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The Need For “Verticality” In The Sacred Liturgy

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In recent years there has been a renaissance in the understanding and appreciation of the importance of facing “ad orientem” in the sacred liturgy, from scholarly studies of its history and theological significance to forthright initiatives for its reimplementation by courageous pastors such as Robert Cardinal Sarah. The powerful symbolism of “directionality” has likewise been discussed in addressing the problem of an excessive modern emphasis upon the “horizontal” dimension of our faith at the expense of its even more important “vertical” dimension.
What perhaps has not been looked at so closely is how in the sacred liturgy the vertical dimension of the Catholic faith has been manifested in so many different ways through words, actions, and sacred music, art and architecture that express an “ascent” over the things of earth. Even the traditional expression for the central altar of a church or cathedral, “high altar,” bears witness to this.
And indeed, the great Catholic architects of the past knew how to express this through the very form of the altar, as well as through the church architecture with which they surrounded it, from the soaring upward thrust of gothic pillars, arches, and vaults to the painted, domed ceilings of the Baroque that created the joyful illusion of gazing up into the infinite heights of Heaven.
These expressions of ascent are all inspired by man’s consciousness of the transcendence of God. Many of the liturgical battles of the last few decades can be traced to a deliberate attempt to purge these expressions of ascent from the sacred liturgy by those intent upon overthrowing the traditional theology of the Holy Eucharist and the sacraments. In some cases, the ideological reasons for this campaign against the “verticality” of traditional Catholic worship run even deeper, constituting an attack upon the very nature of God as a transcendent Supreme Being, a strategy to dethrone Him, as it were, and make Him just “one of us,” or just the cosmos itself, the impersonal god of pantheism.
In many a church shaped by this new mindset, the altar lost its verticality when it was pulled away from the wall and from the tabernacle that had been its glorious summit, and it was turned into a minimalist table, while above it there were no longer any soaring vistas of light, color, and shadow, but instead the barren flatness of a low, featureless ceiling.
Yet man is “hard-wired” to seek what is above. Who is not inspired by the upward thrust and majesty of great mountains or the vast reaches of the sky? And unlike most of the creatures of the animal kingdom, man has the privilege of standing erect, a reminder that he is made in the image and likeness of the transcendent God. Man’s day even begins with an ascent, an ascent from rest to undertake his daily vocation on his feet.
In the liturgical posture of kneeling we find the perfect convergence of man’s twofold identity as both a creature who humbles himself horizontally before His Creator and as a being raised erect to go forth to an eternal destiny of seeing God face to face.
The Mass begins with an ascent, the priest’s ascent to the altar, most beautifully expressed by the verses from Psalm 43 (Vulgate: Psalm 42) that accompany this in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite: “Send forth thy light, and thy truth; they have led me, and have conducted me unto thy holy mountain.” Later in the Mass, as we approach the Eucharistic Prayer, we are summoned to ascend further, unto the Holy of Holies: “Sursum corda” — “Lift up your hearts.”
The supreme moment of “verticality” in the sacred liturgy comes at the time of the consecration; for it is immediately after consecrating first the Host and then the Precious Blood that the priest raises up from the altar first the Host and then the chalice that we might gaze up and adore. Here in this re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary is the liturgical and sacramental fulfillment of our Lord’s prophecies of His oblation on the cross:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15); “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28); “. . . and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
During the liturgical rites of solemn Eucharistic adoration, the priest also raises up before our eyes the Blessed Sacrament enshrined in a monstrance. The very act of the priest raising the Holy Eucharist constitutes a silent “Sursum corda,” inviting the human heart to be lifted up to God and the things of Heaven, to seek the things that are above, as St. Paul put it. And on Good Friday, during the Veneration of the Cross, there is the threefold lifting up of the crucifix by the celebrating priest, inviting us to adore Christ Crucified as our King.
Just as kneeling constitutes the perfect expression in posture of man’s relationship with God as a creature before his Maker, so too, the posture of standing is for a priest celebrating the Holy Eucharist the perfect expression of his role as an alter Christus in confecting and administrating this sacrament.
How very fitting it is that the priest should stand in praying at the altar on our behalf, most especially the words of consecration. Perhaps this is why historically it took a while for the beautiful practice of the priest genuflecting immediately after the consecration to develop and spread. It was a matter of working out through fitting signs and gestures the dual identity of the priest as both an alter Christus, who therefore stands to celebrate, and at the same time a mere creature and a sinner like us in need of God’s mercy, who thus humbly genuflects to worship and adore.
Wherever the traditional practice of kneeling to receive Holy Communion has been preserved or restored, there is a profound interplay of postures between the communicant and the priest distributing Holy Communion, the priest standing over us at the altar rail to give us “from above” the Son of God who came down from Heaven to redeem us.
Here we see an ideal expression of receptivity, the soul’s proper orientation of humbly receiving “from above” whatever God gives or commands, in this case His supreme gift to us on earth, the gift of His very Self in the Holy Eucharist, coming to us from the hands of the priest, which by his priestly Ordination have become, as it were, the hands of Christ.
In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, we see other examples of this evocative interaction between the posture of the priest and that of the faithful, most notably the kneeling of the congregation to receive at the end of the Mass the blessing of the priest, who does so standing at the altar. There is also the kneeling of the faithful to receive from the priest standing over them the ashes of Ash Wednesday, the blessed palms on Palm Sunday, and various blessings conferred individually, such as the blessing of the throats on the feast of St. Blaise.
In both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, it is the custom to receive the eagerly desired and precious first blessing of a newly ordained priest on one’s knees. What a joy it is to kneel before the man we previously knew as a seminarian and now look up to him and call him for the first time “Father.” Our faith is filled with such moments of deeply charged symbolism that convey more than the spoken word can say.
There are, of course, portions of the liturgy that call for the laity to stand, most importantly the Gospel and the recitation of the Creed. In both cases, standing is an expression of attentiveness at its fullest, “awakenedness” as Dietrich von Hildebrand called it, a full and conscious alertness in mind and body to what God has to say to us in the Gospel and what we profess and are willing to “stand up for” in the Creed.
This is why the illicit practice of telling the congregation to sit for the reading of the Passion during Holy Week is so wrong. Certainly those with prohibitive physical infirmities can and should sit, but there is no justification for telling an entire congregation to do so.

The Arm Of God

As we saw earlier, it is by the outstretched arms of the priest that our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is raised on high following the consecration and at the moment of benediction during Eucharistic adoration. But there are other occasions as well when the priest raises his consecrated hands. During the Mass there is a gesture of ascent that properly belongs to the priest in his unique role as alter Christus: the orans.
While it has become commonplace to see lay people in many churches making this gesture of elevating their hands and arms during the Our Father or at various other points in the Mass, in reality it is a gesture that is reserved for the priest alone. This sacerdotal action is prefigured in the stretching out of Moses’ hand over the Red Sea to open it for the passage of the Israelites (Exodus 14:16, 21, 26-27) and in the raising of Moses’ arms in prayer to obtain the Israelites’ victory over Amalek (Exodus 17:10-13).
Time and again in the Old Testament, the power and holiness of the “arm of God” is praised (Deut. 9:29, 11:2; 1 Kings 8:42; Psalm 89:10; Psalm 98:1; Isaiah 52:10), and in her Magnificat our Lady rejoices that the Lord “has shown strength with his arm” (Luke 1:51).
The supreme priestly orans came on Calvary, when our Lord stretched out His arms upon the cross to win our salvation, to be followed on the third day by His glorious ascent from the tomb, His Resurrection, and forty days later, His ascent into Heaven. And it was at His Ascension that Christ lifted up His hands to bless the apostles (Luke 24:50), setting an example for all the priestly blessings that have been conferred ever since.
In confronting the Pharisees, Christ declared, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (John 8:23). Let those take heed of these words who misguidedly think that the Church’s traditional expressions of verticality in her sacred worship can simply be done away with as needless and theologically obsolete anthropomorphic inventions.
These symbolic actions are crucial to our perception of who God really is and who we really are.

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