Wednesday, June 16, 2010

After roast lamb in Zion

You’ve been going flat out re-enacting, re-visiting, and yes, re-joicing in the places and events of Jesus’s passion and resurrection. Frankly, you are also just about churched out as well. After the Sunday of the Resurrection, what of those multiple levels of liturgical life remain?

  • There are no places to visit; you were at the Church of the Resurrection for the Vigil, and none of the resurrection narratives have identifiable locations. The Armenian lectionary gives gospel lessons and locations for the week after Easter, and it’s just one resurrection story after another. For the most part, these are held in the main basilica, the Martyrium, and services elsewhere in the city really have no reason for the change of the location, save the reading of Matthew 5 (the sermon on the mount) on a mountain (at the Eleona on Mount of Olives)
  • The Christians of Jerusalem have gone back to morning and evening prayers and (maybe) attendance at the Eucharist
  • the monks have gone back to being monks; their work as tour guides is (mercifully) no longer needed until the next batch of pilgrims arrive.
  • the bishop has one last set of lectures to give the newly baptized, but there are no processions or liturgical action to go with them
There’s not much here that you couldn’t get at any other major town or city in the Mediterranean basin. After the great vigil, it all seems so flat. Who knows, in an unguarded moment, Cyril or John might have invented “Low” Sunday.

Liturgists have regularly talked about Holy Week as anamnesis, not mimesis, or as remembrance, not recapitulation. But that’s clearly not the case with this early layer of the Jerusalem liturgy. It is all about the late classical desire to appropriate the virtus, the power of the gods by reenacting their deeds in their special places. Granted, Cyril, John, and even Helena sprinkled this desire with holy water, but what remains is a process whereby Christians can answer the spiritual “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” with a resounding “yes!” because they walked where Jesus walked and participated in the re-creation of his passion. Dom Casal spoke more truly than he knew, for this Mysterienlehre of the Jerusalem Holy Week is mystery religion, pure and simple. When we get to the week after Easter day, the practice of mimesis doesn’t work, and the bishops of Jerusalem knew it. And Egeria’s breathless prose slows to a plod.

Is it any wonder that most congregations have such a hard time making sense of Holy Week, and once they do, sustaining that understanding? The issue is not with the congregations; it is with the dramaturgy of the rite. The rite and its place are inseparable. The rite and its cultural surround are inseparable.

Fortunately, the fourth-century imperial church in Jerusalem didn’t invent Holy Week, Easter Day, or the week after it. Were we able to unstack this dobostorte of liturgy to look at the way the Christians in Jerusalem celebrated Holy Week before Constantine and his mother started their religious theme park, we might find a way of living the passion and resurrection of Jesus after the Disneyland of Christendom has gone out of business. The problem is that after we go through this exercise in liturgical archeology we are left with nothing but dry, cracker-like flakes of cake and mounds of greasy icing. It’s not appetizing fare.

We need to find someplace that continued to live out a non-mimetic celebration of the resurrection of Christ. To do that we’ll set sail for the end of Mediterranean Sea much closer to Egeria’s home town and explore what a truly anamnetic Easter looked like. There we will find an Easter that can truly feed the needs of resurrection people.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Menus for a Liturgical Feast in Fast Time

We have a tendency to see liturgical texts and rites as static, but before the calcification caused by technological hegemonies like the printing press, there was constant change. Jerusalem in the fourth century was no exception—in fact it was more so.

There were four major sources of this change:
  • indigenous Christians in Palestine at the beginning of the fourth century
  • growing monasticism, particularly spread from Egypt
  • hospitality to pilgrims and the growth of communities around sacred places
  • catechumens coming to be baptized in the Holy Land
By the middle of the fifth century, these four tributaries had flowed into one overwhelming river—and that’s the Holy Week that we drown in today. Let’s see if we can look at each of these by themselves.

Robert F. Taft reminds us that the original liturgy of Holy Week was a fast. Nothing but the Vigil. Comparing all the descriptions, what our pilgrim from Bordeaux would have found had he visited in Holy Week would have been something like:

  • Daily:
    • morning prayer
    • evening prayer
  • Sunday before Easter: Eucharist, but probably not the Palm gospel (Taft and Thomas Potts argue against a Eucharist on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday)
  • Holy Thursday: Eucharist with the high-priestly prayer as gospel
  • Good Friday: Reading of the John Passion
  • Paschal Eve: Vigil with baptisms, Eucharist around daybreak
The monasticism brought with it the effort to “pray without ceasing.” As a result, the second layer is more prayer offices:

  • night vigil
  • prayer before dawn
  • minor offices at 9 AM, noon, 3 PM
The one theme that runs through Egeria’s and Paula’s accounts of their travels was the hospitality of the caretakers of sacred places. Those in charge of these places seem to have both prayers for visitors (go to the church on Mount Tabor, and you’d experience a short prayer office with each group of visitors) as well as more full blown liturgies, typically on their days of discovery or dedication. It seems that annual commemoration of the biblical events at these places grew out of these dedication festivals, and the week before Easter is one of the times when this annual process came to life:

  • Saturday before Holy Week: Raising of Lazarus at the Church of Lazarus in Bethany
  • Palm Sunday: Palm procession from the Imbomon on the Mount of Olives into the primary basilica (the Martyrium or Basilica on Calvary)
  • Holy Thursday: Matthew 26 at the Martyrium, a walk across town to the church at the Praetorium (Sion) for Mark 14, John 13-18 at the lower church on Olivet, Luke 22 at the Imbomon on the summit, and Matthew 26 at the church in Gesthemane
  • Veneration of the Cross at the Martyrium, All four passion gospels also in the Martyrium, procession to the Church over the tomb (Anastasis, or Church of the Resurrection) for the entombment from Matthew 27

Saturday seemed to have remained a time of quiet preparation before the Great Vigil.

The last layer of activities were the times of teaching—around 11 AM or so—daily in the Martyrium for the catechumens. And you thought your Holy Week was busy! If you line up all the liturgies for Holy Thursday through Easter, it becomes pretty easy to figure out what was happening on Saturday. Vigil on Thursday started at about 3 AM, and things didn’t stop for more than an hour until about 6 PM on Friday. Saturday morning must have been for sleep, as the Great Vigil would start at about 6 PM, and not stop until about 9 AM on Easter.

This was truly embodied liturgy. Almost constant exercise for a week—all tied up in spiritual ascesis. It’s no wonder that it made such an impact on pilgrims. Two things made all this work: place and journey. Problem is that when you take the texts and even the rubrics to Rome and Constantinople, you lose place, and as Holy Week spreads out to smaller centers, journey gets lost. You can’t go very far when there’s only one church.

Just because you say the same words, it doesn’t have the same meaning when it’s all in Joliet instead of Jerusalem and your procession is limited to 18 inches in your pew.

Next: After roast lamb in Zion – or what do you do when there are no places, and even the tomb is empty?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Michelin Guide for Wooden Wheels

Tourism, and its antecedent, pilgrimage, is a privilege of both wealth and peace. Without both of these, it is at best known as “exile.” Constantine I provided a measure of both with the beginning of the end of persecution in the Edict of Milan in 313. Not long after, the sound of footsteps and horse hooves wending their way to Jerusalem could be heard plodding through Asia Minor.

And what’s a trip without a diary with which to remember it? The earliest of these diaries comes quite soon after St. Helena’s discovery of the relics of the cross and the inception of Constantine’s great building projects, an anonymous pilgrim narrated his journey from Bordeaux to Palestine. The trip can be dated to 333; the Contantinian complex that would become the Martyrium and Anastasis (the basilicas on the sites of Jesus’ death and resurrection, respectively) was partially completed, as was the church on the Mount of Olives, but few buildings in the rest of Jerusalem were under construction. The Basilica in Bethlehem appears to be done. Our friend from Bordeaux wrote a typical itenerarium (a list of places visited and a log-book of where he stayed) with a bit more detail around Jerusalem. He (or she, for that matter, we don’t know) was interested in places, but the only indication that people are part of religious observance in Jerusalem is a mention of the wailing wall.

The most famous of our pilgrims, Egeria, made it to Jerusalem fifty years after the Bordeaux Pilgrim—sometime in the early 380’s. Compared to almost any other pilgrim in the first millennium, Egeria was a “sacristy rat;” she could smell a procession at 1000 yards, and happily wrote about many of the liturgies in which she participated. It seems, from reading her diary, that all that happened in fourth century Palestine was a continuous worship service—particularly during Lent. When we combine her diary with another (fairly unique) writing, Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechetical and mystagogical lectures, given about 350 (halfway in between the Bordeaux Pilgrim’s and Egeria’s visits), we have a very rich picture of the time around Easter in the second half of the fourth century. And it’s a picture that leaves us exhausted. The weeks before Easter are a time of almost non-stop formational activity—almost as if this were “spring training” for the author of Hebrews’ “race that is set before us.” There is a “once in a lifetime” character, not just to the baptism of the catechumens, but to the whole experience of Jerusalem and the passion of Jesus.

This ascesis—training for a race—is clearly part of what happened in Jerusalem, at least until it came under Muslim control. There is a lectionary from the middle of the fifth century that has readings for most of Egeria’s services, for example. However, this isn’t the whole story.

Within ten years, we have another tour guide: Paula, a patroness of Jerome, the irascible translator of the Vulgate, followed him to Bethlehem and wrote about her trip. It’s interesting that we pay so little attention to her diary as compared to Egeria’s. While Egeria’s travels languished, seldom copied, and as far as can be told, otherwise ignored, until their rediscovery in the nineteenth century, Paula, and her diary, entered into continuous popular culture. That the Chaucer has the Wife of Bath visit—in order—the same sites as Paula in the prologue to her tale is just the easiest example to find among many. Her diary comes down in two forms: a letter to a friend back in Rome, and Jerome’s editing of her itenerarium. There are few references to structured liturgies, except for the daily prayer of the monastics who lived near or in the holy places. What is overwhelming is the impression of the ministry of hospitality of these religious. There is a constant refrain of “We came to …, We were told of the importance of the place …, We joined in meals …, We prayed with …”

Hospitality. Daily prayer in holy places. And the veneration of holy places in the context of their place in the cycle of the year. These three principles tie together these early narratives of Jerusalem and its environs. What we see in Egeria, Cyril, and the Armenian lectionary of Jerusalem is not the ritualization of a lex orandi—an eternal liturgical gravitational law—but rather an improvisation in a very specific place of Jesus’ new law of love, of service to neighbor and alien so that they can be be part of the community of his transforming grace. Even with Egeria’s compulsive religiosity, the purpose of these dwellers in the land of Jesus shines through: to help pilgrims come so close to Christ through the sacrament of place that they might remain his forever.

Jacques Derrida gave an intriguing lecture “Hospitality” (in Acts of Religion) in which he explores hospitality and hostility. Following his thought, we could think of the fourth-century Palestinian Christians as “deconstructing home” so that it opens, as gift, as incorporation, to the pilgrims. I wonder if some of those pilgrims held that home hostage as they took these rites, out of place, (to pinch a phrase from ritual scholar Ron Grimes) and emplanted them elsewhere. Maybe the Bordeaux Pilgrim and Paula (and Jerome, for that matter) understood something Egeria didn’t: Is the Holy Week experience something that one can only receive as a gift? Does “doing it for ourselves” turn it into an act of hostile possession, making us hostages to a ritual? A Michelin three-star meal on the west bank of the Saone in Lyons won’t keep until I get home to Seattle. Imitating Cyril in San Francisco just might be as misguided.

Next post: The menu in Jerusalem.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Disneyland® on Mount Zion

Let's look imaginatively and historically at the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the middle of the fourth century.
  • Imagine yourself in an emerging ministry in the tourist destination of the middle fourth century.
  • Now imagine that all these tourists are overrunning all the sacred sites around your church, and are looting valuable artifacts to take home as souvenirs.
  • Now imagine that most of these tourists want not just a vacation, but the most profound religious experience.
  • Finally, think about having a bizillion professional religious types around, who, like most professional religious types, are not overly sensitive to the complex needs of people who aren't going to be permanent parts of their communities.
You’ve just imagined yourself in the shoes of Maximus, the bishop of Jerusalem and his amazingly creative liturgical adjunct, Cyril, who pretty soon, will end up as bishop of Jerusalem at Maximus’s death. What would you do to make sense of a Disneyland® without lines in which to store people while they wait for their turn on Pirates of the Caribbean or the Matterhorn?

Pilgrimage and the ancient near east

Pilgrimage to sacred places has played an important role in the societies of Mediterranean basin for thousands of years. The best known—and still practiced—of these journeys in the Hajj, the Islamic journey to Mecca and Medina which re-enacts the jihad of the Prophet Mohamed, but by the middle of the fourth century, Christians were engaging in a similar travel to Jerusalem, and as it became relatively unsafe to travel across the Mediterranean, first Rome, then Santiago de Compostela and then Canterbury and other more local destinations emerged. Pilgrimages, then as now, were an amalgam of exploration, tourism and entertainment, and search for religious fulfillment, and for any pilgrim on any day the relationship of these components varied (along with the inevitable desire to rest one’s weary feet). The Jerusalem pilgrimage was also influenced by the Constantinian growth of the eastern empire. The emperor’s mother was involved in the “discovery” of many of the sites (such as the place of crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus), and to be baptized in Jerusalem was not just a sign of spiritual devotion, but (and maybe more importantly) a sign of imperial social status.

Let’s go to the theater

To make sense of the Jerusalem church’s brilliant move in creating a structure to focus tourism as a religious force, we also need to look at what seemed for most preachers to be the greatest competitor to involvement as an active church member: the theater. Theater in the late empire is not well documented; there are almost no extant plays, and if those that remain are any indication of the quality, we probably aren’t missing very much. Theater was not Antigone or Oedipus; it wasn’t Taming of the Shrew or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof either.

It was spectacle.

Think of a cross between “Ziegfield Follies meets Washington at Valley Forge” mixed with equal parts of Survivor, American Idol, and The Gong Show, and, if we are to believe most of the third- and fourth-century preachers and their contemporary pagan philosophers, a definite splash of a 1960’s Times Square peep show. Not a pretty sight, but it seems to have been a major part of the entertainment matrix. Re-enacting historical or mythic events seems to have formed the main plot line, so maybe we should think of the History Channel as well.

Make the circus a circuit

Given that cultural situation, what’s a bishop in Jerusalem to do? Spectacle, but put everyone “on stage.” Give the monks and nuns a ministry of education and hospitality (and stagehands for the Jesus show). And keep everybody busy. Idle hands will do the devil’s work—even in Jerusalem. Take the narratives of Jesus’ passion and on top of the normal preparation for baptism, schedule activities during the weeks before Easter to challenge the endurance of the most committed, and put them at places referenced in the scriptural narrative. Don’t make people stand in line; that will make them bored and restless (just ask any four-year-old waiting to get into the Toy Story Mania! ride). Instead make a procession with them. Start walking, then start singing, get some monks to swing fancy figure-eights with thuribles, add some banners, and you don’t have a queue, you have a parade! March people out to Bethany on Saturday (that will keep them occupied for about four hours, not including the church service), up to the summit of the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday (and back down), while singing psalms and waving branches, and from Thursday in Holy Week, don’t let them stop until they fall asleep on their feet. It worked marvelously, and of course, the emotional intensity mixed with exhaustion probably made for more intense religious experiences for many.

But at the core of this activity was spectacle: the re-enactment of the historical events of Jesus’ life, particularly the “last week.” This was theater on such a grand scale that it could finally begin to supplant the local (and secular) spectacles. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was not just a great teacher and bishop; he was one of the great impresarios of all time.

In my next post, I’ll look in more detail at his “playbook” as well as notes of the entertainment and religion correspondent from the Times of Southern Spain, Egeria.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holy Week: Mac or Windows? 

It's now the end of the week after Easter Sunday, and the topic of discussion among clergy, musicians, and liturgy geeks has been “have you recovered from Holy Week?” This is followed quickly by "how was your Holy Week?” and “how can we do it better next year?”

Almost everything in that previous paragraph is a symptom of a problem. Catholic liturgical theology and heortology (theology of time) insists that Easter is the beginning of a time of life in heaven on earth. But if that is the case, why is it that the only thing I want after the Easter morning Eucharist is a long nap?

There seems to be a constant desire to fiddle with Holy Week. From seders and agape meals, to funerals for Jesus on Good Friday (and that's not just an American protestant phenomenon; Greek Orthodox innovators in the middle 19th century created the kouvouklion procession and the burial of the corpus), to Tre Ore preaching, to moving Maundy Thursday to Tuesday—or even out of Holy Week—there seems to be no end to the possible improvements.

In a previous life, I managed software quality process. One common slogan was “you can't repair quality into a product. You can only build it in.” Another principle is that a program can tolerate only a limited number of “improvements” before it needed to be re-engineered from the ground up.

I think that is where we find ourselves with Holy Week and Easter. To continue with our engineering analogy, two (or more) products have been munged together without paying attention to user-centered design (Holy Week as Windows Vista?) And as a result, you have a bloated product that sometimes works incredibly well, but most of the time is cumbersome and comes with more features than you can use.

We can crack this kind of engineering problem by going back to the original design documents. Unfortunately, in liturgy, we don't have those docs, so we'll have to look at what we do have: performance reports about earlier vesions of the liturgy. And what do we see with this sort of comparative historical study?

There are two different streams in the celebration of Easter. And they don't match up.

One of these is about drama and re-enacting the past, and the other is about present appropriation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because commerce always wins out over truth (whether in engineering or church), and there's money in tourism, re-enacting won out. Fortunately, enough of the power of hope remained to make it all worthwhile (sometimes). Unfortunately, it often is way more work and much less real than we hoped for.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to tease out two of the earliest versions of Holy Week and Easter—the one in fourth-century Jerusalem, and its contemporary in North Africa. Then I'll look at how they got combined, and why, when we had a chance to fix Holy Week in the last century, we didn't. And then—I hope before Pentecost—we should get into a discussion about what to do about Holy Week.

Monday, April 5, 2010

work FOR

It is likely that one of the first “facts” you learned about “liturgy” was
the meaning of the Greek word leitourgia:

The work of the people

Like many popular derivations of words, someone disassembled a word into
its root forms: laos, the people and ergas, a work. Thus,
liturgy must be “a work of the people.” Unfortunately, that’s not
how the word was actually used. Leitourgia actually describes
acts of public service, performed by private citizens at their own expense,
such as building a bridge for the community, fixing a road, or building
a civic structure. The meaning transfers to the work done by anyone
in offering public service to the gods.

It’s not about us

One of the worst things that happened to Christian worship in the
last century is the reversal of subject and object represented by
this mistranslation: “work OF the people.” Liturgy is not
about us; it is about God, and is an action we undertake for the
transformation of the universe. As Paul put it in Romans, “Creation
anxiously awaits the revealing of God’s children.” This work,
accomplished by God’s work in us for God’s world is why we engage
in liturgy. Worship is joining in God’s work for God’s people,
recreating God’s universe.


Here’s another of those words that has somehow lost its way. We think of it as “words about God,” and that certainly is how it gets used—in the same root-word paradigm of theos: God and logos: word as happens with “liturgy.” But that’s not how the early church and their late-antique religious compatriots used the word. For them, theology is the active searching for words with which to hymn God. This blog, as an experiment in constructive liturgical theology, is “a work undertaken for the people of God so that the church may more adequately find its words and music to hymn God.”

Welcome—and come join the conversation.