Levels

There is a “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer is obsessed with levels particularly having them in his apartment. It was the usual send-up. Perhaps, though, we should pay more attention to levels.

The British sent their first embassy to China in 1792. There was a problem. The British man-of-war was so big there was no way the Chinese could send their gifts down to them. It was absolutely forbidden that an emissary of the divine emperor would go up into the vessel of a foreign power.

Look at what level a traditional Baptist church has its font. Not only front and center but slightly elevated. Look at where the Roman Catholic has its altar: front and center and slightly elevated. The homily is delivered one level down from that. Look at the traditional Lutheran Church. Some it’s true have the pulpit flying above the altar or to the side still elevated. The sainted Marquart said that only became a widespread practice among Lutherans during the age of Rationalism. The words of men carried that day. Most traditional Lutheran churches have the pulpit at the same level as the altar thus emphasizing the Sacraments aren’t to be had or understood apart from the Word that gives them.

Now look at modern church buildings. If they can afford to they build them not only less linearly but with the “congregation” sitting above the altar and pulpit. This stadium or theater style seating has them looking down at both Word and Sacrament.

Levels matter. The elevation that was in the Roman Catholic Mass, taken out by Luther. then put back in, and has all but disappeared today was about levels. Luther removed it because the Roman Catholics associated it with “communing with the eyes” which was in their view as good as communing with the mouth. He restored it when he saw how lightly the Sacramentarians – read Reformed – regarded the Real Presence. The elevation placed the Body and Blood Christ at the proper level.

Levels have mattered throughout history. In the aforementioned British diplomatic mission to China, the issue was whether the British ambassador would kowtow before the emperor. This involved going down on all fours, 3 times, and each of those 3 times touching one’s forehead to the ground. The British ambassador said he would gladly go down on one knee – as he did before his king – but he would only go down on both knees before God and not down on all fours before anyone. He eventually offered to do kowtow before the emperor if a Chinese official of equal dignitas as the British ambassador would kowtow before a picture of King George. Accounts differ as to whether the Brit kowtowed or not.

Men don’t just kowtow before the Almighty; they fall on their face. Some pastors are ordained in a cruciform pose with face to the floor before and below the altar. People bow and kneel at the Communion altar thus changing their level before the God who is present there.

All of these are classed as liturgical gestures. Our word ‘gesture’ has a nonchalance about it, a tipping of the hat, a nod of the head, but the Latin it comes from has the idea of bearing and deportment, both weighty words. Paying attention to our bearing and deportment in the presence of our Lord and Savior expresses our reverence at a whole ‘nother level.

 

About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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