Those of you who have seen some of the most recent YouTube videos know that there is a giant mural on the wall above the altar in my parish depicting the Communion of the Saints. It is nothing like any church artwork that I have seen anywhere else. It was painted by a parishioner in the 1950s. It is epic in its size and scope, depicting the Church militant, Church expectant, and Church triumphant. At the bottom of the painting, the rector at the time, the Rev. Mr. Hodder, is being ordained. Above the ordination are rings of saints, ascending up to a depiction of the Holy Trinity. Surrounding the whole scene are angels, including one carrying a chalice and another carrying a paten. Acolytes carry prayer books with type so large you can actually read it if you are standing directly below.
Not everyone likes the mural. In fact, there are some people who downright hate it. Others love it solely because it has been there for a long time. Few people have moderate opinions. Its artistic sensibility is very much a product of its time and place. It is a bit overwhelming to newcomers, and there are times when I must confess that I wish I could turn it on and off. But what I love about it is that it reminds me each week, in a visible, palpable way, that divine worship is the place where the whole Church is united as one. All of the redeemed creation comes together in the Holy Eucharist, saints and angels, the living and the dead. “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord,” we sing in the Benedicte at Morning Prayer. “Praise him and magnify him for ever.” The whole created order magnifies the Lord in divine worship. During the rest of our lives, it is easy to live a bifurcated existence, to go about with blinders on, ignoring the way that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world renewing the whole of creation, making every truck and every tree branch testify to the glory of God. But when we come into the presence of God to worship Him, in any service of prayer but most especially in the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, there is no escaping the beauty of God’s redemptive work to unite all He has made in a song of loving praise to Him.
Singing with Saints and Angels
Few hymns celebrate this truth more fully than Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. It is a relatively young hymn, having been written in 1906, though the German tune usually associated with it comes from the seventeenth century. But the words are so magnificent, so full of joy at the reality of God bursting forth, that they make my whole body move when I sing them. In each verse, we call upon the saints to join us in praise. The first verse calls to the angels, with their various names and titles. The second calls to the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary, echoing the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in addressing her as “higher than the cherubim” and “more glorious than the seraphim.” Mary is to be venerated and adored far above even the angels and archangels because she is the “bearer of the eternal Word” and so, as she herself says in the Gospel of Luke, she “magnifies the Lord.” Then, in verse three, we invite the patriarchs, prophets, and all the other saints who have gone on to glory to add their voice to the song. Finally, in the last verse, all of that building praise is delivered to the Lord. Just as our mural reaches up to the Holy Trinity, so too does this hymn reach its climax in an invocation and dedication to the Father, Son, and Spirit, “three in one.”
Enjoying the Image of God
I have talked before about the classical Anglican distinction between the advocation of the saints and their invocation as some kind of deities unto themselves. Anglicanism allows for the former while condemning the latter. Of course, many Protestants become nervous whenever anyone or anything but God is brought to the center of the stage. But what this hymn illustrates so well is that the saints and angels cannot be properly loved and adored without properly loving and adoring God because that which is holy and worth praising within them is God’s image, once marred by sin but now restored by the blood of the cross.
Saint Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that there are some things which we use and some which we enjoy. “For to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake,” he said. “To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires.” According to Augustine, we use all good things, even those whom we love, as means by which to enjoy God. “The true objects of enjoyment, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are at the same time the Trinity, one Being, supreme above all, and common to all who enjoy Him.” To modern ears, this sentiment sounds a little strange, since using someone is what we do when we do not actually value them and simply want to get what we want from them before leaving them behind. But Augustine makes a careful distinction between use and abuse. To use someone in our modern parlance is to abuse them, to approach them only in a selfish and sinful manner. But to use in Augustine’s terms is to properly interact with them, to receive from someone or something exactly what that particular creature was created for. When we approach our fellow human beings, we ought to be seeking to see God’s image in them, to celebrate it, sometimes to apply the word of faith that restores it. But when we approach the saints and the angels, those who have already been sanctified by being in the glory of God, we are able to receive from them a much clearer, much richer share of God’s light reflected. They worship God night and day without ceasing. We enter into worship with them and lean on their prayer and praises to make our own prayers holy and acceptable, so that we may worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
The Purpose of Worship
Worship is not about making us feel one way or the other, nor is it about teaching us useful information. Ideally, both our minds and our emotions will be engaged by worship, but that is not what it is about. Ultimately, it is about coming into the presence of God, acknowledging the glory of God, and receiving from God the light that transforms us, heals us, and makes us whole. There is nothing individualistic about it. None of us is saved alone. Jesus Christ died and rose to make all things new. When we sing praises to God along with all the saints, living and in repose, the love of God ripples through us as a single current, and we are forever changed for the better.