Today we continue to discuss the relationship between Word and Table in Christian worship by looking at insights from the medieval era. Unfortunately, the medieval era of Christian worship often gets a bad rap. Any era of Christian worship will have its faults along with its strengths. There may have been many ways by which the church needed reform in the medieval era, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t strengths for us to learn from today. The Table is central to this era. A weakness may be that services became more directed toward Table than the reciprocal nature of Word and Table, but years from now scholars may look back upon our era and claim the opposite as true. My purpose isn’t to point out all of the faults and failures of the medieval era. Instead, I hope to show the relationship of Word and Table during this period of church history.
In many ways, the Table set the social vision of the medieval world. Christianity was not only public by this point, but it had even become the unifying factor to the Western world. The social life of medieval people was grounded in a communion ecclesiology in which the sacrament formed the body of the church. They understood that this kept them in union with one another as well as the historical body of Christ, who is the head of the church, by receiving his body and blood at the Table. Thomas Aquinas could cite John of Damascus to express the understanding that “it is called communion because through it we communicate with Christ, both by partaking of his flesh and divinity, also communicating with and being united to one another through it.”
There was much change in worship practice and theology during the medieval era. Medieval theology was fixated on Christ’s work on Calvary and understood the Lord’s Supper as an effective sacrifice for actual sin. The sacrificial aspect of the Lord’s Supper grew in importance while the meal and celebratory mindsets faded. The mood at the Table changed from a commemorative feast to a somber event that represented Christ’s death. Sin became a preoccupation within the medieval church. Services were regularly held as belief grew that the Lord’s Supper was as affective for atonement as Christ’s work on the cross.
Participation by the laity became very minimal during this time. Prayers and songs used in services were conducted in Latin, a language unfamiliar to the common person. The altar-table receded further from the congregation’s view. The bishop or priest, who formerly faced the people at the altar-table, now stood to consecrate the bread and wine with his back turned toward the congregation. For various reasons, people ceased to receive communion frequently, though the Lord’s Supper was still central to each worship service, and instead found the Lord’s Supper as a time to pray for their own and others’ salvation.
Thus, emphasis often fell not on receiving Christ but on seeing and adoring the Eucharistic miracle in medieval worship practice. In order to still convey the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper, as well as help laity feel a connection to the ceremony, movements around the Table became highly choreographed, each one representing an event in the biblical passion narrative. Laurence Stookey writes, “At the very beginning, for example, when the priest first ascended the altar stairs, the faithful were to envision Jesus walking up the staircase to the house of Pontius Pilate to face judgment and sentencing.” Each action at the Table had a strong allegorical component to the Gospel story.
Furthermore, in the medieval era, the arts became a very important medium of portraying the Word when attending services of the Table. It was a highly visual experience. The choreography certainly was one aspect of this. The exquisite cathedrals were built to portray the idea of entering into a transcendent realm of heavenly worship. Artwork was displayed around the worship space through paintings and stain-glassed windows to help people be surrounded by and placed within the narrative of scripture. Though what we would typically understand as the “sermon” today may have not been central to worship, there were still ways by which the church proclaimed and experienced the Word. Though it may have had its faults, and though the participation of the people may have been limited, through intentional visual means, the medieval church understood the importance of both Word and Table held together in worship.