It’s difficult to imagine a time when the Church was not divided, given how many denominations and split communions there are in the world today. Yet there it was, about 1,000 years of Christian unity, and the writings we have from that time are invaluable insights into what the Church is called to be. Among them are the writings of St. John Chrysostom (who lived from 347 to 407AD), whose short book On the Priesthood I’m reading through right now. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some quotes and thoughts on what this office of Christian ministry was understood to be by this great preacher of old.
If anyone should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace [the New Covenant] 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, “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 worshipers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are among men and standing on 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?
Just before writing this, St. John Chrysostom described the beauty of Old Covenant worship, pointing out its invocation of heavenly imagery and the purity that was required to carry it out making it as if the priests were entering heaven itself. Here now he contrasts this to the appearance of New Covenant worship, which looks much simpler, even though the spiritual realities are no less glorious, but in fact are even more epic than the Old.
When we see the priest, in the Church today, praying over the bread and wine at the altar, we’re told to see “the Lord sacrificed.” The humble vessels of bread and wine are communications of something even more amazing that we can imagine! But it’s not just on the altar, all of the worshipers are “empurpled with that precious blood.” In other words, we’ve been made purple, washed in the Blood of Christ. These invisible spiritual realities are so profound that it’s as if we’ve just stepped outside the world into the presence of God himself. Should we not, at such profound services of worship, focus every ounce of our being on this great mystery of being in God’s presence?
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!
This is something I think we sometimes lack in modern teaching styles. We get so caught up on the importance of transmitting information that we can forget to allow our hearts to participate in the teaching and learning. St. Chrysostom here expresses his amazement and joy at the ministry of the altar: Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is held in the hands of all the faithful people in the act of Holy Communion!
Some Evangelical traditions have developed a practice known as an “altar call.” After an impassioned or thoughtful sermon, calling people to repentance and conversion, people are invited to come forward and ‘accept Jesus into their heart as their personal lord and savior.’ As useful as this can be for challenging people directly to ‘make a decision for Christ,’ there is a more time-honored altar call in Christian practice: Holy Communion. In the Mass we are invited forward to receive Jesus, hold him in our hands, “embrace and grasp him,” as Chrysostom put it, and receive him into our very selves.
Of course, on the outside, this doesn’t look like much – just a line of people walking up solemnly to eat a tiny bit of bread and drink a sip of wine. But sacraments are not about what’s visible and plain, but about what’s invisible and spiritual. Chrysostom describes this as something all do “through the eyes of faith.” Or, as the Anglican liturgy puts it, The Body/Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given for you: feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.
In a culture so focused on visible and material realities it is difficult to see past this world and discern spiritual things. Writers like St. John Chrysostom, coming from a different time and place, can be very helpful for rehabilitating our stunted perspectives.