With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


In my last discussion on memory, I ended with a brief discussion on communion and its relationship to memory. The following is a re-examination and continuation of that theme.

In the book of Hebrews, we are given an image of Jesus as the high priest who presents himself once and for all “in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24b NRSV). The Apocalypse contains a vision of these heavenly rites, where the throne of God is surrounded by “four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an old, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle” (Revelation 4:6b-8). Beyond these four creatures are twenty four thrones, and upon each of these thrones there is an elder clothed with a white gown and a golden crown. Next, we find those who have been slain for the faith, the martyrs, in front of God petitioning him for his just judgment. Finally there appears an uncountable multitude from every nation, clothed also with a white robe, and countless angels of God. Coming together, they bow down in worship, praising God with the heavenly hymn. “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen” (Revelation 7:12). Later there is another heavenly sign, that of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head of crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1). She brings forth “a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child is snatched away and taken to God and to his throne” (Revelation 12:5).

These two visions relate one reality in two different perspectives. They show us two aspects of the one, eternal liturgical celebration and sacrifice performed by Jesus. The first gives us a glimpse of the liturgy as it is celebrated in the heavens. The second shows the earthly, human, side, where the eternal plan is lived out in the life of Jesus, from his birth to the point of his ascent into the heavens. The culmination of this mystical rite is shown to us at the end of the Apocalypse, where we are to experience the eternal presence of Jesus as God with us (cf. Revelation 22:1-5). In these glimpses of the heavenly and earthly work of Jesus, not only are we shown the countless saints before his throne, but we also see his all-glorious mother, Mary the Theotokos, the “queen in gold of Ophir” (Psalm 45:9).

Historically, it seems that the earthly elements of this liturgy have been accomplished once and for all in the distant past through the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus. How then can we experience it ourselves? Yet if we do not, how will we be brought into the presence of God, which is the purpose of this liturgy?

This is where the category of memory comes into play. Because memory brings the presence of that which we remember to us, through memory we can participate, time and again, in the one, central, historical yet eternal act of Jesus. He told us that we should participate in this event at the Mystical Supper. “Do this in memory of me.” Do this each and every time you come together to worship me. When you do, you can experience eternal life even in your temporal existence by experiencing that one eternal heavenly liturgy. Join in with all of the angels and saints. They have their part in the celebration, just as you do. Do you not sense them with you?

The experience of the divine liturgy is the experience of heaven on earth. In its celebration we partake of the full heavenly liturgy as expressed in Scripture. We are drawn up to God through beauty. There are many ways that we can experience the splendor needed in our earthly worship to raise us up to the heavens. With beauty as our guide, we can reach the perfect anamnesis of God that can only be found in holy communion.

While the manner of the ascent might differ from church to church, or from liturgical tradition to liturgical tradition, the essentials are always the same. Experiencing the presence of Jesus in our community and in the spoken word of the Gospels, we share the fullness of his presence through communion. In our spiritual height we are not alone: we share the eternal banquet of the Lord not only with all who have gone before us but also all who shall come after.

“Remembering our most holy, most pure, most-blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another, and our whole life, to Christ, our God” Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. By our act of remembrance, we experience the presence of the saints. Images in our churches, whether they are the icons in the Eastern tradition, or the statues in the Western tradition, are aids in experiencing their presence. This is what is meant when we say they are aids to our memory. They provide a focus for us to help establish that presence. They provide a way to break down the veil between heaven and earth, to help visualize the communion of the saints. “Visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things,” St John of Damascus, On The Divine Images. Trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p.20. The heavenly realm is intangible to us, and yet we are called up to it in the beauty that surrounds us by the holy images found in our churches. Indeed, icons represent more than their earthly glory, but are seen as representing the saints in their deified, form.

It is important for us to have images around us. We are bodily creatures, and our bodies must be engaged. Presence in mind is one kind of presence; presence experienced through the senses is another. The second engages the first. “A certain perception takes place in the brain, prompted by the bodily senses, which is then transmitted to the faculties of discernment, and adds to the treasury of knowledge something that was not there before.” Ibid.

Eastern churches in their architecture also try to represent many aspects of our communion with the saints. Painted on the entry can be an icon of Jesus Christ. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The pillars holding up the frame of the building have images of the martyrs, whose strong faith held the church together in times of persecution. The iconostasis in the front of the church represents the barrier (never entirely closed) between heaven and earth, with the saints encouraging us, showing us the blessed reward being prepared for us. We can be there with the saints in the presence of the Lord. Indeed, we are there when we celebrate the liturgy.

“May the Lord God remember in His kingdom, Our Holy universal Supreme Pontiff N . . ., the Pope of Rome, our most reverend Archbishop and Metropolitan N . . ., and our God loving Bishop N . . ., and the entire priestly, diaconal, and monastic order, our civil authorities, and all our armed forces, the noble and ever memorable founders and benefactors of this holy Church, (our suffering brethren), and all you orthodox Christians, always, now and ever, and forever” Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Just as we remember the Lord and the saints, bringing their presence to us, we must in turn bring ourselves to the Lord, to be remembered by him, to have our presence preserved in his eternal memory. The heavenly liturgy is not just God’s presence with us, but our presence with God. It is not just our memory of God, but God’s memory of us. Communion is the celebration where the two become one. Nor is it an individual event, where we alone are preserved in God’s memory, as we can see in the prayers offered by the priest in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom:

Priest (silently): For the holy prophet, precursor and Baptist John, for the holy glorious and illustrious apostles, for Saint N . . ., whose memory we celebrate, and for all Your saints, through whose prayers, O God, visit us. Remember also all who have departed in the hope of resurrection unto eternal life. (Priest mentions those deceased he wishes to remember) And grant them rest where the light of Your face shines.

Moreover, we pray you, O Lord, remember the entire episcopate of the orthodox, who faithfully dispense the word of Your truth, the entire priesthood, the diaconate in Christ, and all others In holy orders.

We further offer You this spiritual sacrifice for the whole world, for the holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for those who live in chastity and venerable conduct; for our civil authorities and for all the armed forces. Grant them, O Lord, a peaceful rule, that we also, sharing their tranquility, may lead a tranquil and calm life in all piety and dignity.

If memory is presence, then beauty is the means by which we experience this presence. Through beauty, the spiritual epiclesis, communal remembrance is more than a mere mental recollection. “The beauty of the world is an effect of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Beauty, and Beauty is Joy, the joy of being” Sergius Bulgakov, The Comforter. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 201 The Holy Spirit, the Lord of Life, the Great Artist, the Lord of Beauty, in its descent upon the gifts offered at the altar clothes Jesus through them by the beauty inherent in the eucharistic rite. “O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:1). Beauty is the means by which we ascend to God, but it is also the means by which God comes down to us. Thus through the beauty of liturgy we find the fulfillment of memory, and the presence of heaven with all the saints is experienced here on earth.



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