In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
During all of this Lent, my brothers and sisters, we’ve been, Sunday by Sunday, listening to the readings from what’s called the epistle to the Hebrews. It appears to be not so much an epistle as a substantial sermon, although the last four verses at the end seem to be a covering letter of some kind. The sermon describes itself as a logos paraklēseōs, a word of exhortation, the same word that’s used in the Acts of the Apostles when the apostles get up and speak in the synagogue. They give a logos paraklēseōs, a haggadah, a word of exhortation. The Christian sermon came from the synagogue ritual.
This morning we’re in chapter nine. Only four verses, chapter nine, where it’s got to be read, but I’ve preached on those four verses a lot of times over the years. So I had the subdeacon lengthen it out to 14 verses, which a rubric does allow you to do, thankfully. If I’m going to continue preaching much longer, I’m going to have to apply that rubric a lot!
This morning, then, the author describes the sanctuary and the holy of holies within the sanctuary. He lists various things in the sanctuary, and then, to my immense distress, he says, “We cannot now speak of these things in detail.” [Laughter] You see, a good sermon is in the details! This morning, however, I do want to speak about three of these things in detail: first of all, the sanctuary itself; the bread; and the lampstand.
First, let us speak about the sanctuary. What is a sanctuary? A sanctuary is that which holds a civilization together. Any people, any cultured people, civilized people, builds its life around its sanctuary. There was an experiment in the 20th century to have a city without a sanctuary. Nobody tried that until the 20th century—well, I take that back. They really did try it in the French Revolution, but that was such a fizzle it’s not worth talking about. But the Russian Revolution didn’t do much better; it lasted a bit longer but didn’t do much better. And now the traditional sanctuaries of the Russian people have been restored, and the Russian people are better for it—the sanctuaries.
This is true of every civilization. Every civilization worthy of the name has its sanctuary. Whether that sanctuary is a holy mountain—they tell me that Mt. Rushmore once served that purpose—or a church, a cathedral. One goes to the smallest cities throughout Europe: the skyline is dominated by a sanctuary, and the entire economy of the region maintains that sanctuary. That’s why they have such a wonderful sanctuary in the city of Reims: the cathedral of Reims. A thousand years of producing champagne will take care of that for you. It might be a temple, as in ancient Egypt, ancient Assyria, ancient Persia, Greeks, Romans; a mosque, whatever it is. It’s a place for people to consecrate it to full human life.
This is as it should be for the simple reason that human beings were made for worship. And people who do not worship are living lives seriously less than human. Worship is not simply one of the things that human beings do; it is the most important thing they do. It is the activity that best defines what a human being is. Indeed, according to sacred Scripture, if we are pleasing to God, then we will spend all eternity in worship.
Cardinal Newman has a marvelous sermon—in fact, I think it’s the first sermon; I think it’s the very first sermon in the Parochial and Plain Sermons, all eight volumes; last time I finished all eight volumes I was only about 19, however, but if I recall, that was the first sermon—where he talks about worship, remarking that we might as well prepare ourselves for it now, because that is one of the two options left to us after we die. Another way of putting that is: You might as well get used to the smell of incense—remembering that your glorified body will not have any allergies [Laughter]—because in the next world there are only two scents: incense and brimstone.
Newman goes on to say, if memory serves, that those who can’t stand the thought of hearing anybody ever again say, “The Lord be with you” or “Let us pray,” will not find it a word of comfort to hear anyone say, “Enter into the joy of your Lord.” He’s inviting you to an eternal service of worship. On the other hand, those who don’t like worship, have no use for it, for whom any service is too long, they need not worry ever again about worship. They need not concern themselves with the problem. See, no force can make us worship, in this life or in the next, so if someone does not want to worship, no one will compel them; they will never have to worship again. In fact, that’s a good definition of hell. It’s a place where worship is impossible.
Since all human beings are designed, are constructed, are put together, in order to worship, God sent his only Son into the world to make true worship possible. It is only in this Son that we are able to offer to God that true worship for which we were created, and without this Son, without the revelation given by this Son, there’s a real danger this worship will have an in-built frustration, the frustration that’s attendant upon idolatry. Hence the importance of the temple.
Temple comes from the Greek verb temno, which means “to divide.” For the Romans, used to con-tem-plate. What did they do when they con-tem-plated? They divided the heavens and then watched where the birds went. That was an act of con-tem-plation. What is the will of heaven? They would divide it; see where the birds go. See if you get a sign.
A temple is a consecrated place; it’s set aside, for worship. There was a great deal, a lot about the temple, all during Lent, wasn’t it? Goodness gracious, I mean, all that symbolism of the temple and the “open to me,” the song, the hymn at matins. We’ve had it every Sunday before Lent started, since the Triodion started: “Open to me the gates of repentance,” and it talks about entering into the temple of God’s presence, the temple of the body—all those, that discourse on the temple.
The Old Testament sanctuary, about which we read today, was constructed on a heavenly model. It says that Moses went on the mountain, and he contemplated—he con-tem-plated—the temple, the sanctuary in heaven. He came down and gave instructions to Aaron how it was to be built. Now, the great theme of the epistle to the Hebrews is that we Christians go in, not to an earthly temple; we go into the heavenly temple, the one that Moses saw in vision on the mountain. It is in that heavenly sanctuary that the Son enables us to worship. Indeed, we already have access to that heavenly sanctuary.
When I was 18, I remember being blown away by a sermon by a Benedictine monk named Dom Damasus Winzen from New York. It was a sermon on the 12th chapter of Hebrews, and the text of the sermon is the one I’m going to read you right now—the text on which the sermon was built, from the 12th chapter of Hebrews, three chapters after today’s reading.
You have come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven; and to God, the Judge of all; and to the spirits of just men made perfect; and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant; and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.
That’s what we’ve done this morning. That’s what’s going on here this morning. Here’s where we’ve come. Where did we come? You thought you were coming to 4129 West Newport—no! This is just the bus! You’ve come to the city of the living God, Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and joined yourself to an innumerable company of angels, with the general assembly of the firstborn, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect—Who are these just men made perfect? Well, their pictures are all around us, these just men made perfect—to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling.
Now, the author of Hebrews does not say, “You will come.” He says, “You have come.” In Jesus our mediator we are already standing among the innumerable company of angels. It is already a fact. Because of his eloquent blood, we take our place already among the spirits of just men made perfect. This is why we invoke the saints in our worship and make mention of the angels. We are already in their presence, standing before the same throne at which the saints worship.
Let me add parenthetically: All that happens every time you close your mind and pray! You’re not just you and God. That’s platonic prayer, you and God. That’s Hindu prayer. When you pray, you’re praying in the blood of Christ. You’re praying with the angels and the saints. It’s really quite amazing how much really quite pagan philosophy enters into our thinking.
That troparion for St. Mary of Egypt, that really does need to be rewritten, doesn’t it? Did you listen closely to the troparion for St. Mary of Egypt? It really does need to be rewritten. “We have despised the body because it is perishing, but cultivate the soul because it’s immortal.” Socrates would have said that. The body is also immortal. That’s the act of faith. We don’t have this big distinction between body and soul that is cultivated, say, in the Upanishads. A Platonist got his finger in there someplace.
The Church of Jesus Christ does not simply offer a worship service, distinct from the eternal worship already in progress. You see, no matter how early you get to church in the morning, the service is already going on. It’s already going on. When we showed up this morning, we pretended like we were starting the service, but what we were doing was simply “clicking in” to the conference call. [Laughter] The service is already going on. The conversation is already taking place. Eternity is now. Heaven is here. We’ve already come to Mount Zion.
Second, this morning, let us talk about the bread that is central to biblical worship. In today’s reading, two forms of the bread were mentioned: the showbread, the table with the showbread that was changed each week, the table of showbread; and also the golden pot that had manna, that was in the ark of the covenant. Both those breads were in the holy place in the sanctuary, the temple of the Old Testament. The prefigurations of the bread, which is at the center of Christian life in the Christian temple, these two forms of bread in the Old Testament sanctuary, the miraculous manna and what is called “the bread of the presence”—what a marvelous expression: “the bread of the presence.” They foreshadowed the living Bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. That’s why the chief focal point in the worship of the Church—in the very structure of the Church—the chief focal point is on the box that’s on the altar that has the Latin name tabernaculum, which means “a little tent”: tabernaculum. It’s where the bread of the presence is maintained, which is the Body of Christ.
In both the Old Testament and the New, some form of bread is central to the act of worship. Biblical worship was constructed around the bread. Indeed, the central act of worship prescribed in the New Testament, the major defining act of worship of the Christian Church, is simply called “the breaking of the bread.” It does not have to be defined further; everyone knows what it means. Without this bread, there is no Church. It is this bread that makes the Church.
The bread that we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread, one body. For we are all partakers of the one bread. [1 Corinthians 10:16-17]
The bread that Jesus gives he tells us is his flesh for the life of the world. In our worship in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life comes in power upon a loaf of bread. That invocation is called the epiklēsis. Presently that bread, along with the cup of wine, will be brought in solemn procession. We don’t just walk it over from the side to the altar. We could do that. Everything would still work. [Laughter] It would still work. We don’t! We march it around in procession. Just bread and wine. Then we put it on the altar in a very, very solemn way. Over that bread and wine is invoked the dynamis, the power, of the Holy Spirit. This is just a loaf of bread, baked in an oven in a kitchen in a home in the Church. I think the bread for consecrating today… Who baked the bread this week? I know it was Debbie last week. Who baked the bread today? They’re not going to tell me. [Dimitri!] Oui, très bien!
This bread that was baked in a kitchen receives the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It consecrates not just the bread. There’s a consecration that takes place in the oven. Your oven’s been consecrated. The Holy Spirit transforms that bread into a type of the eternal manna, of which the servants of God will feast forever. Remember, that is how eternal life is described in the book of Revelation: “I will give him the new manna.” In rabbinical works, in the Talmud, for example, it describes how there’s a great big mill up in heaven where God mills. He mills the wheat for the manna. It’s marvelous, marvelous; fantastic image. It is of this bread that Jesus said, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, that man may eat thereof and not die.” Our worship, then, is a foretaste of the mysterious bread which will sustain us for all eternity.
A medieval hymn which refers to the holy communion is the Panis Angelicus, also Panis Angelorum, the angelic bread, bread of angels. That’s an image that comes from the Talmud, that the angels are the ones who bake the manna. What are we going to find in heaven? A bakery! [Laughter] A bakery. That’s a great metaphor for the eternal feeding that God intends to give us with his own life, who he is.
Third, there was a candlestick in that sanctuary. Why? Because if you don’t have a candle, everything is dark. Sometimes it’s good to reflect on a church in which the only light would be that of candles, and that was the case for most of Church history: the only light was that of candles. When we gather next, we’ll be having evening services where the only light will be that of candles. We won’t use the electrical light; [only] the light of candles. That’s why there are candles on the altar.
I remember having a student, years ago. He was a bit of a wag and a constant source of entertainment. He used to refer to the lights, the candles on the altar, as the landing lights for the Holy Spirit. [Laughter] I didn’t say that it was deep… [Laughter]
That’s why biblical worship is very much concerned with light: the lights in the sanctuary, the lamps in the sanctuary, the lamps in the temple, the lighting of the lamps in the home for the beginning of the sabbath, the lighting of the lamps of the home for the beginning of the feast days. This is extremely important, because biblical faith is a faith of light. In the sanctuary, there was a candlestick, because the area would otherwise be dark.
The worship of God is an exercise of light. All creation begins with light. What are God’s first recorded words? “Yehi ‘or: let there be light.” In the book of Revelation, it ends on the theme of light. “The Lord God Almighty is the lamp thereof, and the Lamb.” In our eternal worship, according to St. John, there will be no night. John says, then (book of Revelation), “The night was no more.” Remember, God creates the light; God does not create the darkness. The difference between heaven and hell is a matter of light. Everlasting loss is described as darkness, but eternal life as described as light.
The lamp in the Mosaic sanctuary has seven branches. It’s also later on in Solomon’s temple, in the second temple. Why seven? Seven is the number of perfection. The seven-branch candlestick symbolizes the fullness of light. You see, every candle is a sunrise in miniature. Seven of them together symbolize a sun brighter than our sun. This lamp in the sanctuary symbolized the divine light of which St. John said, “This is the message that we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is light.” God is light. “In him there is no darkness at all.”
We worship God, my brothers and sisters, in order to remain in the light, to drive all darkness from our minds and hearts. Again, St. John:
If we say we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not do the truth; but if we walk in the light, even as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
This light is also the first of God’s creatures, which is a good reason for worshiping on Sunday. Christians don’t worship—at least, that’s not our official day of worship—on the sabbath. It’s transposed to the next day. The “eighth day,” it’s traditionally called; the eighth day, the new creation. The great psalm of the morning with which we begin matins says, “God is the light.” God is the light. He causes his light to shine upon us. This is the day on which God said, “Let there be light.” This original light in Genesis was not only a fact; it was also a promise, that God whose first work was light intended for everything to be transformed in light. That first day was pointing toward a greater Sunday and an everlasting light.