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"Hagia Sophia," photo by fusion-of-horizons

Contemplating the Depth of Things: Maximus the Confessor on the Church

Issue Two / 2022

Jonathan Bieler

In his Mystagogy, Maximus the Confessor presents a commentary on the profound significance of the Church and the divine liturgy.[1] Therein he also offers a spiritual contemplation of the architectural structure of the Church building, including the partition of the interior space into the nave, sanctuary, and altar. In so doing, Maximus educates the Christian towards a more profound way of seeing things. According to Maximus, the way the Church generates that ability for contemplation is by offering herself as an image of God, of the cosmos, of the human being, and, finally, of Christ.

Church: Image of God

Maximus first describes God’s relation to and unifying agency in the world, and then explains how the Church images and mediates the activity of God to the faithful.

God providentially “binds both intelligible and sensible things to himself and one another.”[2] The relation of creatures to the one God and cause of all does not annihilate the different relations among the beings, but “makes their particular [or strictly self-centered] relations among each other lie idle and covers them by prevailing over them and by appearing over them; like a whole comes into view from parts […] or like the sun is bright in nature and power beyond the stars, and thereby covers over their existence.”[3] Maximus understands the agency of God to be unifying the differences in the cosmos without destroying them—the most preeminent unifying action of God in the world being the hypostatic union in Christ, where God not only completely unified Christ’s human nature with the divine (in God the Son), but also with itself and the whole cosmos, but also with God the Son. In other words, union with God, the unifying cause and end of all, effects and makes visible union within creation. The Church is the agent who enacts this union of the sensible and the intelligible within creation and the differences among beings in virtue of her supreme union with God: She “works for us the same effects as God, in the same way as the image reflects the archetype.”[4]

Furthermore, Maximus uses the geometrical figure of the circle and its circumference to illustrate the relation between God and the cosmos that the Church images: That enclosure of everything Maximus illustrates with the image of a circle: “Like the center [of a circle] has straight lines that radiate from it [radii], but circumscribes the extended end points of the straight lines [radii] with a circle, so Christ does not allow the principles of beings to stand apart when they come to their limits.” Rather, by grouping the radii around the center point and referring them back to the center, God “leads to himself the distinctive elements of beings created by him, so that the creatures of the one God might not be completely alien from each other and enemies to each other, because they have nothing around which and to which they can show themselves friendly and peaceful and even identical, as they would run the danger of falling from being into nonbeing, having their being separated from God.”[5]

The liturgy has a cosmic dimension, since all the objects and movements in it are not simply closed in on themselves, but rather are signs and symbols that point to cosmic realities.

The Church’s activity images this circumscription of the beings created by God into one whole, represented by the circle that is formed by the equal reference of all extending points to the center. In virtue of ascending to God, as it were, and being in union with Him by this shared central focus, the Church displays this quality of a circle, which, I would argue, can be seen in one central architectural feature: the dome.

For Maximus, who spent time in or even hailed from Constantinople, the largest cathedral church building was the Hagia Sophia in the Golden City, its most distinct feature being the majestic round dome, the largest in the world at the time. Under its vault the entire congregation, differentiated into men and women, rich and poor, clergy and laity, were gathered. In the dome and the shared reference to the center point of the cupola above, we can recognize a visible symbol of the unifying agency of the Church, by which she images God’s unifying power that does not abolish or destroy the differences between beings, but refers them all back up to the single cause of all and covers them, as it were, under the circular dome.

Church: Image of the Cosmos

Not only is the Church an image of God’s unifying agency, but also of the entire cosmos. That cosmos is, for Maximus, differentiated into sensible and intelligible beings. As we have seen, in virtue of their being providentially bound to God, the intelligible and the sensible dimensions of creation share a single bond and inhere mutually within each other, as Maximus notes in the second chapter: “The whole intelligible cosmos appears mystically expressed through symbolic forms in the sensible cosmos for those who can see, and the whole sensible cosmos exists in the whole intelligible cosmos, as it is wisely made simple in the mind through the principles (logoi).”[6]

In imitation of the cosmos, the Church also binds together the intelligible and the sensible and does so in virtue of Her union with God. In the liturgy, sensible symbols become the place of intelligible and divine realities, most of all in the sacraments. The Church unites humankind through symbols by fostering human ascent back up to God. That ascent begins by discerning the inner intelligible principles of sensible things, to which the Church educates the faithful through Scripture, liturgy, and tradition. Maximus says that when the mind “gathers up in a contemplative fashion the principles [logoi] of beings, it will end at God Himself, who is cause, beginning, and end.”[7] The Church thus mediates God to the faithful via the intelligible principles and their proper sensible symbols, thereby imitating and presenting a redeemed and recapitulated cosmos to the faithful.

Maximus goes so far as to call the cosmos a kind of Church not made with hands, where man is asked to perform spiritual sacrifices to God.[8] The liturgy has a cosmic dimension, since all the objects and movements in it are not simply closed in on themselves, but rather are signs and symbols that point to cosmic realities. For the Church Fathers, taking their cue from Scripture, the water used in baptism, for instance, is not simply a limited quantity of well water poured over the head of an individual catechumen, but refers to the cosmic waters at the beginning of creation. Sacramental water symbolizes the primal mass of creation susceptible to the Spirit, who uses it as a force for purification and regeneration by consecration. Arguably, the floor of the Church can symbolize the firm lands separated from the waters or the ark of Noah as the place where God offers man a place to stand firm. The liturgy, like the church building, is cosmic, in that it signifies the whole cosmos through its features.

Church: Image of the Human Being

The church building is for Maximus also a symbol of the centerpiece of creation: Man, who can himself be called a cosmos, as Maximus says later in the Mystagogia.[9] The body is symbolized by the nave, the soul by the sanctuary, and the mind by the sacrificial altar. Inversely, the human being is, in a mystical sense, also a church:

through the body as like a nave, he virtuously cleanses the practical part of the soul, by the practice of the commandments according to ethical philosophy; through the soul as like a sanctuary, he offers to God in the Holy Spirit and in a pure fashion the inner principles of things derived from sense experience and freed from matter according to natural contemplation through reason; and through the mind as through the sacrificial altar he calls forth the Godhead’s much praised silence of the invisible and unknowable loudness hidden in the innermost shrines by another talkative and full-voiced silence.[10]

As the Church’s structure makes clear, moving from the nave to the altar, man’s motion of ascent from the sensible to the intelligible is revealed as having a sacrificial character by being ultimately related to God: to offer the whole cosmos to God by contemplating the inner principles of things.

That ascent to God is complemented by a descending motion, wherein the fruits of the ascent are offered to the world. In building a church, offering liturgy, establishing Scripture, the Church begins from a contemplation of the intelligible being of the cosmos and of God, and gives birth, as it were, to visible symbols, and offers them to mankind as ways towards God. In that fashion, the Church mediates union with God to all men by uniting the sensible and the intelligible in an exemplarily ascending and descending manner. This unifying power that the Church is gifted with by God allows the human being to actively bind together his own distinct bodily and spiritual dimensions by offering what is his to God and mankind.

Church: Image of Christ

Not only is the church building an image of the human being and man’s own descending and ascending motion to God, but, because God himself became a human being in Christ with a concrete history, the Church more specifically images that archetypical human being with his history, his ascent and descent, in the liturgy. By doing so, she does not simply invent symbols, but imitates and visibly symbolizes God’s own concrete saving agency in Christ, who became a symbol of his own divinity in his humanity. It is the role of the faithful in their different stations to discern the one Christ within his Church through the symbols she offers, and this is essentially what Maximus is doing by offering a contemplation of the Church in his Mystagogia.

The Great Entrance of the bishop or celebrant into the Church through its front gates, the first element of the Byzantine liturgy, signified for Maximus the entrance of the Son of God into this world through Mary.[11] By entering history, God the Son allows himself to be symbolized and related to on the horizontal plane of history. God comes to the Church not only from the center of the dome above, but as God incarnate he enters through the front gate of the church building. As we can see, God comes both from above and from the horizon of time, which gives the church building a cruciform structure uniting and emphasizing the vertical and horizontal axes in space. After the Great Entrance, the bishop passes through the nave and the laity and then enters the sanctuary to sit on the throne. For Maximus, the Church thereby symbolizes and makes present to the contemplation of the faithful the Ascension of Christ into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.[12] The bishop then comes down from the throne after the reading of the Gospel. This is the moment the catechumens and the unworthy are dispersed before the liturgy of the Eucharist begins, whereby the liturgy signifies the end of time, the last judgment, the second coming of Christ, and the separation of good from evil.[13] The celebration of the Eucharist, then, is a foretaste of the heavenly wedding feast of the Church’s union with Christ at the time of the resurrection, which the Church offers the faithful daily in symbol and truth.

The imperial capital Constantinople in the Eastern Roman Empire must have been a multicultural city during Maximus’ time. The Hagia Sophia loomed large at the end of the main road of the city and must have welcomed vastly different groups of people from the whole oikonomia gathering in the metropolis. Maximus’ vision of Christian unity is inspiring: When all the different people in the city go to the Church and are reborn by her and refashioned in the Spirit, they are given one divine form and the one name of “Christians,” being from Christ and named after him.[14] Bound together by One Creed, the people are not anymore separated by themselves as monads, but they are united with each other and with the whole cosmos in virtue of God’s own unifying power, preeminently realized in Jesus Christ and offered to all by the Church, even through the shape of the church building.

[1] Maximus the Confessor, On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy: A Theological Vision of the Liturgy, Popular Patristics 59, trans. J. Armstrong (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019). Henceforth, I will offer my own translation and quote the lines from the Greek edition of the Mystagogia by C. Boudignon in Corpus Christianorum 69 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011).

[2] Mystagogia, 134–38.

[3] Ibid., 144–52.

[4] Ibid., 163–64.

[5] Ibid., 187–98.

[6] Ibid., 241–44.

[7] Ibid., 159–62.

[8] Ibid., 229–31.

[9] Ibid., 540–99.

[10] Ibid., 273–84. The “talkative and full-voiced silence” probably refers to the prayers said quietly by the bishop at the altar during the consecration.

[11] Ibid., 604–07.

[12] Ibid., 616–19

[13] Ibid., 694–13.

[14] Ibid., 170–74.

Jonathan Bieler is Assistant Professor of Patrology and Systematic Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C.

Posted on March 8, 2023

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