your attention in this current reflection is the following: his description of the priesthood describes our praise of God in a manner that takes the typical Protestant view of the priesthood and Hebrews, making it seem as though it were turned upside down. Many Protestants read this epistle as a rebuke to converts from Judaism who long for the beauty of the Jewish temple, as though that were a proof that Christian worship should be lacking such beauty. The regulative principle of worship which is advocated in most Presbyterian circles is a key example of taking this principle to extremes, but I think it can be found everywhere (and for what it’s worth, I’d call the “RPW” a very consistent exercise of Presbyterian principles, but I digress) in Protestantism. Instead of thinking that the pomp and glory of the Jewish liturgy fades on earth to usher in the Christian life of prayer in a world of no art or majesty, St. John Chrysostom sees the Old Testament temple prayer life as a shadow of the glory and splendor awaiting the earthly prayer life of the Church. He writes:

4. For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and 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. 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. 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 Corinthians 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?

Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvellous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvellous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? Or do you not know that no human soul could have endured that fire in the sacrifice, but all would have been utterly consumed, had not the assistance of God’s grace been great.

Our golden-mouthed saint views the offerings of prayers to God at a Church service as something so cosmically different from my Reformed and Evangelical past, that I am reminded of the emissaries of the great Prince Vladimir of Kiev. The ones who visited the Christians worshipping at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople said:

‘We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.’

Instead of making the worship of God more “heavenly” in the sense that it is disconnected from earth by “earthly trappings”, the Traditional view of liturgy is open to the very earth itself becoming heaven through God’s presence on earth, especially through the Holy Eucharist. It is open to a depth of splendor on earth where we can call the kingdom of God blessed here and now (and always unto ages of ages, Amen!).

So I wonder, on this feast of St. John Chrysostom, if any Reformed brethren of mine sense the emptiness of their services, in terms of how they call upon God. Feeling such a vacuum where my whole body, mind and soul was engaged in prayer and adoration to God during a liturgy was one of the strongest attractions to Tradition that I felt as I considered the claims of Catholics, and at times I think it is more powerful than the most pithy intellectual reflection found in a book or blog posting here or elsewhere.

As this video sings in a hymn to St. John Chrysostom, so I close this brief post, making it my prayer for us all.

Grace shining forth from your lips like a beacon has enlightened the universe! It has shown to the world the riches of poverty. It has revealed to us the heights of humility. Teaching us by your words, Father John Chrysostom, intercede before the Word, Christ our God, to save our souls!

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5 comments
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  1. I like this line: “at times I think it is more powerful than the most pithy intellectual reflection found in a book or blog posting here or elsewhere.”

    With a sermon or homily, there is perhaps a correlation between one’s intelligence and education and one’s ability to “get something” out of the lesson. It’s as if the more intelligent and learned someone is, the “higher up and higher in” they can go with the Christian message.

    With the liturgy and sacraments, the mystery revealed and graces imparted transcend our ability to comprehend. Accordingly, the liturgy and sacraments put the learned and the unlearned on equal footing. God speaks to us in a way that in one sense bypasses the our intellect and goes straight to our heart. Our ability to grasp the Christian message is no longer limited by our mental faculties, but instead by the receptivity of our soul.

  2. Thank you, Jesse!

  3. All quite true, JAD. Even so, I’d like to emphasize another point.

    St. Athanasius said that God became man so that man might become god. Then there’s John 10:34 and 1 Peter 2:4. The doctrine of theosis (divinization) is the teaching of the Catholic as well as the Orthodox churches. We can safely say that the Christian vocation is to become by participation what God is by nature. So, Mary and the other saints may be worshiped in the sense of doulia because they are by participation what God is by nature.

    I think it’s largely because Protestantism utterly lost the notion of theosis that it has no use for that of doulia. Indeed, the notion of justification by imputation alone became inevitable in the West once that of theosis receded into the background. Too many people just gave up on the idea of transformation into gods. Even educated Catholics who are nominally orthodox about this question tend to think of grace not as God himself, living his trinitarian life in and through us, but as a kind of spiritual fuel for developing greater moral virtue. That’s only half the picture, and thus a distortion.

    Best,
    Mike

  4. Mike,
    Great point. I was thinking of writing a small post about this, in considering what we were taught when we were Presbyterians. The Shorter Catechism asks:

    What is the chief end of man?

    And the answer is:
    Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

    I realized how empty of theosis this was when I opened the first page of my 4 year old son’s Sunday School material. I was amazed at how it was so close to the Westminster Catechism, and yet how far away it was.

    This is the text of the first page:

    God Made Me

    I am God’s child.
    God made me.
    God loves me.

    I am special.
    I am wonderful.
    I can do wonderful things.

    Why did God make me?
    God made me to live united with Him.

    ——

    Instead of talking about some kind of imputational, transactional salvation, the Tradition is full of this image of theosis. And as beautiful as glorifying God and enjoying Him is, it is nothing like union and divinization.

    In XC,
    JAD

  5. I have heard several Catholic sources discuss liturgical reform when contemplating Catholic/Orthodox reunion and ecumenism (I apologize, but can’t find the links at this time). The sense is that some people may be offended by the current liturgy in many Catholic parishes, that the Orthodox have strength in their liturgy, and that Catholics can or should consider modifying their liturgy.

    Can anyone explain what elements of the liturgy are (or can be) subject to change or modification, and which are fixed (and why)?

    Also, is there merit to the position that the Catholic Church would benefit from making its liturgy more like the Orthodox?

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