But first we must finish what we were saying about the different ways in which Christian faith transformed the synagogue. The third point to be noted is that the shrine of the Word remained, even with regard to its position in the church building. However, of necessity, there is a fundamental innovation here. The Torah is replaced by the Gospels, which alone can open up the meaning of the Torah. “Moses”, says Christ, “wrote of me” (Jn 5:46). The shrine of the Word, the “Ark of the Covenant”, now becomes the throne of the Gospel. The Gospel does not, of course, abolish the “Scriptures”, nor push them to one side, but rather interprets them, so that henceforth and forever they form the Scriptures of Christians, without which the Gospel would have no foundation. The practice in the synagogue of covering the shrine with a curtain, in order to express the sacredness of the Word, is retained. Quite spontaneously, the new, second holy place, the altar, is surrounded by a curtain, from which, in the Eastern Church, the Iconostasis develops. The fact that there are two holy places had significance for the celebration of the liturgy. During the Liturgy of the Word, the congregation gathered around the shrine of the Sacred Books, or around the seat associated with it, which evolved quite spontaneously from the seat of Moses to the bishop’s throne. Just as the rabbi did not speak by his own authority, so the bishop expounds the Bible in the name, and by the mandate, of Christ. Thus, from being a written word from the past, it again becomes what it is: God’s addressing us here and now. At the end of the Liturgy of the Word, during which the faithful stand around the bishop’s seat, everyone walks together with the bishop to the altar, and now the cry resounds: “Conversi ad Dominum”, Turn toward the Lord! In other words, look toward the east with the bishop, in the sense of the words from the epistle to the Hebrews: “[Look] … to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). The Liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated as we look up to Jesus. It is our looking up to Jesus. Thus, in early church buildings, the liturgy has two places. First, the Liturgy of the Word takes place at the center of the building. The faithful are grouped around the bema, the elevated area where the throne of the Gospel, the seat of the bishop, and the lectern are located. The Eucharistic celebration proper takes place in the apse, at the altar, which the faithful “stand around”. Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, toward the Lord who is to come.(Ratzinger, J. (2000). The Spirit of the Liturgy (J. Saward, Trans.; pp. 71–72). Ignatius Press.)
- The Gospels become an essential part of the Christian liturgy, not because they replace the Old Testament, but because they shed the ultimate light on the Scriptures as a whole. Without the Old Testament, the Gospel has no foundation.
- Interesting to consider that in the early liturgy there were literally processions of the entire congregation to different places withing the synagogue/synagogue-church. Typically, in our times, we watch the celebrant, ministers, and servers process, but remain at our places. The idea of pilgrimage is maintained in the early liturgy, and also the importance of procession.
- We get a sense of the struggle to maintain the sacredness of the place on the one hand, and on the other to invite believers into that sacredness by opening it to them. When sacredness is too aloof or apparently unattainable, the faithful may simply opt out. When it is treated casually, or indistinctly from the mundane, the faithful may not perceive its value and importance.