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.