Majesty Accessible

The grandeur of God is the measure of his mercy.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Some preachers speak comfortably from a raised pulpit; others address the congregation from the floor between the chancel and the pews. Parishioners probably differ in their preferences too. Is it better to hear the word from on high? or to have it brought to our level, remembering we are all humble recipients, not the source of the Word?

Now recall the episode in Numbers 4:29, when the people of Jhwh are cured of hideous disease by seeing a bronze serpent lifted up before them. John 3:14 makes explicit the connection between that event and Jesus Christ’s being lifted up on the cross. In both we have a powerful connection between God’s self-offering and visibility. Jesus could just as well have been killed by soldiers in a back room of Pilate’s palace, but the crowd demands to see him crucified.

True, we all human beings here. It would certainly be wrong for a preacher assert his or her personal authority. Preaching with feet on the floor evinces becoming modesty. But is it not a miracle, and one we ought to recognize as such, that any human can stand up and preach Gospel? Every sermon is, or ought to be, a reverberation of the Christian proclamation, the most extraordinary speech ever made: “The kingdom of God is at hand!” Surely it is only fitting that it be delivered in an extraordinary way?

The Portinari Altarpiece (1475) in the Uffizi Galleries, Florence, depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds. The infant Jesus lies not in a manger nor even on a floor, but bare earth in the center foreground. The perspective is made so the viewer almost involuntarily leans forward to make it come right. Similarly, we hearers might want that floor space kept open for ourselves.

In the Basilica of San Marco, Venice, the ambo is three storeys high. The first two lessons are read from what is overhead already, but the Gospel from the very top, with a full procession of candles and incense carried up with the book. It is the book, the text, the gift of God, not the reader, which is exalted in this way. In whatever church I find myself on a Sunday, hearing the Gospel, I close my eyes and remember that spectacle.

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Having said all that, yesterday’s reading in Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle gives us a description of Augusine, Bishop of Hippo (354–430), preaching from his preferred position, a raised portion of floor at the front of the apse, and having the more privileged members of the congregation clamor for him to come closer to them. This was probably partly because they thought they deserved his proximity, but also so they could hear better over the noise of others.

Surely there is room for people of good will to differ in matters like this, and surely every opinion will somewhere and sometime get its comeuppance. As we have written elsewhere, there is no one way to be an obedient Christian.

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