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.