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The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window by Unknown artist
Reredos, The Temple Church, London by Christopher Wren
The Blood of the Redeemer by Giovanni Bellini

Unknown artist

The Ark of the Covenant (Quadriga Aminadab), detail from The Allegories of Saint Paul window, 12th century, Stained glass, Abbey Church, Saint-Denis, France, Photo: Bulloz © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Christopher Wren

Reredos, The Temple Church, London, Church built 12th century; interior 17th/18th century, Architecture, London, UK, Photo: Christopher Christodoulou

Giovanni Bellini

The Blood of the Redeemer, c.1465, Tempera on panel, 47.6 x 35.2 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought 1887, NG1233, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Once and For All

Comparative Commentary by

It is vital—if Christian theology is to remain true to itself—to find within God’s Covenants an eternal consistency in the blessings offered in the Old Covenant to the Jews and in the New to Gentiles as well. Hebrews 9 still confronts us with the challenge.

(Giovanni Bellini addressed a rather different question: how to keep all that is precious in ancient paganism in our passage onwards into Christianity. Between Jesus and those two small pilgrims on the right stands the balustrade, shown with classical-style sculptures of pagan rituals. These pagan figures are shown with respect; but here Christ’s blood has—quite literally—passed beyond them. His right hand both emphasizes and blocks an ancient ritual for the dead.)

For Abbot Suger and the twelfth-century Church, Jewish thought represented a literal, worldly, ‘fleshly’ reading of the Old Testament. Only the New Testament—and the Christ revealed in it—unveiled the true, spiritual, heavenly sense of Scripture. It was a passing from the material to the immaterial, as from darkness to light.

And Christian theology has for centuries been absorbed by light. While the full power of the primordial light (Genesis 1:16) would blind us, the sapphire-coloured light of St Denis suggests the partial illumination of our human ignorance: a dim, ever-changing image of the great light of God’s perfection which is too brilliant for us to see.

Suger wrote of his intense, trance-like contemplation of gold, pearls, and jewels—jasper, sapphire, emerald, etc.—on and around the Abbey’s High Altar. The same jewels had formed the perfect covering of the King of Tyre, God’s priestly ‘Adam in Eden’, as evoked by Ezekiel, priest and prophet of the Old Testament (Ezekiel 28:13); and every such gem had in the Middle Ages a ‘virtue’ or medicinal and magic power of its own.

Suger was applying not just his bedazzled sight to this contemplation, but a fund of biblical, scientific, and moral knowledge. He uses a technical term from biblical exegesis, ‘anagogy’ or ‘leading upwards’, for the elevation that follows. He was swept up not just by allegorical understanding or by moral improvement, but by his soul’s transport towards heaven.

I seem to see myself existing on some level, as it were, beyond our earthly one, neither completely in the slime of earth nor completely in the purity of heaven. By the gift of God I can be transported in an anagogical manner from this inferior level to that superior one. (Cusimano and Whitmore 2018: section 32)

We might not today share his views about the worldly literalness of Jewish religion, but here is a move from material to immaterial things that we can still gratefully adapt and adopt: in Suger’s mind, from earth’s ‘slime’ to a hard, glittering purity; in ours, more probably—and just as true to St Denis—from the lustre of gold and of those portentous jewels to the brilliance of Day One of creation, and finally of the one true Light of the World.

And so back to the Eucharist and Hebrews 9. What happens at the Eucharist? Christ died on the cross once and once only (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10); and he makes eternal intercession for us in heaven (7:25; 9:24). In the sanctuary of London’s Temple Church, then, as in every church’s Holy of Holies, we re-present—we make present again among us—the self-offering of Christ in the heavenly Holy of Holies.

Christians try of course to define what happens to the bread and wine at their consecration. When we do so, we are asking not just what we ourselves then eat and drink, but what we, as ourselves the Body of Christ, are offering to God in and through the Body and Blood of Christ. We ask whether we act at an altar (as for a sacrifice) or at the Lord’s Table (as for the banquet of heaven prefigured at the Last Supper). Hebrews reminds us: beyond both, we are before an Ark of the New Covenant, the throne of God and Mercy-Seat, in the Holy of Holies where Creator and creation intersect.

As in Jerusalem’s Temple two millennia ago, at the Eucharist heaven and earth, eternity and time, God and humanity meet ‘in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth not entirely in the purity of heaven’. And yet for the Church the great point of intersection is no longer a ‘place’ at all, but the person of Christ, Bellini’s blood-donating Redeemer.

He is himself the Holy of Holies, the High Priest, and the Victim in his eternal self-offering to the Father.

 

References

Abbot Suger. 1996. On What was Done in his Administration, trans. by David Burr, available at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/sugar.asp [accessed 8 January 2018]

Cusimano, Richard, and Eric Whitmore (trans.). 2018. ‘The Book of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis: His Accomplishments during His Administration’, in Selected Works of Abbot Suger of Saint Denis (Washington, DC: CUA Press), pp. 66–126