Friday, July 11, 2008

Drawn to Antiquity

I must admit it. I am drawn to the things of old. I have always been a lover of history. As a child I would go to historic sites such as the site of the battle of Vicksburg in the Civil War and I would see the indentions of the fox holes still intact. I would try to picture soldiers in those fox holes, people scurrying around. The wounded lying on the ground with the many dead. I always yearned to get a piece of history embedded in my mind.

I am still the same today, though it comes out in different ways. I have been reading Egeria's Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and I am just fascinated by what she describes. The second half of her memoirs describe in detail the liturgical practices of the church there. One of the things that amazes me the most is the dedication of the Christians. When the church was to gather for the different prayer offices, the people would assemble hours before the appointed time. They would spend their time singing the hymns and the antiphons. The singing of the antiphons in those services were very important and the people knew them by heart. This hints at ritual.

These antiphons, whatever they were, had to have been repeated over and over again, depending upon the time and the season of the church. There is something to be said about ritual. I heard an elderly pastor say not too long ago that if you don't have it in your heart, then you don't have it. True. If we don't know things by heart, then how important are they to us?

American culture today seems to make light of the aspect of ritual, but it has historically been an important part of the church, as Egeria points out for her readers. I was also favorably impressed by the ritual aspect in holy week. On Palm Sunday the Christians in Jerusalem would gather at the main church. Scripture would be read, the Eucharist celebrated, and the bishop would then lead a procession to the Mount of Olives where it was thought that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The bishop would read the particular lection from the Armenian Lectionary which was the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then after more antiphons were sung, the bishop would continue the procession up the mountain to the place where it was thought that Jesus ascended into heaven. Again went the proclamation of the Gospel, the singing of more antiphons, and the bishop would then lead the procession down the mountain with all the faithful and catechumens carrying palm and olive branches chanting "blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord." This procession would lead back to the main church for the office of Vespers.

All this took hours. Many antiphons, many scripture readings, much walking and, all the while, a good number of these people had been fasting through the Lenten season.

Today, people don't have the stamina for a church service that lasts longer than an hour. People seem to abhor repetition and ritual (although the lives they live in their homes are so covered in ritual and repetition).

Now, I like to read the writings of the blessed Martin Luther as well, and I have always been interested in what his life was like, but I am of the opinion that our culture today is resembling more and more the life and times of the "early church," the first 3 or 4 centuries in the church. This is why I am so interested in Patristics. We live in an age where people have little or no knowledge of the mysteries of God. They have no understanding of what the church even is, and churches that promote great variety actually do more harm to these people who are brought into the church from paganism.

If our worship is full of constant variety so the "worship experience" doesn't get boring, then the people are being duped. They will not learn what the church is and, as a result, they will end up fashioning their own understanding of what Christianity is "to them," thereby separating the body of Christ and fragmenting it. St. Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ and, therefore, one. Ritual, teaching, and just having the Divine Service with the sacraments will solidify and unify.

Ritual is important precisely because of what Jesus says about the seed sown on good soil--it bears fruit and produces in some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirty"(St. Matthew 13:23). In other words, for those who take the word sown to heart in order to understand, they will grow in the faith at different speeds, and in different measure. This is OK. It is God's way. It is meant to be this way.

This variance along with St. Paul's reminder of the oneness and unity of the church, teaches us something. People gathered in the Divine Service are all at different points on the road with Jesus. This sounds complex. How does the pastor work with this situation? Such a community is brought together by ritual. A common way unites and then God through the preaching of the gospel and the giving of Himself in the sacraments then takes care of the task of caring for His people who are at different points on the road of Christ.

Variety and constant change, along with emotion-driven services attempts to make up for the disparity and unevenness of the faithful and wrestles the work of the Holy Spirit away from the gospel and sacraments, as the minister attempts to "grow everyone" through human means.

But there is nothing new under the sun, as history has shown by the many and various heresies that existed. In the midst of it all, we see from people such as Egeria that the church simply relied on the gospel and sacraments. It continued to teach through the ritual of antiphons and psalms, and a common liturgy that was considered home.

I continually yearn for a rich and distinct Christian piety that is sacramental and catholic. I love the ancient expressions of the church because they are distinct from the world, and why shouldn't I? After all, St. Paul reminds us that we are only sojourners here on this earth and heaven is our home. How distinct and wonderful must the worship of Jesus Christ in heavenly glory be?!!

+Fr. Chadius