Rather, he marveled at the verticality of his experience:
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth!” (Psalm 121:1-2)
The psalmist also prayed:
“Let my prayer rise like incense before you, may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2).
The angels in the Book of Revelation echo this religious sentiment as they join us in offering worship and prayer in one vast upward movement:
“The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.” (Rev 8:4)
The point is very simple: the direction of all authentic worship is upward. It is not because God is physically up above us (He is literally everywhere) but because the lifting up of our eyes and hands symbolizes the lifting up of our whole beings in worship.
And I probably don’t need to tell you what the polar opposite—“downward”—symbolizes.
Why is all this important? Well, because we are by nature earth-bound. Good liturgy, art, and architecture help to lift our hearts to God in prayer and reverence.
And we’re not the only ones who experience that: St. John Chrysostom said that “when the Eucharist is being celebrated, the sanctuary is filled with countless angels who adore the divine victim immolated on the altar.”
St. Augustine reiterated that same theological sentiment: “The angels surround and help the priest when he is celebrating Mass.”
In other words, the inhabitants of the invisible world above us literally bend down to us when we are in worship at Mass. They exist in the realm of blessedness and assist us in getting there too.
The reredos reality
So, nothing creates the conditions for this heavenly encounter better than good liturgy and exquisite architecture.
I could talk at length about forms of architecture that inspire devotion (like my favorite, Gothic), but I will limit myself here to one aspect of church architecture that makes you feel as if all of heaven were present with you in worship: the reredos.
What in the world is that? Well, it’s easier to show it first and then describe it. Here are two stunning examples of what we call a reredos.
Pretty impressive, right? (Notice the size of the people on the left.)
The name “reredos” comes from the Middle English word “arere” which simply means “behind”—our English term, “to be in arrears” derives from this word. To it is added the Latin abbreviation “dos” which comes from “dorsum” (back).
That’s a complicated way of saying that a reredos is a decorative wall that rises up behind an altar!
We distinguish a reredos from a retable or an altarpiece, which are works of art or panels that are attached to the back of an altar, not the wall as such. These often get lumped into the general term reredos, but here, we are just focusing on those amazing back walls.
As you’ll notice in the two examples above, the entire back wall of the sanctuary is filled with statues of saints and angels.
Remember what I said about “heaven bending down”? This is how previous generations of church builders envisioned heaven’s participation in the divine liturgy of the Mass. Awesome!