Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Images in the Chancel ! (Part 1)

July 23rd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Rochester, NY before (left) and after (right) renovation. There is now a large organ filling the space of the old chancel's back wall.

You have probably caught on from my posts and comments that I am more than a little concerned that new and renovated churches in our diocese fail to make an essential use of images in the chancel area.  I use the word “essential” because the use of imagery by the Church is understood doctrinally in relation to the Incarnation, the central dogma of the Christian faith. Images are essential to the Liturgy because the Incarnation is central to our Faith and we pray as we believe, and believe as we pray. 

In the Incarnation, he who is invisible made himself visible and did so in a specific, individual, historical person –Jesus of Nazareth. An icon or picture/sculpture of Christ is, therefore, an “image of the image” of God. Further, all those “alive in Christ” are deified, as the Eastern Orthodox say. Mary and the saints (and all faithful Christians) share in the life of Christ –who is the True Image of the Father. The veneration given to icons of Mary and the saints is therefore appropriate as the humanity depicted is that deified by the Incarnation and Redemption. The veneration of icons/images passes to Christ and through Him to the Father. 

Chancel of Sacred Heart Cathedral before renovation***

Failure to display and venerate images of Christ, Mary and the saints because they are viewed as distractions to the action of the Eucharist is heresy, plain and simple. Such an attitude flies in the face of the Truth of the Incarnation. Images are an important part of the “action.” As God became localized in a particular man so, too, Jesus becomes localized in the appearances of the bread and wine upon the altar. That is basic Catholic doctrine. 

The banning of holy images from the chancel is heretical in that proponents of such a ban claim, broadly, that everything is sacred and that the sacred cannot be marked off and presented separately; cannot be localized concretely.* Chancel images help us identify a space as sacred and therefore, according to this theology, have to go, in the case of renovations, and must be excluded, in the case of new churches. That is contrary to Catholic teaching. This is why, governed by the new theory, newer churches and renovated older ones stress functionality over sacredness. It is evident in the modern liturgists’  insistence on the Eucharist as a verb, not a noun; they emphasize the action of the ritual over the material substance of the Body and Blood.** In their view the action makes the space sacred. Once the action is over, the space is no longer sacred. It can be used therefore for concerts (like Rochester’s renovated cathedral), mimes, and presentations of any secular or profane nature. Even the chancel space itself has, for the most part disappeared. The boundary lines, the chancel/communion rails that defined the sacred space are long gone. The ciboria or canopies over altars -a long standing requirement- have faded away for the same reason: they designated  sacred space. They were symbolic of the Old Testament archetype of the Presence of God in the Jerusalem Temple. It is also why the tabernacle has been removed to an out-of-the-way location.

So too, images have been banned because they are tangible, concrete reminders of our belief in the Eucharist as a noun (as well as a verb).

St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Church, Irvin California****

Images in the chancel area have an important secondary purpose, as well. While helping us to participate at Mass, they also extend the experience of the Mysteries to the times outside the ceremonial time itself: before Mass and after. Chancel images help us to appreciate the historical and eternal implications of the Eucharist. For the time being, we could simply refer to this purpose as didactic. Images teach or instruct and help us to internalize our experiences so as to embed them in our individual and collective memory. 

With disastrous results we have seen just how effective most renovations and new construction has been in promoting heretical thinking. The churches are emptying. There is nothing there that can’t be had with better delivery in the secular culture, like sitting around a campfire with friends, sharing smores, singing songs, and telling stories.

In subsequent posts on this subject (the use of images in the chancel) I’ll try, in my clumsy way, to be more specific as to what images have been traditionally used to adorn the sacred space of the chancel. 

*Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century by Romano Amerio, Translated by Fr. John P. Parsons, (Kansas City, Sarto House, 1996) pp 647-50

**I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that announced from the pulpit. Somewhat related: I remember from a “St. Bernard’s on the Road” session at the Church of the Transfiguration in Penfield, a highly placed diocsesan priest official suggested that perhaps the bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ only if the people attending were conscious that it was the Body and Blood of Christ. The analogy was made to people in an elevator: Were the other people really present if you weren’t fully conscious of them being there? They were to those who were conscious of their presence, but not to you. (Huh?) I guess this is “doing” theology.

***Image source: httpmp-dulcimer.comcategorymiscellanyphotospage3

****http://www.stpaulsirvine.org/html/parishhistoryx.htm

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Book Suggestion: 

Three Treatises On The Divine Images by St. John of Damascus, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003)

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3 Responses to “Images in the Chancel ! (Part 1)”

  1. Nerina says:

    There is nothing “clumsy” about your explanations, Bernie. I’ve heard the “everything is sacred” argument, too. It reminds me of a line from the computer animated movie, “The Incredibles” (if people haven’t seen this film, they should – it is a fantastic commentary on family life and our current PC culture). In it, the bad guy says, “when everyone is special, then no one will be.” And that is what has happened with the “everything is sacred” argument. When everything is sacred, then nothing is.

  2. I Have thoroughly enjoyed every presentation made here and am very grateful for same.
    J.Patrick O’Connor

  3. Bernie says:

    Thank you both -Nerina and J. Patrick- for your kind compliments.

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