George Westhaver discusses the sacramental world and the Tractarian understanding of renewal

The September edition of New Directions featured an article by Bishop Philip North entitled ‘Hope for the Poor’. The article began with a series of stories of those who have been touched by the pastoral care of the body of Christ and thereby drawn into the life of the Church. The bishop then challenged readers to think of all those stories that cannot be told. I would like to suggest that we find a visual image of the Church’s pastoral work, the ministry which reaches out to connect our day-to-day experiences with the great realities which the Church celebrates and lives, in the apse mosaic of the cross and the tree of life in the church of San Clemente in Rome. Situated about half-way between the Colosseum and the Basilica of St John Lateran, San Clemente was built early in the twelth century on top of an older Byzantine church, which had itself been built above a temple dedicated to the Persian or Zoroastrian god Mithras. From the swirling designs in the marble floor to the beautifully carved stone chancel, San Clemente is a marvel, but its artistic glory is the golden mosaic above the altar.

The mosaic offers a series of visual images of the ways in which Christ is made present to the Church and to the world in the celebration of the sacraments and in the life of faith. In the centre we see the crucified king who reigns victoriously from the life-giving and holy cross, presented not in the bitter agony of his suffering or forsakenness, but as partaking of the Sabbath rest which comes with the finishing of his work, in the peace which is his gift to the Church. The cross is covered with doves which symbolize the apostles, who are also represented as sheep gathered around the haloed lamb along the bottom of the mosaic. These doves are also the gifts of the Spirit which are the life of the Church.

The cross in the mosaic is both the instrument of Christ’s passion and the tree of life. From this tree, vines emerge and swirl as if embracing the whole of time and space in what must be one of the most wonderful interpretations of John 15 in Christian art: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’ [John 15.5]. The inscription along the bottom interprets the mosaic: ‘Ecclesiam cristi viti similabimus isti quam lex arrentem set crus facit e(ss)e virentem’—‘we will compare the Church of Christ to this vine, which the law makes to be dry, but the cross makes to be green.’

All of human life finds both shelter and nourishment in the coils of the vines which make of the whole world a single vineyard. Along the line of the foot of the cross we see the western fathers—Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome—seated at work as master builders of the spiritual edifice erected on the foundation of apostles and prophets. In the midst of the vines we see a woman feeding chickens and shepherds with their sheep, merchants going about their business and lawyers in discussion with their clients. In the same way that the whole of human life is embraced by the vines which are rooted in the tree of life, we are invited to see our own lives as wrapped in those coils and nourished by that vine. One of John Keble’s descriptions of the Christian life serves as a commentary: ‘Our Blessed Lord in union and communion with all His members… can be said to constitute… one great and manifold Person, into which, by degrees, all souls of men who do not cast themselves away, are to be absorbed.’ Representations of the angelic powers present in creation, in the deep waters or with the growing plants, naked cherub-like figures level with of our blessed Lord’s sacred feet on both sides of the cross, emphasize that the life pictured there reaches from the depths of the created order to the heights of heaven, figuring also the all-embracing love of the Saviour.

Benedict XVI’s reflections on the liturgy, particularly in his Spirit of the Liturgy, help us to appreciate the visual landscape of the mosaic and to insert ourselves into the coils of the vine. In the sacrament of the altar, the event of Christ’s passion and death is celebrated and represented as being both historical, ‘once for all’, and a present and eternal reality. In the words of Benedict XVI, ‘the true semel (“once”) bears within itself the semper (“always”)’. The meaning of the Christian sacraments is ‘the insertion of man into the historical context that comes from Christ’. This history is not just the historical event of the crucifixion. Rather, to receive the sacraments is to ‘enter into the history’ which both leads to and proceeds from Christ. The worship of the Church is bound up with the varied fortunes of Israel, a history that ‘ensnares humanity in guilt’ even as it is a vehicle of the promise of restoration and salvation. In the words of E. B. Pusey, all of this history ‘gleams’ with the ‘effulgence’ of Him who is ‘the Sun and centre of the system, our Incarnate Lord’.

In the mosaic, the holy cross is also the turning-point of time. The mosaic depicts the way in which the Lord of heaven and earth entered into the limitations and suffering of the people he was shaping for himself in order to break open both that history and the cage constructed by human failure or weakness. The cross becomes a door in history into the reality which contains history. Again, in Benedict XVI’s words, the sacraments which emerge from the history of God’s dealings with his people offer a ‘liberating union with God’s eternal love, which has fit itself into this horizontal dimension and thereby has broken into his prison: the chain of the horizontal that binds man has become in Christ the guide-rope of salvation that pulls us to the shore of God’s eternity’.

This guide-rope is also shown in the mosaic. Above the cross, emerging from the luminous darkness beyond all representation or art, we see the right hand of the Father, which reaches down to draw the cross and all that the vines embrace into the life of the triune God. The swirling of the vines should not lead us to think that we are doomed to repeat past failures, whether personal or social ones. Rather, the mosaic offers a confidence that our experience of different forms of cross-like sufferings and, indeed, the lives of all who are caught in the vines of the tree of life, are included in the Godward movement of the mosaic.

We sometimes encounter the idea that to enter into the life of the Church is to give up what makes life rich and fulfilling, as if being a disciple meant the stifling of our desire rather than the giving to it of a proper object and end. Benedict XVI’s reflections enable us to grasp what the mosaic pictures: ‘the altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church but opens it up—and leads it into the eternal liturgy’. In the mosaic or world of Christ’s vineyard, as in the life of prayer and worship, we learn to see ‘Past, present, and future interpenetrate and touch upon eternity’. When he was still working alongside Keble and Pusey, John Henry Newman described the Christian life in a similar way: ‘time and space have no portion in the spiritual Kingdom which he has founded; and the rites of His Church are as mysterious spells by which He annuls them both.’ For Newman, to be in Christ becomes a ‘sacramental sign’, mystically ‘reiterating in each of us’ the life of Christ. The invitation into the church is an invitation into a place of fulfilment and communion, where desire is not stifled but allowed to achieve its proper ends by the gracious hand of the Father.

The mosaic communicates, too, how the life of the Church is both public and visible, hidden and spiritual. From the base of the cross flow the four rivers of the first paradise, presented here as rivers of the new creation, a second and better paradise flowing from the tree of life. Here the water is the ‘living water’ of the Spirit, which flows from a well deeper than that which Jacob dug, the unfathomable depths of the life of God, ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ [John 4.10–14, 7.39]. We are invited to see ourselves here as the harts or deer seeking the waterbrooks of divine life. These springs flow from below the base of the cross, below ground, emphasizing that the work of the Spirit is out of sight. This is the inner and hidden life of the Church, and the inner life of the soul. The mosaic in San Clemente helps us to see what cannot be seen, how the life of Christ is poured out in the Church and in the soul. It is a kind of invitation into an inner kingdom, what St Isaac the Syrian called ‘a secret treasure house’, a place of communion and transformation. There are of course reasons why we might be discouraged by the way in which we struggle against the life which Christ wishes to give, but it is also important that we attend to what is happening below the surface, where we come with the Samaritan woman at the well looking for the one who can quench our thirst.


The Revd Dr George Westhaver is Principal of Pusey House, Oxford