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Sursum corda

This is the last of three reflections on hierarchy. Part one, Part two.

By Christopher Wells

Human beings are made for worship of God: at once, to repent and acclaim his glorious name, and to bow before him in gratitude. The basic posture of penitence and praise provides a liturgical proof, a law of prayer, for hearts in need of awakening. And the pattern is inscribed into creation, which provides a prototype for redemption, superintended by the Word spoken by the Father from all eternity, which Word amazingly was made flesh and dwelt among us, and now is seated at God’s right hand, as the King that he is. St. Paul explains that “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come,” God “has put all things under” Christ’s feet and “made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:21-23).

When we worship the triune God, we stand below our Lord Jesus, looking up to his throne in “heaven,” as the creed affirms, to the One who remains Word and Wisdom from before all worlds. God the Lord made all his works in wisdom (Ps. 104:25); he sends forth his Spirit and they are created (Ps. 104:31). Our own fearing of the Lord as a beginning of wisdom takes hold here, at the foothills of wonder, in a mood of awe: “You wrap yourself with light as with a cloak and spread out the heavens like a curtain. You lay the beams of your chambers in the waters above; you make the clouds your chariot; you ride on the wings of the wind” (Ps. 104:2-3). But this is the same Word of God who St. John identifies as riding out from heaven, called Faithful and True, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:11, 13, 16). This King and Lord is the messianic Lamb of God that was slaughtered and by his blood “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” and “made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (Rev. 5:9; cf. 17:14).

Again, interlocking hierarchies spring from the ordered life and mission of the Trinity, yielding similarly structured orders of creation and redemption that comprehend the whole assembly of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, summoned to sing the praises of God and to worship the Lamb. And a surprising pattern of sacrifice centers on the effective humility of God, who willingly takes on “the punishment that made us whole; by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the fifth- or sixth-century Syrian theologian revered alike in East and West, picks all of this up in his classic Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which offers a comprehensive account of the Church’s divinely saturated life and work, centered on Jesus as

the source and the being underlying all hierarchy, all sanctification, all the workings of God … . [Jesus] assimilates them, as much as they are able, to his own light. As for us, with that yearning for beauty which raises us upward (and which is raised up) to him, he pulls together all our many differences. He makes our life, disposition, and activity something one and divine, and bestows on us the power appropriate to a sacred priesthood. (1.1)

Dionysius uncovers the structure and contemplative meaning of sacred Scripture and the sacraments within this hierarchical Christology, with special attention paid to the Eucharist and holy orders. Prototypically, he places the bishop or “hierarch” at the altar for the celebration of the communion or “synaxis,” to stand as something of a sacrament of human obedience, a “man of God” called to model faithful imitation. The hierarch must therefore be humble, as Christ was humble. He “praises the divine works … wrought gloriously by Jesus” for the good pleasure of the Father and the Holy Spirit, as Scripture avers (3.III.12). And he follows “the rules laid down by God himself,” which is why,

having sung the sacred praises of the divine works, he apologizes, as befits a hierarch, for being the one to undertake a sacred task so far beyond him. Reverently, he cries out: “It is you who said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’” He prays, then, to be made more worthy to do this holy task in imitation of God. He prays that, like Christ himself, he might perform the divine things. He prays too that he might impart wisely and that all those taking part may do so without irreverence. (3.III.12)

For their part, the gathered faithful strive to reflect the fact of Jesus having “united [their] humility with his own supreme divinity” by giving their “full attention to his divine life in the flesh.” Jesus’ “sacred sinlessness must be our model so that we may aspire to a godlike and unblemished condition. This is how, in a way that suits us, he will grant us communion with his likeness” (3.III.12).

Suitability, capacity, is very much the point, because God wisely orders all things, invisible and visible, and arranges their relation, one to another, in ranks that serve the singular purpose of leading others to be like God (5.I.4; cf. 5.I.2). We modern readers will struggle with Dionysus’s language of “superior” and “inferior,” but he has in view the gifts given to creatures by God, which enable varying degrees of perfection, and attendant obligations to initiate those coming up below (5.I.2; 5.I.4). If the Dionysian Church seems idealized or abstracted, it should be understood in this light: as a grateful unfolding of God’s promises through the incarnation of his Son, who in turn imparts faith, hope and love, enabling obedience. Therefore “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

Progress in the things of God is primarily enabled by the sacraments, through which God purifies, illuminates, and perfects human beings (5.I.3; cf. 3.I). And the three orders of ministry may be mapped onto this same triad, as a “symbolic representation of divine action,” which is itself “ordered and harmonious” (5.I.7). Critically, Dionysius speaks here of the orders of ministry and their functions, not individual incumbents; we may presume that clerical failings were as common in his day as in any other. By divine design, (1) deacons purify newcomers — for instance, by taking away the postulant’s old clothes at baptism, and likewise calling him “to cast aside the garments of his old life.” Deacons also “incubate” postulants “by means of the cleansing enlightenments and teachings of Scripture.” (2) Next, “the light-bearing order of priests,” who also help to purify, “guide the initiates to the divine visions of the sacraments” —  teaching in their own right, in a contemplative mode, under the authority of bishops and in fellowship with them. (3) Lastly, bishops (hierarchs), besides helping to purify and illuminate, are called to seek and serve perfection, which makes them “the first of those who behold God.” Sacramentally speaking, the hierarchs “perfect the holiest of symbols and all the sacred ranks,” that is, they consecrate the holy oil and holy altar and ordain priests and deacons to holy orders. In this way, they “fully possesses the power of consecration” (all from 5.I.5-6).

God, however, is the real consecrator, as the source of all sacramental power and its salutary effects. God “inspires every hierarchic sanctification,” writes Dionysus (5.III.5), that is, God elects, God chooses (see 5.I.1). When Moses consecrates Aaron, though he knows his brother “to be a friend of God and worthy of the priesthood,” he awaits the command of God as source. Similarly and profoundly, Jesus — who, “in his endless love for us” serves as “our own first and divine consecrator,” writes Dionysus — “did not exalt himself in becoming a high priest” (Heb. 5:5). Rather, the consecrator of God incarnate was the one who said to him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, quoting Ps. 110:4). How to understand this deference on Jesus’ part? It is like his instruction to his disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; … you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). By this promise, writes Dionysius, Jesus bestowed consecration on his disciples “in hierarchic fashion” by referring the act “to his most holy Father and to the Divine Spirit” (5.III.5).

Jesus, the “Shepherd and Bishop of our souls” (1 Pet. 2:25), demonstrates the pattern of divine hierarchy by offering himself sacrificially to God. He is our spiritual worship as a reasonable Word, spoken in Love by the Father from eternity and incarnated as a man for our salvation. Although he suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried, he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. In him, human beings also hope to be raised to new life, remade in “the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of The Living Church Foundation.


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