The Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father is the founding moment of the liturgy. The Good Shepherd went off in search of His lost sheep–us–by laying aside His dignity and prerogatives as Son of God and becoming flesh for our sake. Becoming obedient to the Father even unto death, He won our salvation and returned to the Father as the pioneer of our salvation. In our baptisms, we are united with Christ, and in the liturgy, we participate, really experience our own ascensions to the Kingdom of Heaven, as daughters and sons of God in the Holy Spirit.What an astonishing claim! And yet, it is our faith, the faith we profess every time we enter a church, recall our baptisms by signing ourselves with holy water in the form of the cross, and enter into the everlasting dialog of love between Father and Son. Yet because it is such an astonishing claim, we need practice in order to continually realize the Truth into which we have been received. Our minds need constant renewal, lest we fall back by a preoccupation with the earthly appearance of things. As I mentioned in the previous post, this vigilance requires us to hold in tension God’s transcendence, the goal toward which we move in our ascension in Christ, with God’s immanence, His real presence to us in all things through the eyes of faith. Thus the things of the world are transformed by contemplation, a gaze informed by faith, and this informing faith is oriented toward the Father “who is above all and through and in all [Ephesians 4: 6].”
In Gothic church buildings, this symbolism of ascent is signified by the long “vertical” shape of the nave. One enters at the baptismal font, the gateway to life in Christ, and moves toward the altar through stages, not necessarily “closer to God,” Who is in any case not at all bound to the sanctuary, but through the purification of the soul, the understanding and the will, so as to be more and more conformed to God. Christ the Mediator is symbolized variously by the direction East (from whence He shall come at the parousia), the altar (incised with five crosses, the five wounds by which the risen Christ is recognized), the priest (whose initial movement to the altar is a representation of Christ’s Ascension), and finally by the Blessed Sacrament Itself.
Christ goes forth from the sanctuary at two crucial moments in the liturgy. The first is the gospel procession, where the Word becomes flesh, as it were, in the human voice of the priest of deacon who proclaims it. The gospel book is carried in procession from the altar to the people. The second movement “outward” is the carrying of the Body and Blood of Christ from the altar (again!) to the people, who now receive Christ Incarnate in Holy Communion. In this latter case, there is a complementary movement of the faithful toward the altar, “caught up together with [those who have died in Christ]…to meet the Lord [1 Thessalonians 4: 17].”
Here I am describing a dynamic liturgy, with a lot of movement. It is not what most Catholics think of when they think of liturgy, which unfortunately seems to bring to mind standing and sitting in one pew and watching while the priest does a bunch of things far away. What I have described is quite possible, even desirable in the present “ordinary” form of the Mass, and to a certain extent the reforms that followed Vatican II have made this latent dynamism more obvious (and this represents a restoration of certain elements of the Mass that had fallen away in the Tridentine period, which I personally consider to have been a bit ‘bureaucratized’, with a liturgy too much influenced by the Roman Curia and not enough by monks!). Orthodox liturgy tends to display this dynamism more openly, and often Orthodox liturgists will draw connections between the in-and-out motion of the priests and deacons with the mysterious energies of God, that go forth and return to Him [cf. Isaiah 55: 11]. And this connection in turn is sometimes reinforced with references to Eastern theologians like Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). But this dynamism is everywhere evident in Catholic sources, especially through the thirteenth century. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas is entirely patterned on what is called the “exitus-reditus” movement of God’s creative and restorative Word and Spirit, breathing outward into creation and gathering inward toward salvation and exaltation.
Our monastery church is a neo-gothic structure. The first altar that we had built for the church was slightly larger than four feet square and stood in the center of the sanctuary, at the eastern end of the building. Though it served us well, it was slightly small both for the space and for the number of concelebrants typical at our Eucharistic liturgy. After a benefactor came forward to commission the great iconostasis that you see on our home page (and above), we knew that it was time to commission as well a new altar. Present liturgical discipline favors a stone mensa or “table” on the altar. If we were to do have a stone altar constructed, we had two choices, necessitated by the weight of the potential structure. We could first of all restore it as a ‘high altar’ against the easternmost wall of the church. This would be easier and more cost effective, since there was already an iron and brick support in place there, and since we were already celebrating Mass ad orientem. The other option was keeping it in place and building a new support. This would have been quite costly. Moreover, the building itself calls for the altar to be at the very head of the structure, as the “Head” Who is Christ.
When the iconostasis and altar were installed last year (and I will have much more to write about the icons, so stay tuned!), the architecture of the church really came into strong focus. I can say with some assurance that all of the brothers have found this new arrangement to be a tremendous blessing and aid to prayer. The danger of such an arrangement is that the very strong vertical thrust might lead guests to feel faraway from the action and left out, as if God had retreated somewhere relatively inaccessible and only peeked out for communion. How could we help newcomers to feel more welcomed, to have a sense of God’s nearness without undoing the brilliance of the transcendent recaptured in our high altar and iconostasis? This was the challenge that we took up when we began to plan the last phase of our renovation of the church, the construction of the new choir.