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?

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