holy cross sermon for the fourth sunday after epiphany, year c, february 3, 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“And he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’” (Luke 4.21).

One of the conspicuous features of today’s Gospel reading, and indeed of whole of Jesus’ ministry, is what we might call his self-promotion. Jesus preaches himself; he points to himself. He is unique in the Bible as one who does this. The prophets of the Old Testament were not self-promoters. Isaiah, for example, did not preach Isaiah. Rather he proclaimed to God’s people the coming of another – the coming of God’s righteous servant, who would deliver them from sin and evil.

Even today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, in which the prophet speaks of his own calling, is oriented ultimately toward days to come, to a time when there will be a new covenant between God and his people, that will be written “upon their hearts,” (Jer. 31.33), and there will be a new relationship of true fidelity, in which “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” (31.33). So although Jeremiah might seem to be promoting himself in today’s reading, ultimately his vocation looks far beyond himself, to the new covenant that God will establish “in those days,” as he says.

But once Jesus has arrived on the scene, once he has preached and ministered, and ultimately once he has been crucified, risen and ascended, then God’s dealings with his people and with the world are truly consummated, and there is in a sense nothing else to look forward to but the end of the world. Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s work – he IS the salvation of God. So just as Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets proclaimed Jesus, who was to come, however dimly they understood that – so too, when Jesus comes, Jesus proclaims Jesus. And those who come after Jesus proclaim Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all proclaim Jesus. All of the Lord’s servants this side of the incarnation, proclaim Jesus, setting off, as it were, as pilgrims toward the one who was, and who is, and who is to come.

As many of you know, we are about to undertake the restoration of the altar here at the church. Last year the vestry voted unanimously to explore this possibility, funds were donated for the purpose, and a contractor has been engaged, who will be restoring the altar to its original position at the liturgical east end, from which it was moved in the 1970’s. I discussed all of this with Tom Hainze before his death last year. Tom, you will remember, was a longtime member of Holy Cross and the architect who designed it. He was thrilled at the prospect of this restoration, as it will be a return to his original vision and design for this space.

The restoration will also afford practical advantages, enabling us to celebrate the liturgy more simply and elegantly, as it was done for decades here – and indeed as it has been done for at least a millennium and a half throughout the church, if not from the very beginning.

But the main reason for restoring the altar to its original position has to do with what I have said about the orientation of God’s servants toward Jesus. Like literally everything in the Christian life, sacred architecture has a sacramental and incarnational dimension, even primarily. Just as ordinary bread and wine become, through our prayer, the means of our salvation, so too ordinary bricks and mortar become, through their dedication to the purposes of God, the means by which we journey toward him. This space is the place by which all of us as a community of Christians receive God’s grace. Our spiritual journey occurs here in this building, with all of its architectural features. What we do within these walls empowers all that we do outside of them. And so this place is not just like any other – this sacred space is for us a gateway to heaven. And as with all that is sacramental (and remember that for us all IS sacramental), the individual details and elements of this space can be shifted and adjusted in order better to realize its calling in God – to be, for us, a gateway to heaven and a means of our salvation.

It may sound strange to speak of a building or of an architectural feature as having a “calling in God,” having a “vocation.” But it does. The more we understand the details of our lives to be governed by God’s merciful providence, the more we can see each detail of our lives as a part of God’s disclosure of himself to us and a means of our salvation. This building was not built by accident. It is rather a manifestation of God’s mission within the world, in this particular place and time. This building is the fruit of the vision and labor Fr. Conley, Fr. Blankenship, Tom Hainze, and many others who contributed their labor, their energy, their time, and their money – in short, their LIVES – to make it a reality, so that God might be glorified at the corner of Herschel and Douglas, and that souls might come to know Jesus here, and receive the gift of eternal life.

That is the vocation of this building, and it is wrapped up in, and interwoven with, your vocation and mine. And this building can fulfill its vocation more excellently by a nearer conformity to the truth that it embodies and mediates to us. In much the same way that bread is a better conduit of the grace it embodies to us in the Eucharist than would be, say, olives or fish. Because the bread began as grains scattered on the hillsides, which is plucked and crushed and mixed with water and baked into a single loaf – just as the whole body of Christians began as individuals scattered throughout the world, who were plucked from their original secular contexts, baptized in water, mixed together with one another, given the fire of the holy spirit, and so become one Body in Christ. Bread can embody this story better than olives or fish.

Just so this building, and especially our orientation within it, are meant to embody the story that we live-out as Christians. One of the things that some people don’t like about the position of the altar that we are restoring, is that it means that the “priest will be facing the wall, with his back to the people.” But think for a moment about what we are doing at the mass: the priest and the people are praying to God together. God’s presence is symbolized for us, architecturally, firstly by the crucifix, the image of Jesus who shows us the Father; and secondly by the tabernacle, in which is kept the consecrated bread that has become his body, and under the veil of which he is really present.

I have to say, while I don’t object vociferously to the altar being in the position that it is in now, nevertheless one of things that nags at me as I celebrate the Eucharist, is that I am praying WITH all of you TO the Lord, and yet I am facing you with my back to him. As much as I love seeing all of you, I would much rather be gazing WITH you AT the cross, as we pray to God together. The restoration of our altar will enable us to shift our gaze away from the priest and, together, toward the Lord.

One great contemporary theologian said this:

“…just as the [Jewish] congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “towards the Lord.” As one of the Fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy… put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession towards the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle, they did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens [the East], for the Christ who comes to meet us.” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

And [Jesus] began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” All of scripture, all of life, the entire history of the universe, is oriented toward Jesus. I hope the restoration of our altar here will help all of us better to remember that we as a community do not form an inward-looking circle, but that we are a pilgrim people in procession together toward “bright morning star” (Rev. 22.16), rising in the east. It is Jesus we proclaim, Jesus toward whom we are oriented, Jesus to whom we turn, Jesus that is coming to meet us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About the Altar Move (From Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy”)

The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning towards the East was not a “celebration towards the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “towards the Lord.” As one of the Fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J. A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession towards the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle, they did not gaze at one another, but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.

But is this not all romanticism and nostalgia for the past? Can the original form of Christian prayer still say something to us today, or should we try to find our own form, a form for our own times? Of course, we cannot simply replicate the past. Every age must discover and express the essence of the liturgy anew. The point is to discover this essence amid all the changing appearances. It would surely be a mistake to reject all the reforms of our century wholesale. When the altar was very remote from the faithful, it was right to move it back to the people. In cathedrals this made possible the recovery of the tradition of the altar at the crossing, the meeting-point of the nave and the presbyterium. It was also important clearly to distinguish the place for the Liturgy of the Word from the place for the strictly Eucharistic liturgy. For the Liturgy of the Word is about speaking and responding, and so a face-to-face exchange between proclaimer and hearer does make sense. In the Psalm the hearer internalizes what he has heard, takes it into himself, and transforms it into prayer, so that it becomes a response.

Turning to the East Essential

On the other hand, a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.


On the other hand, it is important and necessary to see that we cannot take as our norm the ancient in itself and as such, nor must we automatically write off later developments as alien to the original form of the liturgy. There can be a thoroughly living kind of development in which a seed at the origin of something ripens and bears fruit. We shall have to come back to this idea in a moment. But in our case, as we have said, what is at issue is not a romantic escape into antiquity, but a recovery of something essential, in which Christian liturgy expresses its permanent orientation. Of course, Häussling thinks that turning to the east, toward the rising sun, is something that nowadays we just cannot bring into the liturgy. Is that really the case? Are we today really hopelessly huddled in our own little circle? Is it not important, precisely today, to find room for the dimension of the future, for hope in the Lord who is to come again, to recognize again, indeed to live, the dynamism of the new creation as an essential form of the liturgy?


A more important objection is of the practical order. Ought we really to be rearranging everything all over again? Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal. I see a solution in a suggestion that comes from the insights of Erik Peterson. Facing east, as we heard, was linked with the “sign of the Son of Man,” with the Cross, which announces the Lord’s Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Where a direct common turning towards the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior “east” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: “Conversi ad Dominum,” “Turn to the Lord!” In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.

Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord? This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; it can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history. That is why there can be a cross of the Passion, which represents the suffering Lord who for us let his side be pierced, from which flowed blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism), as well as a cross of triumph, which expresses the idea of the Second Coming and guides our eyes towards it. For it is always the one Lord: Christ yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).

Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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