Worship in the Medieval Church
I did not want to get out of bed. It was early and for the first time since last week I woke up while the sun was still shining, letting myself enjoy a measure of rest on this holy day. What got me out of bed was more filling than sleep. I sought renewal.
What is life? Work? Is this life supposed to be non-stop toil until we die and find eternal rest? I rolled over, and was surprised, again, by her absence. She had been dead for two months now, yet it still seemed she should be next to me. It was the pox. She was suffering so much by the end I was thankful for her release, and wishing I could join her. I got sick, the scars are evidence of that. It was not my time. God must have his reasons. And so I go this morning to find those reasons. I go to find God. I go to see Christ. I go to Church on the Holy day because the law insists and because my soul demands it.
The Church bells were ringing, these bells which echoed out of the city and into the countryside, telling merchants and peasants, nobility and farmers alike that in that moment they were to heed the same authority who rules us all, no matter our station or purpose.
I walk down the road towards the Holy Church. There are others like me crowding the road, and others not like me in their carriages or on their horses, making the same journey albeit with the priority that is their due.
I pause at the edge of town staring at the massive Cathedral which fills my view. It is a mountain made of human hands, a glorious monument to the glory of our heavenly king, who deserves his castle on earth to be as grand as any earthly lord. I heard from my father this cathedral was begun seventy five years before he was born. Well over a hundred years and still this monument was being built, not only a symbol of our faith, it is a representation of our own toil and blood and lives.
It is not a building like any other. It is our worship and proclamation. We build it and it teaches us, not like the idols of the heathens, but like the Temple of old, where everything pointed towards our Heavenly Master. We participate with the work of God in this Cathedral and in doing so we find our souls renewed. We are baptized here, we are buried here, we live our lives liturgically shaped through these stones that rise like the throne room of Heaven itself.
I enter the great doors, the designs wondrous, telling the story of Godís salvation at the beginning of creation. I remember when they were installed, I was about five at the time. I asked about the stories they revealed. My father told me of Adam and Abraham and Joseph. Neither of us have been taught the secrets of letters, but we learn the stories of Scriptures by the doors that let us into the Church. In entering these doors I proclaim, again, my willingness to enter heaven. I step in and I step out of my world into the world beyond, with the silent murmuring of the people reminding me of the crowds of heaven. Incense rises from the front, the smoke illuminated by the sun as it pours through the high windows. From the dust and dirt of outside I enter into the freshness of the Cathedral, with the perfumed incense filling the air and delighting the senses.
The priests and nuns and monks are all near the altar or in the choir, preparing their hearts for this holiest of service, preparing themselves as representatives of Godís own choir, lifting praises constantly through the devotion of their set apart holy lives. They are praying and chanting according to the holy service, their prayers lifting up as living incense for all of us gathered here.
I notice the Cardinal himself sitting on his chair, looking out over the people, even as Christ looks out over all the earth, calling some to himself and condemning others to their sins. He stands and bows his head, opening his arms wide as he speaks to those around him. I cannot hear his prayer, and even if I did I could not understand for he speaks in the holy language of Latin. I do bow my head as I stand in the midst of all the people still moving about, participating in the prayer. It does not matter whether I can hear or understand. The Cardinal is not praying to me, he is praying to the Lord Christ in the consecrated tongue.
Not everyone prays with the Cardinal. Some continue to murmur, others participate in the stories of the windows, some are lighting candles in the small chapels off to the side, praying for their own concerns in this moment of heavenly participation.
The Cardinal finishes and the priests go about other tasks in preparation. I lift my head up, letting the great expanse of this building fill my heart. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. The sweet aroma of the incense fills my nostrils, the prayers of the saints themselves entering within and bringing healing to my seared soul. God is good. With all that is going on, God is great and holy in allowing all of us to join with him in his majesty.
The bell rings, just once. Immediately, the murmurs quiet, people stop, everyone pauses in this same moment, sharing the same anticipation. The Cardinal and the priests stand before the altar, facing East towards the Holy City. I cannot see what they are doing, let alone understand their consecrated tasks but I stare forward anyhow, my eyes embracing the majesty of this holy throne room. I stand before the King, whose death we celebrate, whose life we live.
This bell is the announcement of his arrival. In the mystery of the bread and wine he is with us again. We can see him in this place.
The Cardinals hands lift above the crowd, and I see the bread being offered even as it becomes an offering to us. The bell rings again, three times slowly. Christ is with us, God is here. My heart stills, I hold my breath, feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us all in this moment, creating a body through the body of Christ. In this moment we are all sinners and we are all saints, united in the transformation of the Holy Eucharist.
The Cardinal lifts the gold chalice which continues the wine, no the blood of Christ now. The bell rings three more times, each echoing in this mighty hall. In this we are saved, and my heart resonates with the fullness of Godís grace who saved my life for some reason. Now I celebrate that purpose anew. In the majesty of this moment I am lifted out of the mundane reality of my life and participate in the fullness of heaven, letting all my sense participate in our eternal life even while my own body remains here on earth. Christ in heaven comes to earth in the Bread and Wine, and through the Bread and Wine I from earth go towards heaven. He meets me and he greets all of us. That is the power of the Eucharist. Joy fills my heart as I watch the Cardinal and priests partake of these holy elements. I am not worthy to eat and drink. My life is too wracked with doubts and sin. It doesnít matter. I watch and I participate, sharing the bounty of the feast by being included in its celebration, being honored with an invitation to stand in this holy place.
The monks and priests and nuns lift their voices again, chanting a holy prayer to the holy God. Some of those here begin to leave, others stand and talk, more wander about this holy place, praying and considering, pondering the holiness of the relics that are displayed with honor, or contemplating the stories of the Gospels which are told on the stained windows high above. Next to me in a silver case open for display is a shin bone from a saint whose life is a testimony to my own. He was a martyr, burned by the Romans in ancient days. He who stood for God even in real flames, dying with prayers and psalms on his lips, continues to preach to us through his presence here. I, with flames in my own life, am reminded of the holy service and our duties before God even in the worst of circumstances. I pray over this relic, asking for wholeness and peace as I discover Godís work in my work, asking to honor him even in some small way through my life.
With this prayer ended, while the holy ones in front still chant and sing, I leave the great Cathedral, my heart renewed by participating in the heavenly worship, and restored by renewing my vision of the Divine. This world is full of troubles but in God letting us see his majesty these troubles become bearable. Thanks be to God.
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