“What have candles to do with flowers?”

I am often amazed at how rarely academics have a chance (or take the opportunity) to listen to their colleagues speak about their own work, and at the same time, how insightful and edifying the exercise can be to learn unknown aspects of theology and religious studies from someone who knows ‘other things.’

For me it was a talk on Newman (now Saint John Henry Newman) about whom I know only bits and pieces in a chronology of Anglican to Roman. Speaking at the annual Holy Cross Lecture at Huron University College, musicologist and Anglican priest Stephen McClatchie gave an overview of Newman’s theology drawn primarily from musical aesthetics which was fascinating in all its aspects, but, as usual, it was the bits about liturgy which really caught my attention.

The title above, “what have candles to do with flowers?” is part of a short section of Newman’s The Idea of a University (although rarely included in the various editions, and then only in an appendix) in which Newman discusses how liturgy (or ‘worship’ to use his word) is what makes disparate elements become a unified event. So candles are distinct from flowers, as are vestments from music, and incense from genuflection – but in the corporate action of liturgy, they are unified in common purpose. How is that? Newman focuses on the worship of God that is the lifting up of one’s heart…

[But} not of one heart, but of many all at once; next, it is the devotion, not of hearts only, but of bodies too; not of eyes only, or hands only, or voices only, or knees only, but of the whole man; and next, the devotion passes on to more than soul and body…

For Newman it is the communal act of responding to God’s initiative with the lifting up of one’s heart, but not alone – with others – all at once – which leads to the whole person and the whole Body of Christ worshiping together. This is what then brings all the elements of liturgy together.

Blended together indivisibly, and sealed with the image of unity, by reason of the one idea of worship, in which they live and to which they minister…Take away the idea, and what are they worth? the whole pageant becomes a mummery. The worship made them one…

I took a course in Religious Studies as an undergraduate (only because it was required) and I have often wished I could go back and offer my grateful thanks to the professor, Robert Ellwood, for how much his teaching and writing have helped me understand many things, particularly in teaching the distinction between theology and religious studies. In all of his textbooks there is a section on symbol, ritual, music, words, people, attire and more which when combined he calls a rite. A rite can therefore be summarized as the “orchestration of symbols” (Introducing Religion: From Inside and Outside). In many ways, hearing Newman’s description brought me back to Ellwood and how these two scholars, in very different tasks and circumstances, remind us of something very important. Those of us who are called to gather together to lift up our hearts to God, to worship God, must be participants not just spectators, even if “lifting up one’s heart to God,” being attentive, being there, is the whole of the response – that is sufficient.

Newman’s work also reminds why he is often called “the absent Father of Vatican II” because so many concepts found in his writing find fruition in various conciliar documents. This delayed appreciation is not out of step with Newman’s biography of being viewed with suspicion in two churches through his lifetime; he was either behind his time, ahead of his time, out of step with his time, or simply late to being appreciated for his insights. And it was in hearing his insight about lifting up our hearts – our whole being – with the whole church – that I heard anew the call for active participation as the necessary tension to divine initiative.

So much of liturgical and sacramental theology is about balancing two apparent opposites in tension, and in that tension is found the essence of the field. The rediscovered essentiality of God as active in liturgy; God, the actor of efficacious sacramentality, is still balanced by the response of the baptized, individually and above all, in common. To lift up our hearts may not have the precision of doctrinal agreement by what it excludes as impossible to faith or includes of all the qualities of what makes one a member of a particular ecclesial confession, but as a corporate communal act it is an efficacious response. When done with the whole body (individual bodies in ‘the body’ of presence and proximity) perhaps we begin anew to be the body of Christ that orders things essential and non-essential together as part of the worship of the living God, the efficacious actor of our sanctification. 

5 comments

  1. “God, the actor of efficacious sacramentality, ” is a reminder that Liturgy is not something humans give to God, but a gift from God to us for the building up of Christians in community.
    “efficacious sacramentality” is that building up in practical, usable ways, so that we can better live the Law of Love in a world of competitiveness.

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