Historians, theologians, and liturgists are always thrilled to study ancient writings that shed light on the way early Christians actually prayed and worshiped together in their public liturgies. We often come across the complaint that detailed evidence on how Christians in the first centuries worshiped is notoriously sparse and filled with gaps. Occasionally, however, in addition to details scattered throughout the writings of various early authors, there have been left to us whole treatises that help us reconstruct concrete details and give us a clearer picture of what Christians actually said and did. A few famous examples spring to mind, such as the Didache, the Apostolic Tradition, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the wonderful Travels of Egeria. Rarer still, there are treatises that, sometimes describing the liturgy, sometimes presuming certain commonly known liturgical actions, comment on the deep meaning and import of various liturgical details for Christian existence. We may think, for example, of Origen’s On Prayer, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, Dionysius the Areopagite’s Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and, of special interest for this essay, Maximus the Confessor’s Mystagogia.
This last work, penned in Greek in the earlyseventh century, represents an unfolding, heuristic application of the symbolic mysteries of the Church’s eucharistic liturgy to the ascetic life. It is an application grounded not just in ideas, but in the lived experience of the housed enactment of the divine liturgy, an enactment that implies a predetermined, given complex of concrete ritual, social, and geographical arrangements. At the same time, the Mystagogia offers an implicit ecclesiology in which the Church is envisioned as the sacrament of human deification. This means that the Church is for Maximus not so much an objective thing as a realm of sacred relations and actions in which there is experienced divine and deifying activity.
Before we examine Maximus’s Mystagogia in more detail, a few comments on his wider ecclesiology are pertinent. Two key aspects of liturgical or ritual action that Maximus often focuses upon are visual action and dramatic movement. In and through its liturgy, the Church enacts a spectacular and performative epiphany of the transfigured Lord who, present in heaven and on earth as eternal high priest, radiates through his body the light of his divine glory. The function of the liturgy is to present God visibly on earth to the eyes of faith. For Maximus, the Church is like the priesthood: it has been instituted to draw people to God, to mediate sacramentally and especially visually between God and humanity. “God ordained the priesthood to represent him on earth to ensure that he may not cease being seen bodily and that his mysteries may not cease appearing to those with eyes to see.” The liturgical president communicates heavenly, divine realities on earth, bodily, and more specifically, visibly. For Maximus it is to the eyes more than to any other sense that the priest presents God, for the eyes are the physical organ by which the mind, reflecting on sensible phenomena, is able to penetrate through to apprehend spiritual, divine realities. In turn, the priest draws to himself all those under his care and presents them, perfectly deified, to God. It is chiefly in his role as one who renders visible the divine “mysteries” that the priest is most truly the bodily image of God on earth.
There is also more to be said about this “drawing” power of the priest’s liturgical actions. The term echoes Jesus’ words in John 12:32 about his impending priestly and royal activity on the cross: “And when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.” But Maximus’s immediate source of inspiration for this image is more likely Dionysius the Areopagite. In Dionysius the Greek word “to draw”—helkein—comprehends the entire function of the Church’s sacerdotal office in which the hierarch—the bishop—serves as a mediating ray for the assimilation to God of all the orderly ranks under him. This of course indicates that Dionysius, and Maximus following him, understood the notion of hierarchy differently from the way it is commonly understood today: As Dionysius writes: “Hierarchy is, to my mind, a sacred order, knowledge, and activity, which involves being assimilated to likeness with God as much as possible and, in response to the illuminations that are given it from God, is raised to the imitation of him in its own measure….” The purpose of hierarchy, then, is to bring about assimilation to God and, as far as possible, union with him.
Commenting on this passage in Dionysius, Orthodox scholar Andrew Louth explains that “hierarchy has a healing purpose…. Hierarchy is the theophany of God’s love that beings are.” Hierarchy is indeed a set of ordered, God-ordained relations, but their purpose is to ensure communion and assimilating union with God.
Turning now to Maximus’s Mystagogia, I want to show how, for Maximus, it is only through the Church, insofar as it is the place of divine “fullness,” and specifically through her public liturgy—understood as “the sacred arrangement of the divine symbols,” and so hierarchically and dramatically performed—that humanity is deified and God ultimately becomes “all in all.” For while in his divine omnipresence God is equally present to every soul or in all the cosmos, it is in the concrete, corporeal actions of the Church’s Eucharistic synaxis that the grace of the Holy Spirit is present “most distinctively” to “transmute, transform and transfigure” each person.
Liturgy’s Deifying Power
Maximus was a monk, not a priest. Yet his commentary on the liturgy indicates a sensitivity to the total movement of both lay baptized and clergy in the distinct spaces that house the Church’s worship. Maximus generally pays greater attention in his Mystagogia to the symbolic value of visual action and ritual movement than to the significance of particular sacramental words or objects. For him the Church’s liturgy constitutes a progressive series of unfolding symbolic, theandric activities through which the hidden, eschatological union of the cosmos in and with God is manifested and realized in historic time. He is unique among Greek mystagogues in according particular symbolic prominence to the church building’s architectural topography in the traditional division of the church building into two spaces: the nave, accessible to all the lay faithful; and the sanctuary, accessible exclusively to priests and deacons. This topography speaks for Maximus of the inherent unity and diversity of the Church, the human being, and the entire cosmos. While each remains a distinct space whose boundary is governed by the hierarchical orders and the kind of liturgical action performed in it, the church site, “being by construction a single building… is one in its actual reality without being divided with its parts on account of their difference from one another.”
In going on to explain how it is that this fundamental unity of the church building is a single, particular reality is not damaged by the difference admitted through its division into two distinct ritual spaces, Maximus uses a special term which in his metaphysics explains how there can be simultaneous identity and difference between God and the myriad of created things. The term is anaphora. It means a reference or relationship towards someone or something higher, and suggests a passage towards a higher plane. And so, “by means of their reference (anaphora)” to God, the many logoi in the universe are related to the one Logos. In the context of the way this metaphysic works out in the Church’s liturgy, Maximus writes that “by means of the reference [of the parts] to [the building’s] unity, the church releases these parts from their difference in name, reveals both to be identical with one another, and shows one to be to the other reciprocally what each one is in itself: the nave, being sanctified as a priestly offering by the reference (anaphora) of the sacred rite to its destination, is the sanctuary in potential; and in turn the sanctuary, since it has the nave as the starting point of its own sacred rite, is the nave in actuality. The church remains one and the same through both.”
It is worth underscoring that Maximus is here speaking about a decidedly concrete, material object: the church as a building, and the actual rite of the synaxis which begins in the nave and proceeds to the sanctuary. The sanctuary, towards which the focus of the people in the nave is drawn and to which they finally come for communion, constitutes the final destination of the whole rite. From the beginning of the service then, the nave is already the sanctuary in potential, since the progressive movement of “the sacred rite” orients its lay occupants towards it. But this rite which properly culminates in the sanctuary actually begins in the nave as the first processional entrance of the people with the bishop.
Maximus’s meditations on the twofold division of the church space are therefore bound to his observation of the way in which those different parts function in the ritual actions and movement of the liturgy. In no way does his insistence on their fundamental unity or even identity imply that the division is arbitrary or dispensable. The two spaces in the church building are distinct elements in a single reality whose primary, final, subjective singularity is brought about by the ordered, reciprocal penetration of its parts and their ritually determined orientation to their final state. Suggested in Maximus’s use of the metaphysical term “reference” is, in contrast to Dionysius, an eschatological perspective that views the different parts in terms of what they will become (and thus are) as a single subject. It cannot be accidental that he finds this term especially applicable to a relationship centered upon and realized in association with the unfolding movement of the Eucharistic assembly, whose central prayer addressed to God the Father was also called the anaphora. It is chiefly by means of their ritually achieved “reference” or upward, eschatological orientation to the final unity realized through communion in the earthly-heavenly sanctuary that the distinct parts of the church building—and, by extension, the members who occupy those parts—compose a single subsistent reality.
What I want to emphasize is that the metaphysical “reference” of the parts to their whole is seen here to be ritually achieved. The ordered divisions of the church building and the two-tiered structure of the liturgy are presented by Maximus as the means of ritually effecting—by disclosing—the unity of “another sort of church not made with human hands,” that is, the cosmos—likewise undivided in its division into intelligible and sensible reality. The “reference” of the distinct parts to their indivisibly single, subsistent reality—whether church building or cosmos—allows those parts to be seen at the same time as identical both to that single reality and to each other. The whole wholly fills all its parts, and in and through each distinct part there is made manifest entire both the other part and the whole. Taking this section in the Mystagogia further, not simply as a commentary on church architecture but as a demonstrative parable of “the holy Church of God” as image of the cosmos, the Church’s fundamental unity, which at one level might be perceived only as an eschatological finality, is realized here and now, in subsistent, subjective actuality, via the inductive movement enacted in “the sacred rite.”
Maximus describes the same ritually achieved reality with even greater metaphysical precision in the first chapter of the Mystagogia when, in defining how the Church “bears the type and image of God,” he states that it shares “by imitation and type” God’s activity by which he draws diverse beings together into unconfused union with one another in himself. Here again we find the term “reference” playing a pivotal role. But before we examine the particulars, let us first view the chapter as a whole.
The Church’s Deifying Unity
In the first half of the first chapter of the Mystagogia, Maximus outlines the entire economy of God’s activity in creation as it can be summarized by the biblical and Neoplatonic formula that knows God to be “all in all.” Having created all intelligible and sensible beings, Maximus notes, “God contains, gathers, circumscribes, and providentially binds them to himself and to one another. Maintaining around himself as cause, beginning, and end all beings that are naturally set apart from one another, he makes them converge with one another by virtue of the singular power of their relation to him as beginning.” It is this indissoluble “relation” that proves to be the critical factor in the simultaneous unity and identity of diverse beings with one another and with God. So much is this the case that it is said by Maximus to “render impotent and obscure all the particular relations considered according to each being’s nature, not by dissolving or destroying them or making them cease to exist, but by overcoming and transcendently revealing them in the way of a whole with its parts…. For just as parts naturally come from the whole, so also do effects properly proceed and come to be recognized from their cause and suspend their particularity in a state of rest at which point, having acquired their reference to the cause, they are wholly qualified in accordance with the singular power of their relation to the cause.”
In the same way, as an image reflecting its archetype, the Church effects with human beings the very same activity God performs in creation. But the two activities—ecclesial and divine—are not simply parallels. The activities are the same, in that their effects are indistinguishable. Mirroring the vast diversity in creation, almost infinite is the multiplicity of men, women, and children differing from one another by race and class, nationality and language, custom and age, opinions and skills, manners and habits, pursuits and studies, reputation, fortune, characteristics and connections. Yet distinct and different as they are, Maximus writes that “those who are brought into being in the Church are by her reborn and recreated in the Spirit.” The language here is at once metaphysical and baptismal, since holy baptism is the primary means by which the Church as active subject brings about in these disparate people an utterly new mode of existence. It is in connection with this baptismal, ritual activity of the Church that we find Maximus once again pairing the terms “relation” and “reference”: “The Church confers on and gives to all equally a single divine form and designation, namely, both to belong to Christ and to be named from him. And she confers on and gives to all in proportion to faith a simple, whole, and indivisible relation which, on account of the universal reference and gathering of all things into her, hides from recognition the existence of the many and innumerable differences among them.”
“Relation,” therefore, as the beneficial result of the universal, eschatological “reference and gathering” of all creation into the Church, and as a condition commensurate to faith, is brought about ritually through baptism. On account of it “no one at all is separated from what is common to him.” Rather “all converge and join with one another by virtue of the one, simple, indivisible grace and power of faith, for all, he says, had but one heart and soul (Acts 4:32), since to be and to appear as one body of different members is actually worthy of Christ himself, our true head.” This convergence, according to Maximus, is none other than the fulfilment of the Apostle’s words in the great baptismal text of Galatians 3:28, and of Colossians 3:11 in which Christ himself is said to be “all and in all.” To be one is to be the Church, and to be the Church is to be Christ. Separation from this reality amounts to dissolution into relative non-being. The soul’s activity as a member of the body, the Church’s activity as the Body of Christ, Christ’s activity as Savior and head, and God the Trinity’s activity as creator are, at the level of effect, one and the same. Maximus predicates to God an activity among created beings of identical character and employing identical means to that of the Church: “[God] softens the differences surrounding them and creates an identity by their reference and union to himself.” The Church images God because the union of the faithful with God it effects is the union of the whole universe with God achieved by him without confusion.
From this analysis of one of the great liturgical commentaries in the patristic era, we can see how for Maximus the Church is a kind of liturgical synthesis of all creation. Through its thoroughly historical, hierarchical, doctrinal, and liturgical constitution, it brings into being the new creation. The ritually-achieved ecclesial union Maximus envisages between God and the soul/cosmos is nothing short of that future nuptial mystery heralded by Moses (Genesis 2:23), marveled at by St. Paul (Ephesians 5:29-32), and unveiled in all its splendor in St. John’s Apocalypse (Revelation 21:1-4). Drawing upon language familiar to the tradition of contemplative exegesis of Solomon’s Song of Songs, Maximus calls it “the blessed and most holy intercourse by virtue of which there is accomplished that awesome mystery of the union surpassing mind and reason, a mystery through which God becomes one flesh and one spirit with the Church, and thus with the soul, and the soul with God.” Indeed, in the ritual expulsion of the catechumens and the closing of the doors in the liturgy, there is anticipated the future passing away of the material world, the complete abolition of deceitful activity in the senses, and the entry of the worthy into the intelligible world, that is, into “the bridal chamber of Christ.” No wonder then that near the end of the Mystagogia Maximus exhorts his readers not to abandon the holy assembly at which the mysteries of their salvation are performatively demonstrated. There, in an exclusively defined space, through the ritual actions of the Eucharistic liturgy culminating in Holy Communion, are exhibited proleptically “the archetypal mysteries”: gifts of the Holy Spirit in which the baptized in this life already participate and in which they shall in the age to come participate “in actual, concrete fact,” that is, when they pass from “grace by faith” to “grace by sight.”
Much of the substance of this article represents a compressed development of material published in my Holy Flesh, Wholly Deified: The Place of the Body in St. Maximus the Confessor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Adam Cooper is Associate Professor of theology and church history at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, Australia.