One of the most fascinating and rewarding excursions into the writings of the Fathers is the series of addresses given by some of the bishops to those who were about to be or had just been baptized at Easter. We think primarily of adult converts to Christianity, for whom their Baptism was the culmination of their Christian initiation. Because of the danger of non-Christians gaining knowledge of the more intimate and sacred details of faith and practice, it was sometimes not divulged in advance to the catechumens what would happen to them at the Easter vigil. Only in the week following Easter Day did the bishop go over the ceremonies and retrospectively explain their meaning. These addresses were not unlike confirmation classes in the Anglican Church today.
One of the sets of addresses we have is from Cyril of Jerusalem, dating from the second half of the fourth century. They are a mine of information about the way the liturgy was developing at that time, even if they do not answer all the questions we should like to ask. Their purpose, however, was not primarily to give information so much as to assist in the pastoral formation of the new converts. So there is an emphasis on the appropriate attitude and response of the newly baptized.
A striking term that Cyril uses several times in these addresses is not easy to translate into English. Literally it means “hair-raising”, but usually it is translated “awesome” or “awe-inspiring”. Cyril uses it to describe the moment when the candidates for Baptism make their renunciation of the devil and all his works. He uses it again to describe the offering of the Eucharistic Prayer. The injunction “Lift up your hearts” is meant to alert the congregation to put aside all worldly thoughts and domestic cares and concentrate on holding their hearts up to God in heaven, at least during that solemn prayer.
The awe Cyril had in mind is not fear inspired by ignorance or distrust. It is rather the sense and reverence at the greatness of what God has done for us in Christ, and at the privileges we enjoy through our Baptism and our participation in the Eucharist. During the last fifty years there has been a notable decline in the atmosphere of reverence and adoration in much Anglican worship. We used to be taught only to talk in church when absolutely necessary, and then only in a whisper. people would never chatter as they waited for a service to begin. The church building was a place of prayer, and a spirit of awe and reverence was felt to be appropriate in the house of God (Genesis 28:17). Surely we need to renounce the easy-going familiarity with God which has so often robbed our worship of realism, and to recall the conviction of Cyril and many of the Fathers that we should offer worship with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28).
Dr. Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader in Theology in the University of Durham