Sunday, May 28, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Antiphons

            In the Divine Liturgy, after the Great Litany, come the three antiphons and their litanies/ prayers.  These antiphons exist in several forms.  The original Greek practice is to use psalms for the antiphons, interspersing the verses of the psalms with repeated refrains.  For the first antiphonal psalm the refrain is, “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Saviour, save us!”  The refrain for the second antiphonal psalm is the refrain, “O Son of God, save us who sing to You, Alleluia!”  The refrain for the third antiphonal psalm is the troparion of the feast or day.  (In the original antiphonal sequence, the Emperor Justinian’s troparion “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God” was the refrain for the third antiphon.)  The Slavic use substitutes the hymns of the Typica service, namely Psalm 103, Psalm 148, and the Beatitudes, normally sung without any refrains, though it retains the original usage of psalms and their refrains for feasts.  The origin of the practice of singing these antiphons is to be found in the streets of Byzantium.
            After the Peace of Constantine, the Church was allowed to emerge blinking into the bright sunlight of a new day.  One benefit of this emergence from the (metaphorical) catacombs was that the Church could express its faith publicly without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or martyrdom.  And so, in certain large cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, the practice began of taking to the streets and holding parades—i.e. liturgical processions.  In Jerusalem these processions were centered around the holy places consecrated by the Lord’s presence.  Rome had the shrines of many martyrs.  In Constantinople, despite the lack of plentiful martyrs’ shrines and the lack of places the Lord had visited, there were still many processions (a tenth century Typikon mentions 68 processions a year).  The procession would begin at a set place and then proceed singing to the Church where the Liturgy would be held.  They did not walk in silence.  They sang hymns, the cantor chanting the verses of the psalms and the people chiming in with the refrain.  That was why the refrains were so short—they had to be brief enough to be sung by a crowd of people while walking to church.  These three processional antiphons were so popular that they continued to be sung in Church even on days when there was no procession to the Church.
            These processions fulfilled an added purpose apart from the devotional love of singing.  They also served to express the ascendancy of the Christian Faith, including its triumph over heretical alternatives (in the Theodosian Code of law, heretics were forbidden to hold such processions).  Formerly the Christians had to keep their heads down and their mouths shut and to mind their place.  Now they could safely hold their heads high and praise Christ in public.  The processions were a way of proclaiming that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1)—including the city streets.  The streets and the city containing them also now belonged to the Lord.  Everyone loves a parade, especially if it is your own victory parade.
            In those days it was the whole city which served as liturgical space.  That is, the city as a city, held festival and exalted Christ, for the city now lay under His care and protection.  The cities were smaller than our modern metropolises, and one could easily walk from one part of the city to the other.  Processions through the city or from one church building to another were quite possible, unlike today where cities are often so large that one could not walk through them.  Now most people must drive to church of necessity.  It was otherwise in Byzantium; at that time its cities could still serve as liturgical space.
            This change from the original practice of singing the antiphons as a crowd on the way to church to our modern practice of singing the antiphons only once we have reached the church also symbolizes a radical change in our situation.  In Byzantium the whole city was regarded as liturgical space.  Now the urban spaces and city streets are emphatically secular, and Christian worship must be confined to one’s own property.  Christians may sing their songs within their churches, but may not simply take to the streets en masse to sing of the supremacy of Christ.  At very least, a parade permit is required, and sometimes the city may not be happy to grant one.  It is significant that Gay Pride Parades are part of the annual festivities of most cities, and are an established tradition; Christian parades are not.  Christian prayer, praise, preaching, and proclamation are allowed, but are restricted and may only take place within the privacy of Church property.  If you doubt this, try and hold a large mass parade to Christ today down the routes used for Gay Pride Parades as you sing to Jesus.  You will find out quickly enough that Christendom has fallen, and that Byzantium is dead.  Increasingly we are being herded back to the catacombs.  The pre-Constantinian degree repression is of course not complete.  But it often seems well on its way.  This observation is not based on alarmist paranoia (though one remembers the aphorism of Dr. Johnny Fever of WKRP, “When people are out to get you, paranoia is just good sense”), but on a regular reading of newspapers and social media.  The war against faith is real, even if it is undeclared.  The fact that the war is undeclared of course makes it worse:  when you know people are likely to shoot, you are prepared to duck.  It is when one is unsuspecting of being fired upon that victims can multiply.  The lesson for us in the twenty-first century is that we must raise our children and grandchildren to live counter-culturally, and to recognize that pretty much everything in our culture pushes them in the wrong direction.  This is not to inculcate paranoia, but realism.  Byzantium has fallen; the streets no longer belong to Christ.
            The second lesson to be learned from the antiphons is the primacy of praise.  A saying often ascribed to St. Augustine is, “We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song”.  That remains true regardless of whether or not the bishop of Hippo said it.  We are the people whom God has formed for Himself through baptism; we must declare His praise (Isaiah 43:21).  We are His royal priesthood, His holy nation, created to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9).  We have a choice, since spiritual reality abhors a vacuum just as does physical reality—we can either spend our time praising God or we can spend it fuming, worrying, and grumbling.  It is too easy for us fallen sinners to do the latter, forgetting how much God has given us already.  But why fume and fret?  How much better to open our eyes to see His wonders in our daily lives, and open our mouths and declare His praise!  Singing the antiphons sets us up for the coming week.  Though Christendom has fallen, we need not fear or cower.  We can still hold our heads up and bless the Lord.  We are an Easter people, and whatever the condition of the city streets, alleluia is still our song.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Great Litany

           In the Divine Liturgy, after the initial doxology in which the celebrant blesses the Kingdom of God and blesses with the sign of the Cross the altar table and its antimension before using it, the assembled Church next prays the Great Litany.  This represents the intercessory prayers of the royal priesthood, wherein the Church prays for the whole world in the Name of Jesus, standing in the gap and lifting up the whole needy cosmos to the mercy of God.  St. John Chrysostom, if taken straight from his Liturgy in the fourth century to ours, would be surprised that this was done so early in the liturgical assembly.
            That is because in St. John’s day, there were catechumens present, men and women who were not yet part of the royal priesthood (that is, the holy laity), and who were therefore not yet qualified to offer those prayers to God.  Our present liturgical ordo is not the actual service as served by Chrysostom (whatever our ascription says in the final dismissal), but the service of the Byzantine Church, dating from a time after the institution of the catechumenate had died out.  In Chrysostom’s day, the intercessory prayers were only offered after the catechumens had been dismissed.  In the later Byzantine Church, there were no catechumens, and the only people present for the Liturgy were the baptized, since everyone had then been baptized in infancy.  Thus there was no difficulty in everyone praying the intercessory prayers of the royal priesthood, because everyone present was then a part of that priesthood. 
            The absence of catechumens during the praying of the Great Litany stressed the nature of the intercessions as prayers offered in the Name of Jesus.  Praying “in the Name of Jesus” does not mean that we end our prayers with the verbal formula “and this we pray in Jesus’ Name” as if it were some sort of invocational magic wand.  To pray in the Name of Jesus means to pray with the authority of Jesus, with His boldness before the Father, with His access to the Father’s presence.  It means, in short, praying as part of His Body.  That is why catechumens could not offer those prayers, for they were not yet part of that Body.  It was only through holy baptism that they became holy; only through the initiating water and the Spirit that they became part of the royal priesthood and eligible to offer the Great Litany, praying for the world with the authority of the sons of God and members of the Body of Christ.  Anyone can pray, of course, and God who hears the cry of every sparrow that falls also hears the cries of Jews, Muslims, pagans, and atheists trembling in their proverbial fox-holes.  But Christian intercession is different.  Christian intercession is done in the Name of Jesus, with sure and certain access to the presence of the Father.  Christian intercession is like no other.
In those intercessory prayers of the Great Litany we note a certain generosity of spirit and universality of concern.  That is, we don’t just pray for our little congregation, or even for all the Orthodox, or even for all Christians.  Instead we pray for absolutely everyone, Christian or not.  We pray “for the peace of the whole world”, “for this country and its President” (or its Queen, if living in the British Commonwealth), despite the fact that many in the country are not Christian and the ruler may not be Orthodox.  We pray “for every city and countryside”, regardless of how many Orthodox Christians may be in them, “for travellers by land, by sea, and by air, for the sick and the suffering”, with no concern for whether the travellers, the sick and the suffering belong to our faith confession.  In short, just as God causes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust, so we also pray for everyone, regardless of their deserving.  This generosity of spirit and universality of concern in prayer is intended to flow over into the rest of our lives too—just as we pray for people regardless of their deserving, so we love and give to people regardless of their deserving.  We pray for travellers whether or not they are Orthodox travellers, and we give spare change to beggars whether or not they are Orthodox beggars.  The Great Litany thus trains us to regard a person’s need as the primary thing, not their deserving.  Their deserving and their final eternal score can be safely left with God.  Our job is to pray, and love, and give.
We note too that such universality of concern is mentioned in general terms.  We pray, for example, for all the sick, but do not need to know their names and ailments.  If one does know the name of someone needing prayer, that is fine, but such people are generally those we already know anyway.  In saner times, the individual and specific suffering we knew about were mostly those of local people—we knew about a particular beggar’s plight because we saw him in the streets—and thus could do something about it.  That is a much saner approach than the one current today, where we are informed at length about the suffering of multitudes of people that we cannot really help.  Through newspaper, radio, and especially the nightly news, we are inundated with stories and sound bites of suffering—multitudes left homeless from a flood in China, whole families slaughtered for their Faith in the Middle East, crowds being blown up by a suicide bomber in Germany, epidemics in Britain, drought and famine in Africa.  Sometimes, on rare occasions, we are given the opportunity to actually help by contributing money to relief organizations.  But mostly we are simply bombarded, overwhelmed with news of suffering about which we can do nothing.  No wonder our heart is worn and weighed down.  We were never meant to live like this. 
When story after story is read over the news detailing disasters from across the world, I sometimes want to reach into the television and seize the news anchor and demand, “Why are you telling me this?  No really—why are you telling me this?”  It is not because I need to know, for I can and do pray for the sick and suffering anyway without this information.  It is unlikely my prayers are made more effective by the weighing down of my heart.  So then why am I told this?  The answer, I’m afraid, is “For the entertainment value”, though of course no one in the media would phrase it like this.  It is left to the prophetic song-writers to pull the mask off our cultural dysfunction and speak the truth.  Take for example the old 1982 song “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley.  Henley reveals why I am told this:  “It’s interesting when people die.”  The Great Litany, on the other hand, allows us to pray for the world without knowing the details.  There is only one person with large enough shoulders to bear the weight of the world, and know the details, and hear every suffering cry.  And He has already carried their sins on the Cross.

The prayer offered at the conclusion of the Great Litany seems not directly connected with the petitions that have preceded it, but seems to be a general sort of prayer that could be offered in any situation.  In it the celebrant invokes God “whose power is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is immeasurable, and whose love for man in inexpressible”.  Note all the negative adjectives.  They show that God is bigger than any words could describe (theologians call this “apophaticism”), beyond any description we could come up with, so that words almost have no meaning.  Almost, but not quite—at the end of the day, we do have to say something in our corporate prayers.  But by using these negative terms (“not comparable, not comprehensible, not measurable, not expressible”) we show how vast is God’s love and mercy to us.  And that, when all is said and done, is why we sinners have the courage to pray and intercede at all.  God allows us the vast dignity of causality, so that our little prayers become caught up in the immense tapestry of God’s will, and help work His purposes in the world. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

What Good is the Holy Fire?

The so-called “Holy Fire” is the name given to the fire that appears on ends of the candles of the Patriarch of Jerusalem and others every Holy Saturday.  The Patriarch, accompanied by a church crammed filled with others, awaits for the annual miracle every Holy Saturday.  On that day the Patriarch strips himself of his holy robes and enters the Tomb of Christ with a bundle of unlit tapers, says certain prayers, and then awaits for his tapers to be miraculously lit from heaven.  He is not disappointed:  his tapers are miraculously lit every year and he emerges from the Tomb with the flame to the tumultuous shouting of everyone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The light is shared with everyone there, and then taken to others who transport it back to their homes, sometimes in far countries.  This year the Holy Fire and miraculous light has been carried back to those in North America.  My own little parish of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C. received the light from our neighbouring parish across the border in the State of Washington on a Saturday night, and we shared it with our own parishioners the following Sunday morning.  As I write the fire remains burning in our family icon corner, and in the icon corners of many in our parish.  Some may ask the question, “What good is the Holy Fire?  How does it help anyone?  What’s the point?” 
            I am not here concerned to answer those who deny the miraculous nature of the original gift every Holy Saturday.  Those who like to read may refer to such volumes as Holy Fire by Haris Skarlakidis.  Others may Google the event and witness it on Youtube as they wish.  I have seen on Facebook (that faithful oracle) a video debunking the miracle in which the debunkers produce fire without the aid of a lighter, and this, they assert, is how the fraud is accomplished every year.  Since the Holy Fire has been filmed as not singeing hair during the first fifteen minutes of its miraculous existence, I invite the debunkers to reproduce this experience also, and subject their facial hair to the same treatment of washing in their newly-produced non-miraculous flame so that we may observe the results.  If their own hair does not burn (as the hair first subjected to the Holy Fire does not burn) I will be interested.  And greatly surprised.
            My focus here is on not the sceptics who doubt the miraculous nature of the Holy Fire.  My focus rather is on the significance of the miracle itself, and I address the question, “What good is the Holy Fire?”  That significance, I suggest, is two-fold.
            The first is that the Holy Fire witnesses to the miraculous nature of the Christian Faith itself.  Many New Testament scholars since the time of David Strauss (d. 1874) have assumed the principle that the miraculous does not exist, but they are fools—highly educated and perhaps smarter than you and I, but still fools nonetheless.  In fact the ministry of Jesus was attended by a multitude of miracles (acknowledged even by His enemies, though they attributed these miracles to the power of the devil), and His life culminated in the miracle of His resurrection from the dead.  That miracle was quickly succeeded by the miracle of Pentecost and other miracles done by the hands of the apostles.  Miracles have abounded and still abound in the Church, which is miraculous throughout.  
In fact in every generation the Church survives by new miracles, such as the miracle of the new birth and the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  The official name for such a regular supply of miracles is “sacraments”.  One may also mention other miracles such as miracles of healing through the hands of the clergy and the relics of saints, but that hardly matters.  The main miracle is that of the new birth, whereby sinners are re-created as the children of God and the co-heirs of Christ.  This reveals that Christianity is not a philosophy, but the presence of the living Christ in our midst.  Dead philosophers do not work miracles; a living Saviour does.  The fact that the Holy Fire comes as a miracle from heaven every year expresses and confirms the miraculous nature of the Christian Faith.  Miracles, of course, come when they are needed, and it seems that the Holy Fire first came when it was needed most—during the time of the Islamic oppression of the Church, when the Christians suffering under the yoke of Muhammad most needed confirmation that their faith in the crucified and risen Christ was true. 
            The second thing to note about the Holy Fire is that it witnesses to the way that Christianity is spread—i.e. from person to person, just as the flame is spread from person to person, beginning at its epicenter in Jerusalem.  We note a kind of recapitulation of the original spread of the Gospel:  the Gospel spread from the upper room in Jerusalem, then to Judea, then to Samaria, then to the ends of the earth, even as the Lord had said (Acts 1:8).  That is, it spread from person to person, as each one spoke the Word and gossiped to his neighbour what he or she had heard about Jesus.  Like the flame spreading from candle to candle, so the Word of the Gospel spread from person to person.  That new Gospel reality not only spread geographically, but also temporally, so that the same Gospel message spread from person to person across the globe, and also from decade to decade and across the centuries.  The shorthand for such a method of transmission is called “Holy Tradition”.  Just as the one Gospel was once spread throughout the centuries from apostolic Jerusalem and reached as far as our own parish in Langley, so the same flame is now transferred from candle to candle, beginning in Jerusalem and eventually even reaching the west coast of British Columbia.  The flame now burning in my icon-corner is the same flame which the Patriarch of Jerusalem first received on a recent Holy Saturday, and the faith we confess in our parish is the same faith which the apostles confessed in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, when another miraculous fire descended upon their heads.
            It is true, of course, that having the Holy Fire in our icon-corners does not provide any shortcut to sanctity, much less any substitute for it.  Whether or not we have the Holy Fire we still need to strive mightily for holiness and pray and fast and read our Bibles and go to Church.  If we do not do these essential things, it will matter little whether or not we have the Holy Fire burning in our icon-corners.  But though it does not provide a substitute for holiness, it does provide an expression of our own inter-connectedness with those other Orthodox who have accepted the Holy Fire with gratitude and of our place within the communion of saints generally.  We are not alone, though the walk of faith can sometimes feel very lonely.  When I look at the flame burning upon my own little icon-corner, I cannot help but think of all the multitude of my brothers and sisters who have also received that miraculous gift, and who are perhaps thinking of people like me.  We are all one, united within the same fire of faith, a flame first kindled two millennia ago in Jerusalem.