Thursday, April 18, 2013

More on the Heavenly Liturgy

For several Sundays in the Easter Season, in our Second Readings from the Book of Revelation, we are hearing about the worship that centers around the Risen Christ in heaven. This week, from Rev 7:9, 14b-17 we hear:
"I, John, had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
"Then one of the elders said to me,
‘These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
"‘For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
"‘They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’"
The White Robed Multitude in Heaven
I was raised in the Methodist Church. At that time, in the late ‘60's and early ‘70's, the Methodist Church still had a classical "Protestant style" of worship, which is to say everything centered upon the preaching of the Word of God with a great deal of singing. Once a month or less often we celebrated the Lord’s Supper with Communion consisting of a small wafer and grape juice in individual little cups. I am grateful for my Methodist youth for in that Church I met Jesus, fellowshiped with other youth seeking to know Jesus more, and was given a great love for Scripture and singing.
In my Senior year in High School, a friend invited me to attend a Eucharist on Wednesday evening at her Episcopal Church. I had to ask her what "Eucharist" meant; but I accepted her invitation and when I attended I was captivated by a different style of worship that I had never before experienced. While the Episcopal Church is solidly Protestant, it worships now in a very Catholic style when it celebrates its Eucharist.
I was struck that evening by seeing an altar, a priest in vestments, bread and wine, ritual responses like "The Lord be with you," and the familiar singing, but in such reverence and beauty. When I started attending Sunday Eucharist at that Church, there was even more ceremony, with big processions with banners, and everything seemed so exalted. Wasn’t this how God was intended to be worshiped? I didn’t know this until much later, but my soul was very much disposed to the Catholic style of worship. Eventually (obviously) I entered the Catholic Church, returning to the source.
The Priest in this Episcopal Church was named Fr. John (a good name for a priest) and I was very impressed with his teaching. I remember him once saying: "I am comfortable with a Church that worships in the style described in the Book of Revelation." Something clicked inside of me that recognized the truth of this statement. Having read the Book of Revelation I remembered how the worship in heaven was described as angels and the blessed singing and rejoicing. They rarely sat but rather stood and knelt and "fell down in worship" a lot. Revelation describes in heaven a sanctuary, an altar, incense, praises of the Lamb of God (the Agnus Dei), the angelic song of "Holy, Holy, Holy" (the Sanctus) lampstands, vestments, priests and more. These were the things I didn’t experience in the classical Protestant style, but which I was experiencing in what is called the more Catholic, liturgical style of that Episcopal Church I was attending.
John's Vision in Revelation
Some Scripture scholars are beginning to consider that the Book of Revelation was indeed also describing some of the early Church’s style of Liturgy (the public worship of the Church that is patterned in certain ways of ritual and elements used for the worship of God). There is no doubt that the Heavenly Liturgy (again the worship done in heaven) described in the Book of Revelation reflects many elements of the worship conducted in the Jewish Temple detailed in the Old Testament. Jesus himself and the early Christians in Jerusalem worshiped in the Temple.
Certainly when the early Church (up until the 4th century) was worshiping in small groups in largehouses, the Eucharist was more simple just as when a Mass may be celebrated in a small group setting today. Many elements like incense and vestments and very developed rituals and prayers weren’t incorporated into the Church’s worship until after the early persecutions ended and the legalizing of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine (in 313 AD). Then large churches were built and the respect and signs given to the Emperor were transferred to the worship of God who is greater than any Emperor and more deserving of such honor.
However, as the Mass was becoming a more exalted style of Liturgy, the Church did not forget the worship described in the Book of Revelation. And there was a very definite belief that the Earthly Liturgy of the Church was a participation in the Heavenly Church’s Liturgy; the Mass is a foretaste of the glories of heaven and it is a true communion in the Heavenly Liturgy.
This is described in the Catechism in several places. For example, in #1090:
"In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory."
I said last week, the worship of heaven is an unending of ecstasy of love, the highest and supreme expression of love for God and one another and it is full of all delights; but here on earth we don’t always experience our worship as heavenly or even that exalted. This is  because we don’t usually appreciate fully the act of worship due to our earthly limitations and distractions, not to mention the deadening of our souls by sin. What we need is our imaginations stretched, as by the Book of Revelation, to see in our inner heart the glories of the Lord. As a contemporary Christian song prays:
"Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You
"To see You high and lifted up                                                       
Shinin' in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy
"Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You