The Sacredness of the Liturgy in the Witness of the Tradition

  1. Awareness of God’s deep holiness must be the first attitude in Christian worship. From it there ought to flow quite naturally external gestures of adoration, such as bows, prostrations, and silence, expressive of deep awe and reverence. The most authoritative witness to these fundamental attitudes of Christian worship is found in the Book of Revelation, which portrays the heavenly liturgy as the real model for worship on earth. This is the principle and constant characteristic of the liturgy throughout the two millennia, from the Apostolic Fathers right up to the Second Vatican Council. From among the multiple witnesses to this attitude we will cite only Pope St. Clement I (1st century), who reflects the liturgical tradition of the Church in Rome, the “Passion of Sta. Perpetua and Felicity”, Tertullian (2nd century), who reflects the liturgical tradition of the Church in North Africa, the “Anaphora of St. James” and the “Mystagogical Catecheses” (3rd – 4th century), which bear witness to the liturgical tradition of Jerusalem, while St. John Chrysostom (4th – 5th century) is a witness to the liturgical tradition of Antioch and Constantinople. The Church’s liturgy is to be modeled on the heavenly liturgy. Therefore when the Church on earth worships the Divine Majesty, especially in the Eucharistic Liturgy she is duty-bound to imitate the angels in their inner disposition of purity of heart, as well as and in their gestures. The following witnesses from Patristic times demonstrate that this was the awareness of the Universal Church: Rome, Carthage, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople. Consequently this is an indispensable and constant criterion for an authentic liturgical tradition.


  1. The narrative of the martyrdom of Sta. Perpetua and Felicity” (n. 12, 2), relates that when these two glorious woman martyrs of the ancient Church, entered into heavenly glory, they heard the holy angels sing: “Hagios, hagios, hagios without end” (in the original text: “Hagios, hagios, hagios sine cessatione”). It is significant that a Greek formula of prayer is used in the Latin text, indicating perhaps that it was a liturgical formula in a Latin liturgy, similar to the “Kyrie eleison” in our Latin liturgy. In Tertullian’ treatise “De oratione”, which is the oldest commentary on the Lords’ Prayer, we find a similar reference to the imitation of angels in the liturgy of the Church on earth: “The angels who surround the throne of God incessantly exclaim ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ Therefore if we will merit to be companions of the angels one day, we must learn then to sing to God, already here on earth, with their heavenly voice and to engage in the worship of future glory” (De oratione, 3, 3).


  1. The so called Anaphora of St. James represents an ancient liturgical tradition of Jerusalem, the mother of all Christian communities. It must date back at least to the 4th century, because of the references to him in the Mystagogical Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (cf. L. Maldonado, La Plegaria eucaristica. Estudio de teologia biblica y litúrgica sobre la misa. BAC 273, Madrid 1967, 422-440; A. Piédagnel, Cyrille de Jérusalem. Catéchèses mystagogiques. Sources Chrétiennes 126, Paris 1988, 153.). Paraphrasing the Preface of the Anaphora, St. Cyril says that by singing the angelic prayer of the “Sanctus”, the faithful enter into spiritual communion with the angels. All creation, even the visible cosmos, is to be included in this common act of worship: “We have remembered heaven, the earth and sea, the sun, moon and stars, all rational and irrational creatures, the angels, archangels, virtues, dominations, principalities, powers, thrones, and cherubim who have many faces and who powerfully proclaim David’s invitation: ‘Magnify the Lord with me’ (Ps 34, 4). We also recall the seraphim, which Isaiah contemplated in the Holy Spirit, as they surround the throne of God. ‘Each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft’ “(Is 6, 2-3).


  1. From the above-mentioned, we can infer that this doxology was transmitted to us by the seraphim, so that by our participation in this hymn, we might enter into communion with the “choirs who are above the world” (Cat. Myst. V, 6). The Anaphora of St. James indicates that the mouths of the seraphim incessantly sing a “theology”, which will never become a “silent theology” (asighetois theologiais). In this context, “theology” signifies thinking and speaking about God, and especially, rendering to Him praise and adoration. Hereby we discover the profound meaning of Christian worship, whereby all acts of worship, in words or gestures, are meant to glorify and magnify the Triune God. External forms of praise and adoration should correspond to the inner truth about God. Doxology must always be “theology”. In other words, external worship, like doxology, should be performed in such a manner as to express true faith in the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every word and gesture of the Christian liturgy should be strictly “theological”, that is, it must express the purity of our faith and aim to render glory (“doxa”) to the Triune God.

One can say that liturgy must, in the deepest sense of the word, be “Theocentrical”. A purely anthropocentric manner of worship would be in direct contrast to the biblical and patristic understanding of worship. Participation in the angelic hymn of the “Sanctus” enables worshippers here on earth to nurture the inner attitude and outward posture of the angels and saints, which is totally Theocentric and   hence Christocentric.  This is the case in the Eucharistic liturgy or Holy Mass, where Jesus Christ is really and substantially present through the sacramental act of actualizing His sacrifice on Calvary under the species of bread and wine. Some details in the description of the angels in the “Anaphora of St. James”, as well as in the “Mystagogical Catecheses”, illustrate even more clearly the true meaning of liturgy. The angels cover their faces when proclaiming God’s holiness and glory. There is a corresponding gesture of adoration in the form of prostration, named in the Bible as “proskynesis”. When adoring God in this way, the face of the person can hardly be seen. A profound bow of the head or bowing one’s head while genuflecting, and even more the prostration of the body, reflect the angelic gesture of veiling the face in the presence of the Divine majesty.

Some reflections on the veiling of the face, as described in Isaiah chapter 6 and in the “Anaphora of St. James, may be seen in the liturgical custom of the Roman Rite where the priest or deacon veils his hands when blessing the people with the Monstrance containing the Eucharistic Christ, or when the sub-deacon uses to veil his hands while holding the paten during Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or when the bishop uses to cover his hands with gloves when celebrating a Solemn Pontifical Mass. The anointing of hands during the rite of priestly ordination may likewise be understood as a kind of covering or veiling of the hands. In Oriental liturgies the gesture of veiling is expressed in the curtain or iconostasis which veils the sanctuary during the Eucharistic Prayer. Likewise the curtain veiling the altar was for several centuries in the first millennium part of the liturgical tradition of the Roman Church (cf. Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgie, III, 1588-1612; J. Braun, Der christliche Altar, München 1924, II, 133-148).

  1. Liturgical gestures such as the prostration, the genuflexion, the profound bow of the body, the turning of one’s face toward the Lord, represented in the Crucifix on the altar, all these are gestures similar to the gestures of the worshiping angels as described in the Holy Scripture. The sings of veiling (e.g. the sanctuary, liturgical objects) during the liturgy are also an impressive and profound sign of the interior act of adoration of the Divine majesty. A true act of adoration during the liturgy must focus attention, not on the celebrant, but on Christ. Hence he must veil himself, that means turn his face away from the gaze of the people and in some way efface himself in all humility before the ineffable Presence of God. This is especially important in the celebration of Mass, where the faithful must focus on Christ, do as to praise, exalt, and worship Him.

Some liturgical customs apparently contradict the biblical and patristic understanding of the liturgy, as well as the liturgical tradition of the first centuries. This is the case when the celebrant occupies such a position in the sanctuary, so that the people constantly focus their attention during the celebration more on his face than on Christ. When during the liturgical celebration there are very few gestures of bowing, kneeling and veiling, when lay people are permitted to touch the Eucharistic bread with unveiled hands, that is, with hands that are not anointed, does this really correspond to the true spirit of liturgy as it is witnessed by the Holy Scripture and by the Fathers of the first centuries? The witnesses to the liturgical tradition of the early Church in Jerusalem teach, that in an authentic Christian liturgy the vertical, transcendent Theocentric, Christocentric and Eucharistic centered elements are to be prominent.

  1. St. John Chrysostom, also known as the “Eucharistic doctor,” is considered as the author of the Divine Liturgy or anaphora which bears his name. In his sermons he repeatedly stresses the presence of angels in the earthly liturgy and invites the faithful to worship God in spiritual union with them. He calls angels “syndouloi” or “fellow servants” of the faithful, who joyfully celebrate the Easter Eucharistic liturgy. This expression goes back to the Book of Revelation (19, 10; 22, 9; cf. PG 50, 435). In his homilies on Isaiah, the Eucharistic doctor describes the spiritual union of the faithful with the angels, who worship in such a manner, as though there were no distinction between their voice and the voice of the angels, as though their voice were one with that of the angels in singing the Angelic Hymn: “Holy, holy, holy.” The basis of this union is Christ himself through his Sacrifice on the Cross.

Thanks to the Incarnation of the Son of God, the trishagion (ter sanctus), which was sung previously only by the angels in heaven, is now sung by the faithful on earth, in unison with them. The Constitution “Sacrosanctum Concilium”of Vatican Council II on Sacred Liturgy, is in the same line of thought. It says: “The High Priest of the New and everlasting Covenant, Jesus Christ, by assuming human nature, introduced to this earthly exile the hymn, which is sung for all eternity in the heavenly dwelling. He gathers around Himself the whole human community and associates it with Himself in lifting up this divine hymn of praise” (n. 83). St. John Chrysostom exhorts his faithful to do the very same, even giving them concrete indications on how to join with the angels spiritually in worshiping God. We can paraphrase his words thus: “Sing in the same manner as do the angels, sing together with them. When the angels stand upright, stand reverently with them, when they spread their wings, you too should spread the wings of your soul, and similarly as the angels, who hover above the throne of God, you too should soar aloft to God in your thoughts”.

Let us listen to what he says: “Have you recognized this voice? Is this voice our voice, or is it the voice of the seraphim? This voice is, at the same time, our voice and the voice of the seraphim, thanks to Christ, who has broken down the wall of division, and has reconciled heaven and earth, making them one. It is true, that this hymn was sung previously only in heaven, but when the Lord deigned to come down on earth, He brought this hymn to us as well. Therefore the high priest, standing at this sacred table to offer spiritual worship (“logiken latreian”), to offer the bloodless sacrifice, invites us not only to listen devoutly, but after having made remembrance, first of the cherubim, and then of the seraphim, he exhorts us all to lift up to heaven this tremendous hymn, since we are members of their choir (“synchoreuónton”). Afterwards he invites us to lift our thoughts above the earth and he makes us rejoice in these or similar words: ‘Sing together with the seraphim, stand upright together with the seraphim,  spread the wings of your mind together with them, and surround the throne of the Kingtogether with them’” (hom. in Is. 6, 3).

What represents the concrete and last fundament of the sacred, transcendent and tremendous character of the liturgy is not an elevated idea or a religious feeling, but the gift of God’s holy love, visibly placed upon the altar of sacrifice, namely in the Eucharistic Body of Jesus Christ, and filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. In the same homily on Chapter VI of Isaiah, the Eucharistic Doctor speaks of the “gift of love” (“charis tes philanthropias”) as the “fire of the Spirit” (pyr pneumatikon). This visible gift of divine love, which the faithful can experience and receive during the Eucharistic liturgy, demands of them an attitude of deep awe and veneration according to the example of the seraphim, as described by the prophet Isaiah.

  1. God’s unfathomable holiness is, per se, inaccessible and invisible to our human eyes. But God admits the angels to adore His immense holiness in heaven. In heaven, in the presence of the unfathomable holiness of God, there we find the model and the example (typos) of all holy realities and of all holy gestures which the Church on earth is possessing and practicing. The most holy reality in the Church on earth is the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ and after Him the altar, upon which His Body and Blood become really and substantially present through the act of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Through the act of the sacramental Consecration, the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ are united to His Divinity in the Person of the Eternal Son of God. This Divine person is therefore the ultimate fundament of the holiness of the Eucharistic species. Christ’s redemptive sacrifice upon the cross is the sublime revelation of God’s “philanthrophia”, His immense and unending love towards men, symbolized in Scripture by fire. Consequently, the ultimate model and example (“typos”) of the sacrifice of Christ on the altar of the cross and of his continual Sacrifice on the Eucharistic altar is the eternal fire of divine love in heaven. Thus in the Holy Eucharist, considered first as a sacrifice, and secondly as the sacred banquet of the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, this eternal, heavenly and divine fire becomes visible to our very eyes, really and truly present to us, even in a tangible manner.

None of the angels, not even the highest of seraphim dares to touch the divine fire of the Eucharistic Body of Christ directly. In the prophet Isaiah’s vision (6, 6), we find the reason for this, in the symbol of tongs, with which the angel took the burning coal from the altar. And yet weak and sinful men can take the burning coal of the Eucharistic Body of Christ with their bare hands without tongs. This refers primarily to priests, whose hands were consecrated, empowering them to consecrate, “in persona Christi”, and to touch and distribute the Eucharistic Body of Christ, which is the “sancta sanctorum”. In his Apostolic Letter “Dominicae cenae” (n. 11), Pope John Paul II of blessed memory teaches in this regard, saying: “We should always remember that it was precisely to this ministerial power that we have been consecrated sacramentally, having been chosen from among men ‘for the good of men.’ We priests, especially those of the Latin Church, whose ordination rite in the course of the centuries added the custom of anointing the priest’s hands, should reflect on this”.

In his masterly work “On the Priesthood” (6, 4), St. John Chrysostom says that the hands of the priest must be sacred, because they touch the Body of Christ: “Consider how sacred ought to be the hands which touch such a sacred thing, how sacred ought to be the tongue which pronounces those words [of consecration], and what great purity and holiness ought to have the soul, which welcomes so great a Spirit.” The following words from his homily on Isaiah 6, 3 clearly illustrate this aspect of his liturgical and Eucharistic theology: “Wondrous is the fact that, though you stand together with the seraphim in the liturgy, nonetheless God permitted you to touch those things which the seraphim dare not touch. The prophet says: ‘Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar”. That altar is the prefiguration (“typos”) and the image (“eikon”) of this altar of ours, in the same way as that fire is the prefiguration (“typos”) and the image (“eikon”) of this spiritual fire. The seraphin dared not touch the coal with his hands, but took it with tongs, whereas you take it with your hand. When you consider the dignity of the gift which is laid upon the altar, it is greater than the ember, which the seraphin touched only with tongs. And when you reflect on God’s love for men (“philanthrophia”), you will recognize that He has not despised our weakness when he laid down upon the altar the gift of His love.”

  1. The more the faithful recognize that the Eucharistic Body of Christ is the greatest sign of the sanctity and of the love of God, the more they have to answer to this gift in an interior attitude of gratitude, of humility and of love. From this interior act illuminated by the faith flows naturally an exterior behavior which expresses adoration and lovingly reverence. Therefore the exterior gestures of adoration and reverence in the liturgy cannot be considered secondary. The very suggestive examples of the behavior of the worshiping angels as described in the Bible (especially in the book of the prophet Isaiah and in the book of the Apocalypse) remain a point of reference for the manner how the Church on earth has to worship when she desires to worship God in the Truth (in Christ) and in the Spirit. According to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church these angelic examples are given in order to be imitated by the faithful. And these examples are very concrete and accessible to men. The first thing is this: to be interiorly orientated toward God and His glory, toward His Face, and His Face is ultimately seen in Jesus Christ on the Cross and in the sacrament if the Eucharist. Then follows this: to recognize God’s majesty, God’s holiness and His love. Then comes this important condition: to ask the merciful God the grace of the interior purity. From this flows the exterior act, that means to make himself also exteriorly small: to bow, to genuflect, to prostrate. Then follow other typical exterior acts of lovingly reverence and of awe such as: to pronounce worthy words of praise and adoration like the Sanctus of the angels, to protect the sacred with a veil or behind steps and rails (iconostasis, communion rails), to kiss the holy objects (firstly the altar), to keep the silence during liturgy, to touch the most sacred reality (the Eucharistic Body) with consecrated, anointed hands.

The faithful have the unique privilege to see and touch God Incarnate in the Eucharistic mystery. Therefore they should show special reverence towards this unfathomable mystery. Once again they can find in the angels an example to imitate. When referring to the reverent attitude of the angels before the empty tomb of Christ, Saint John Chrysostom exhorts the faithful to imitate them, considering the fact that in the Eucharistic liturgy there is no empty tomb of Christ, but the presence of the living Lord himself. Consequently their conduct in the presence of the Eucharistic Body of Christ should be even more reverent than that of the angels before the empty tomb. In his homily on the cemetery and the cross (3) he says: “I exhort you to approach the immolated Lamb with fear, veneration and awe. You certainly know in what manner the angels stood in front of the empty tomb.  Although the body of the Lord was no longer there, nevertheless the angels showed great reverence towards the place which received the body of the Lord. When the angels, who by their excellence by far surpass our human nature, comport themselves before the tomb with such great reverence and awe, how can we dare approach with noise and chatter, not the empty tomb, but the sacred table upon which the Lamb has been laid down?”

Although the “doctor eucharisticus” emphasizes interior purity of the soul as the first requisite for an authentic participation in the liturgy, quite surprisingly he also exhorts the faithful,when entering the church and participating in the Divine Liturgy, to perform external forms of adoration and reverent exterior gestures, after the example of the angels. He calls the church edifice “the dwelling place of angels, of archangels, of the kingdom of God, and of heaven itself” (topos angelon, archangelon, basileia tou Theou, autos ho ouranos; hom. 36, 5 in 1 Cor). He explains this to the faithful in the following words: “The church is heaven. You can imagine it in this way: If someone were to take you to heaven, you certainly would not dare speak to anyone there, not even if you were to see your father or brother there. Likewise, here in the church, one should speak only about spiritual matters, because heaven is here! You should be completely filled with great fear and reverence, even before the tremendous moment of consecration. Be full of awe and attention, even before seeing the holy veils spread upon the altar and the choir of angels preceding the priest. I say even more: ascend at this very moment to heaven!” (ibidem).

  1. This brief overview of the patristic witnesses from the 1st to the 4th centuries reflects the theology of the liturgy and the manner of worship of those times in a geographically universal dimension: Rome – North Africa – Jerusalem – Antioch – Constantinople. They unequivocally manifest the truth that the first and fundamental characteristic of Christian worship is adoration of the majesty of the Triune God in the Eucharistic liturgy, full of awe and deep reverence.

Such adoration finds its concrete expression at holy Mass, when Christ, the Lamb of God is immolated upon the altar at the moment of consecration and when the faithful receive Him in Holy Communion. The revealed word of God itself in the Holy Scripture presents us this characteristic as the indispensable norm of the true worship, as it is particularly evident in Is 6 and in the Book of the Apocalypse. The Church of the Apostles and of the Fathers implemented faithfully and clearly this first and basic characteristic of the liturgy: and this is the vertical, transcendent, Theocentric and Christocentric dimension, which is expressed through the acts of adoration, of the “proskynesis” with all the variety of their exterior manifestation. The creatures who as first creatures and in a most perfect and exemplar manner realize such a worship, are the angels. Both Scripture and the Church Fathers, when stressing the sacred and transcendent dimension of worship, inevitably refer to the angels, as models for imitation. The Letter to the Hebrews (1, 14) describes the angels as “ministering spirits” (pneumata leiturgika). They were the first adorers of the newly born Christ, as we as we read in Hebrews 1,6: “When he leads the first born into the world, he says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship him’” (prokynesátoson). The angels bid us to adore God alone, categorically rejecting worship of creatures. When an angel spoke to John, the apostle fell at his feet to worship him, but the angel said: “Don’t. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brothers who bear witness to Jesus. Worship God!” (proskýneson; Rev 19, 10; 22, 9). From this episode, one can recognize the importance of this liturgical law: when you celebrate the liturgy you must not put the creatures in the centre, be they angels, or be they priests celebrating the liturgy, but only on the Eucharistic Christ, of whom the priest is only the human agent, acting in his name.

  1. The ancient norm of the Holy Fathers is precisely the norm which emphasizes the sacred, the Divine, the heavenly and eternal by acts of adoration and their exterior expressions. All practical norms in the liturgy and even more those which should be revised or changed must have this aim: to express more clearly the sacred, as demanded by the II Vatican Council: “In the renewal of the liturgy the texts and rites have to be ordered in such a manner, that they express more clearly the sacred (textus et ritus ita ordinari oportet, ut sancta, quae significant, clarius exprimant)” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 21).

A liturgical renewal which would put a greater stress on the Christocentric and transcendent character of the liturgy and on concretes gestures of adoration, as shown by the examples in angelical worship, would certainly come much closer to the spirit of Sacred Scripture and the “ancient norm of the holy Fathers”. This could be realized by practical norms, such as the following which have been already proven by centuries-old experience:

  • The Tabernacle where Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, is really present under the species of bread, should be placed in the center of the sanctuary, for in no other place on earth is God, the Emmanuel, so close to men and so really present as in the Tabernacle. The tabernacle as the sign indicating and containing the real presence of Christ, should therefore be closer to the altar and together with it constitute one central sign, indicating the Eucharistic mystery. The sacrament (tabernacle) and the sacrifice (altar) should therefore not be opposed and separated too much, but be both in the central place of the sanctuary. Toward the tabernacle and the altar together should be directed spontaneously all the attention of the faithful.


  • During the Eucharistic Prayer, when Christ the Lamb of God is immolated, the face of the priest should not be seen by the faithful, since the seraphim cover their face when adoring God. It should rather be turned toward Christ, symbolized by the Crucifix on the altar.


  • There should be more gestures of adoration by means of genuflections, especially every time before the priest touches the consecrated host, is the Lamb of God.


  • The faithful approaching to receive the Lamb of God in the Holy Communion, should greet and receive Him with an act of adoration, of kneeling down. Such a gesture would be more biblical, and similar to the angelical “proskynesis”. For, in fact what moment at Mass should be considered by the faithful to be more sacred, than the moment of their encounter with the Lord in Holy Communion?


  • There should be more moments for silence during the liturgy, especially during those moments which mostly express the mystery of the redemption, especially during the Eucharistic prayer when the sacrifice of the Cross is made present.


  • There should be more external signs, which express the priest’s dependence on Christ the High Priest, which would more clearly indicate that his words of greeting (“The Lord be with you”) and his blessing flow from Christ the High Priest. Such signs could be those which were practiced for centuries, such as the kissing of the altar, which symbolizes Christ, or bowing toward the altar or Crucifix every time before the priest says “The Lord be with you (Dominus vobiscum)” and before he blesses the faithful.


  • There should be more signs which express the unfathomable mystery of the redemption. This could be achieved, for example, by the veiling of liturgical objects, which is a liturgical act of the angels (cf Is 6): veiling the chalice, veiling the paten with the humeral as it does the sub-deacon (in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), using a burse to conceal the corporal, symbol of the linen shroud that covered the Body of Christ, veiling the hands of the bishop at a solemn Mass, and making use of Communion rails as a means of veiling the altar. There could also be more signs of the cross by the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer. The faithful could also make the sign of the cross on themselves at certain moments of the liturgy, for example at the end of the “Gloria” and “Credo”.


  • There should also be a constant sign which expresses the mystery also by means of human language, that is to say, by the use of Latin as sacred language as demanded by Vatican Council II (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36 § 1). In the celebration of every holy Mass in each place, for example a part of the Eucharistic Prayer could always be recited in Latin.


  • All those who exercise an active role in the liturgy, such as reading the Word of God (lectors) and those who read the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful should be dressed in a liturgical garb (amice alb and cincture, or cassock with surplice) and they should remain in the sanctuary throughout the Mass, in order to stress the sacred and celestial character also of this concrete liturgical action.


  • The music and the songs during the liturgy should more truly reflect the sacred character. Therefore they should come closer to the song of the angels as this demands the common song of the “Sanctus” in every holy Mass. In order to be really more able to sing with one voice with the angels not only the song of the “Sanctus” but the entire liturgy Holy Mass, it would be necessary that the heart, the mind and the voice of the priest and of the faithful were directed toward the Lord and that this would be manifested by exterior sings and gestures as well.

+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese Saint Mary in Astana