Imitation and Creativity: Part I

As an Orthodox musician (cantor, director), one thing I fear – almost above all else, as I think about it – is bringing into the Church’s liturgy a “worldly” set of musical values that are not only foreign to the Church’s goals but harmful to her children’s spiritual health.

This is no small concern. Tradition exists in the Church for a reason: to pass on the Faith. And this Faith forms a new habit of thinking which is trained in the liturgy. The Russian Old Believers aren’t wrong when they contend that the external forms, even minutiae, are important in this formation.

I don’t belong to a Church of the Old Rite. My parish didn’t receive and doesn’t practice customs unchanged from generations past. There have been very many interruptions and changes and modernizations. Whether for good or ill, I’ve not been entrusted with the preservation of a practice of liturgical life and music that goes back centuries in its minutiae. Instead, my community is and always has been a polyglot like every other institution found in western America. The trail was long: Jerusalem to Antioch to Byzantium to Kiev to Muscovy to Valaam through St. Petersburg to Sitka to San Fransisco to Portland. That’s not quite right but you get the idea.

As with most of my colleagues, I serve in a parish that is thoroughly of its time and place. (Much of that character has been cultivated, by the way, on purpose.) Our music rests on the work of 18th-19th c. folk who were doing their best (I assume) to develop music according to their time and place. That the body of chant and customs practiced by earlier generations was broken was not their fault or mine. We have to provide music within the context we’re in.

Now, to this point, I sound apologetic. There’s a reason for that. I am. I’m a bit defensive about the Orthodox practice of Tradition and how much strictness it requires. For some, it requires a rather all-embracing strictness. These are notable for their absence at the table of ecumenical Orthodoxy (the communion of patriarchates). For the rest of us, it requires substantially less, though amongst ourselves the degree of strictness is still substantially varied. My context definitely falls in the liberal wing.

Folks in the strict camp, I suspect, do not wrestle much with what they bring to the liturgy. The music and its performance are guided by narrow rules set long, long ago and (it is assumed) maintained. (If it’s not been maintained, who would know?) Sing this in that manner at such-and-such a time, and you’ve kept the Tradition. It seems relatively easy. The hardest work is learning it and passing it on. (No denigration meant.)

I have not that luxury. The basic body of music which I have been bequeathed does not arise out of the dim mists of time. We know who wrote it, for what, who sang it, how and where. We know some of the accretions and baggage it has picked up and dropped off along the way. Furthermore, we have added to that body of repertoire other music written under its shadow, or consciously out from under it. Not only that, we’ve also added to that repertoire music from other places that has been on a similar pilgrimage.

So, for those of us who exist in this world where we aren’t just imitating and reproducing the past, we have real choices and decisions to make. If our forefathers had choices and decisions to make (i.e. what to keep from the synagogue, what to reject from sacred Gentile rites, what to invent from whole cloth), we have similar ones.

Within this world, we have to make judgments on music: What of the received music is really “of” the Tradition? What of new music is in accord with it? What is lacking that the Tradition demands?

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Let Us Celebrate Pentecost

Each year, as we progress in the Eastern Orthodox calendar through Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Pentecost I’m struck by how Pentecost is the fulfillment of all things. It is the last, great day. If Pascha is the seventh day-plus one (the eight day: the beginning of the new creation), Pentecost is the seventh seven-plus one, the fiftieth: Super-Pascha. Pentecost does not look back to Pascha. Pascha points us forward to Pentecost, the Day of the Holy Spirit, the Day of the Kingdom.

I won’t try to explain this. Go to and listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s excellent discussion of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit as the Kingdom of God.

I want to follow up on this idea with a weak attempt at a correction of our normal view. You see, what we usually experience and think is that Pentecost ends the festal season; that afterward we return to “normal.” Those of us involved in liturgical ministry certainly seem to experience this. We take up the typical psalms at the Liturgy, we sing the usual Communion Hymn and troparion after Communion, etc. At the Creed we use the usual greeting.

But therein lies the mistake: The Season of Pentecost remains unfulfilled. “Christ is risen!” is not the end. It is the beginning. “Christ is ascended!” is merely a restatement of the same thing, and anticipates what is to come. “We have seen the True Light; we have received the Heavenly Spirit” is the proclamation to which the whole action and experience of Pascha-Ascension points. Before Pentecost, it is Christ Who has risen and Who has ascended. But in Pentecost, He pours out His Holy Spirit, and His Pascha becomes our pascha, His Ascension our ascension, His Kingdom our kingdom.

The greeting, “Christ is in our midst! He is, and ever shall be!” does not end. It is the gift of Pentecost. We do not say it because we have nothing better to say. What can be better? “Christ is risen!” is indeed supremely joyful and victorious and triumphant, and we do well to shout it with all our might. “Christ is ascended!” is a supreme triumph, because He Who trod the “winepress” and Whose garments are “bloodstained” enters into His glory, and takes our human nature with Him. And we share in His joy. But in Pentecost, His joy and glory becomes our joy and glory.

The season of Pentecost – which lasts the entire year – is the season of “Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise Him in the highest!,” “Christ is in our midst!,” “We have seen the True Light; we have received the Heavenly Spirit” and “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth: come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls!” These proclamations and this prayer can only be made after the Lord’s Pascha. It is the season of the Kingdom, the season of the Spirit’s life, the season of our sanctification.

A lot of talk is given in American politics these days of “the new normal.” In the Church, Pentecost announces the new normal: “Christ is in our midst! He is, and ever shall be!” If in Paschaltide we celebrate Christ’s miracles (the Blind Man, the Paralytic, etc.), in the season of Pentecost, we celebrate Christ’s miracles in His saints. This proclaims the spread of His Kingdom into the world at large. In a way, Pascha is the doorway into the New Life in which saints are made, martyrs revealed, sins healed. New Life isn’t merely in that mystical but unseen place called Hades and Sheol, where the Old Adam and Eve are raised. It is here and now, before our very eyes. Human beings – neighbors, family, friends, the poor, the unnoticed – are made into christs.

“The kingdom of God has come among you!”

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Tell forth His salvation

I’m reading the Revelation of St. John currently, and I’m struck today by 13:6:

Then [the beast] opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven.”

It strikes me that the worship of the Church is to do the precise opposite. In fact, it is “the beast” who does the opposite. The worship of God is ever in the mouths of the angels, and we on earth are called to join them. Blasphemy is a total and utter twisting and denial of praise. Without praise, without God’s eternal glory, there can be no blasphemy.

The beast opens his mouth against God. We, rather, open our mouths for God: “Glory to You, O God, glory to You.” We ascribe to God holiness: “Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal: have mercy on us.” “Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna in the highest!”

The beast blasphemes God’s name; we revere it: “hallowed be Your name.” “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” “Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”

The beast blasphemes God’s tabernacle, His dwelling; we esteem this dwelling: “All creation rejoices, in you, O Full of Grace: glory to you.” “It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and the mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. The very Theotokos, we magnify you.” “Holy is Your temple; wonderful in righteousness” (Ps. 64:5 LXX).

The beast blasphemes “those who dwell in heaven”; we honor them, for “God is wonderful in His saints” (Ps. 67:35 LXX): “You were revealed to your flock as a measure of faith, an image of humility, and a teacher of self-control.” “The memory of the righteous is worthy of praise” (tropar to St. John, cf Prov. 10:7). “The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance” (Ps. 112:6). “Praise befits the just” (Ps. 33:1).

It troubles me when Christians tire of praise, blessing God’s name, honoring His most-pure Mother, and glorifying Him in His saints. Ascriptions of God’s praise in Orthodox liturgy are endless. So, too, the hallowing of His name. The honoring of the Theotokos is hardly an addition to the liturgy. Without it, it ceases to be fully-Christian worship. Also, ascribing praise to the saints.

God is not worshiped in isolation, as He is in Islam. It is not possible to worship God properly and to not honor the All-holy and His saints. This is because God indeed is worshiped in His person, and this is rightly unique and utterly singular: No one else is worthy of worship. But we praise God for His mighty acts of salvation and grace and power and love. And these are supremely revealed in the lives of the saints for God’s mercy and power is revealed in and through them.

In Christian faith – the faith of Christ – God is not cooped up in an isolated heaven. He “comes down” (creed) and is incarnate in His beloved Son, Who calls to Himself men and gives them His Spirit – the Spirit of power and of sonship. The power of God is no longer to be found in great cosmic miracles but in transforming grace in individual lives.

We rightly recount with joy the great salvation through the sea, and the deliverance from the fiery furnace, and the restoration of the children of Israel from captivity. But more, we rejoice in a dishonest tax-collecter turned disciple, a prostitute turned worshiper, a persecutor turned evangelist. These are the mighty works that those of yore pointed toward.

If the tabernacle of spun thread and the ark overlaid with gold were beautiful, how much more so is the person of the Holy Virgin who contained that Presence within herself “yet was not consumed” (irmos, canticle 9, Lazarus Saturday)? If the bringing forth of water from the rock in the desert to quench temporal thirst was great, how much more so the “water of life” provided the woman at the well? If the crossing of the Jordan was a miracle – which immediately closed back upon itself – how much more so the crossing over from death to life of a single human soul in the grace-filled waters of Holy Baptism?

In the hymns and prayers of the Church’s liturgy, we never cease to give God “the glory due His name” (Ps. 96:8). We worship His thrice-holy, unimaginable divinity; and we praise His acts of power and favor; and we especially “tell forth His salvation from day to day” as we honor the saints in whom He is glorified – who reveal in themselves lives redeemed unto “glory, honor and immortality” (Ro. 2:7).

It is for just this purpose, this result, that He humbled Himself unto death, “even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

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Music: Prayer and Performance

“He who sings prays twice.”


I’m sitting here listening to Alexandr Nikolsy’s setting of the Divine Liturgy, having just been reading a chapter in Vladimir Morosan’s superb book Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia (Musica Russica 1986).  I’ve been preparing for the launching of a new project called “Kliros,” a semi-professional chorus with the aim of preparing and presenting quality choral music for the Orthodox liturgy.

This type of project raises questions, primarily, “Isn’t this mixing performance with the liturgy?”  It’s phrased in different ways, but that’s the gist of it.  And it’s a good question.  It’s also one I have.  I’ve decided that the answer is, “Yes.”  I’ve also decided that this is not only normal but unavoidable.

What is “performance”?  Simply put, it is the presenting of a thing in a public manner in order to be heard, seen, understood and appreciated.  The manner of its presentation matters; it’s part of it.  Presenting something for another to see, hear, understand and appreciate requires “performance,” some amount of craft in the actual presentation, some amount of inviting engagement.

A sermon is a presentation.  It requires performance.  The pastor must speak in order to be heard.  He must also speak in order to be understood.  The flow of his thought matters.  The manner of his presentation matters.  This includes rhetoric: artfully starting at one point, going through others in order to arrive at his desired place, hopefully with the listeners joining him.  This includes modulation of the voice as well as the use of illustrations and anecdotes.  The style of this mixture varies according to time and place, and each preacher brings his own personality and skill to bear.  No matter how spontaneously conceived, prayerfully prepared and piously delivered, it is still a performance.  It is meant to be heard.  Even the most hard-hitting sermon asking for extreme repentance to some extent must be enjoyed by the listener.  There must be a cogent flow of thought.  There must be enough delightful ideas to encourage a positive response.

Sacred music is no different.  Music was allowed in the Church, even encouraged, in order to “sweeten” the practice of prayer and psalmody.  The Fathers understood that we live in the body and that the senses are designed to perceive and exult in beauty; and that beauty not only can but should lead to humility and penitence as well as joy and praise.  The truths of the Faith can be dryly taught or, like medicine mixed with honey, sweetly imparted, so that instruction can be combined with enjoyment.  Instruction, even exhortation, need not be unpleasant.  Still less should it be boring.

So, the music of the Church, indeed, the entire liturgy, is, in fact, a performance.  It is meant to be heard.  Now, “performance” often implies a passive listening, rather than an active participation.  This is unfortunate since even classical music concerts in which everyone sits quite still (as opposed to a rock concert in which no one does any such thing) is meant to invite contemplation and active emotional involvement.  I have, in fact, “listened” to concerts that exhausted me, or at least drained me.  (I can’t imagine the physical strength of the performers who had to perform!)

The liturgy of the Church is both physically active (bowing, crossing, singing) and passive (listening, contemplating).  But contemplation is not actually passive.  The pray-er has to actively attend (a command frequently given in Orthodox worship), exert strength (standing, not fidgeting) and oppose distraction (quell negative thoughts, ignore irrelevant ones).  The manner in which the celebrant is declaiming, the psalmist is chanting and the choir is singing is either helpful or distracting to this activity.

I suggest that what is often called “prayerful singing” in Orthodox churches is simply a manner of singing that is common (expected) and un-intrusive on the worshiper’s thoughts.  Neither too soft or too loud, too fast or too slow, too enunciated or too mumbled it is gray; it attracts no attention.  It is not especially beautiful, nor is it ugly.  Furthermore, it all sounds the same, so it provides a familiar if unremarkable background or soundtrack to the familiar actions of the clergy.  It ebbs and flows in a predictable manner, and this predictability allows for no intrusion on what the hearer expects.

Now, there is some virtue here.  This describes something common and repetitious, repetitious in the sense that God is “the same yesterday, today and forever” and that the Church’s proclamation is the same as it always has been.  The repentance to which we are called today is not a different repentance than those in Kievan Rus’ in the 11th c.  “Christ is risen!” does not mean something today that it did not in 19th c. Alaska.  This is a very important aspect of liturgy.  It does require an ascetic discipline.  The Church is not going to proclaim some new thing next Sunday.  Your sins are not going to magically be redefined.  Until you die, you’ll be saved, in part, by a constant repetition of and return to “Lord, have mercy,” “Holy, holy, holy…,” “Glory to You, O God, glory to You.”

Even as the sea constantly ebbs and flows, swells and rolls, storms and calms, so too does the liturgy of the Church.  But who tires of contemplating the sea?  When do people not play in it?  When do its storms not thrill and frighten?  When do its depths not invoke awe?  When do its bright blue and its steel grey not delight?  Never.  We may only be equipped to contemplate it for so long and understand so much.  We may only dip our toes in its edges.  But who goes to it and never returns?

The liturgy of the Church, in its rolling throughout the day, the week, the year invites contemplation of just such depths, calms, storms, promises, threats.  But the sea’s liturgy is just there.  The Church’s liturgy requires performance.  We must do it.  And we must bring our human selves to it – our understanding, our obedience, our creativity, our ability.

The question, then, must be how do we perform, and not do we perform.  It’s like the music of Bach: It’s a pious thing to think that it interprets itself, and a musician need only mechanically reproduce it.  Not so.  That approach lasted for a few decades, at best, until overturned by the music itself, which demanded more.  The liturgy’s beauty and power and depths exist, but they won’t reveal themselves.  The manner in which we perform the liturgy allows that revelation – or not.

What are the boundaries of this performance, its limits?  When does obedient performance become something dis-obedient?  When does creativity become pomposity or sentimentalism?  When does expressiveness become narrowly personal versus broadly communal, subjective rather than objective?

That sounds like fodder for another blog.

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Scripture & Hymnography

There are several debates that have arisen amongst Christians of many stripes over the course of centuries which never seem to get fully resolved.  (One reason for this seems to be schism: When a party of believers separates from the larger body of believers, it often reopens old “issues” or causes old arguments to be re-litigated.  This is a major argument against schism.)  One of these points of debate is the legitimacy of poetic hymnography.

 The Church’s use of poetic hymnography was rather sparse for the first half-millennium of its existence.  It is often thought that the Psalter formed the basic hymn-/prayer-book of the Church.  But the use of psalmody was also, by later standards, sparse.  The Church’s liturgy was fairly simple and conservative – not in the “free church” sense, but in that it did not yet possess the complicated rubrics and effusive repertoire that characterized the Church after the 9th century.

The rise of monasticism gave rise to the extensive use of the Psalter as the basic prayer book of devotion.  Previously, psalms were used thematically, selected for their appropriateness to this or that celebration (e.g. Psalm 109/110 and the Incarnation; or select verses were used).  With the development of the Divine Office of prayer-hours and coenobitic monastic life came the continuous recitation of the Psalter.  Few, if any, hymns were sung in monasteries, with a general sense of suspicion toward singing.

Interestingly enough, it is within the monasteries later that the great flowering of hymnography arose and spread to the “secular” churches, to the delight of the faithful, since it added a wider musical and rhythmic palette to the long night-vigils.  Enter the debate: to sing or not to sing; to use poetic hymnography or just the Psalter.

This debate has been repeated at various times in history, most notably among the Calvinist Reformed churches, which advocate using only the Psalter (in paraphrased, metered versions, I hasten to add, yet with deliciously beautiful French and Scottish melodies – the latter which have had an indelible influence on American folk hymnody and later popular forms of music).  The Eastern Orthodox response was an unequivocal Yes to singing and poetry.  A huge Yes, in fact.  Singing was – is –seen as a tool, a thing of beauty, a way to “sweeten” the medicine of prayer and teaching and penitence.  Poetry is seen as a way to elucidate clearly and forthrightly the teaching of the Gospel, which in the Psalter and Old Testament in general is given only in figure.

The great proliferation of poetic hymnography occurred in conjunction with the defeat of iconoclasm and the subsequent full-flowering of iconographic practice and theory (What an awful word!).  Interestingly enough, the Church has always used hymnography to illumine her teaching.  When Arianism was raging and using folk-hymns to disseminate its teaching, St. Ambrose countered by teaching orthodox hymns to his flock.  In the Latin Church, a great flowering of hymnography occurred during the Middle Ages, when European culture was at a nadir and lack of education rampant.  The Reformation was accompanied by renewal of church singing.  The converse is also true: When the Church experiences decadence, it is often its music and poetry which is at the vanguard of its manifestation.

It is my opinion that this latter fact reveals the need for a balance between poetry and psalmody.  The psalms and canticles provide the Church with her basic vocabulary.  This is the language of our Hebrew inheritance and of the New Testament, for we understand Jesus – His life, Passion and Resurrection – “according to the Scriptures,” as St. Paul says.  It gives us literary tools and guides (canons, if you will) for speaking of God and His economy of salvation, even as sacred icons are painted using a somewhat narrow language of form and color and expression.  This helps, in part, to keep us from a banal and slavish literalism as well as over-fanciful allegorism and too-clever intellectualism.  With such safeguards, there is room to believe when in a skeptical and critical age, and to think and ponder when in an age of credulity and easy answers.  We speak of Christ and His saints and the great works of faith using the ages-old language and images of Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jonah.  We add to them Joachim and Anna, Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Peter and Paul, James and John.  But we don’t stop there, because life doesn’t stop there, meaning that God doesn’t stop there.  We append Thecla and Dionysius, Polycarp and Ignatius, Cyprian and Martin, Nicholas and Spyridon, Anthony and Mary, Gregories galore, Innocent, Herman, Olga…

Often in church life, it has become normal to allow the great body of hymnography to suffocate the infra-structure of psalmody.  But this must be resisted.  The psalms and canticles, just as much as the pericopes and parables of scripture themselves, form our thought-life. Without knowing them in prayer and praise, we will soon lose our understanding of the hymns, too.  Even as some have argued that the Church must breathe with its two lungs of East and West, so the liturgy must breath with its two lungs of scripture and hymnography.

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Light, Hades & Pascha

“The light of Christ illumines all mankind!”

This cry punctuates Orthodox services as the faithful wend their way through the Great Lent to the Great and Holy Pascha.  A lit candle is brought out of the sanctuary into the people, who prostrate in worship before Christ “the light of the world.”  “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not overcome it.”

Constantly, this motif of light is seen and heard in Orthodox worship and hymns.  When a vigil is held, the faithful often hold lighted candles, and the service begins with the priest censing the Church while led by a deacon holding a large lighted candle.

The newly-baptized are given candles to hold.  Worshipers light candles in memory of those fallen asleep as well as before icons of beloved saints.  At Vespers, as “Lord, I call” is sung, the candles in the Church are lit, and at the end of Matins, when the Great Doxology is sung, the Church lights are brightened.

But all of these lighting lights in the darkness are most especially founded within the Paschal celebrations.  The first “reference” is on Holy Saturday in the reading of Genesis 1: “Let there be light.”  Then we read in Exodus of the “pillar of fire by night.”  Isaiah proclaims, “Arise, shine, for your light is come!”

This is all “acted out” and set forth liturgically when, as the Faithful wait in the darkness of the tomb, the hymn “The angels in heaven sing of Your resurrection,” the light is brought out of the sanctuary and the cry goes up, “Come, receive the light…”

The darkness in which the congregation waits is the darkness of death, of Hades, where Christ has gone “in the spirit” to bring the good news of His eternal victory and to raise the dead “from ages past.”  This image is developed in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which, while not accepted into the canon of scripture by the Church, nonetheless has strongly influenced her understanding of the “great and mystical pascha.”

In this gospel, the scene is set in which the dead are languishing in the darkness of death.  The prophets are prophesying.  A cry goes up: “Lift the gates.”  A light is seen, grows nearer and becomes brighter than the sun.  Christ, through His crucifixion and death has entered into Death, and being Life, looses all the dead from their ancient bonds.

It is this which the Orthodox enact and celebrate on the great and saving night of the Holy Pascha.  After receiving the light in the darkness and processing around the Church with it, we enter it, now bathed in light.  We sing in the great canon of St. John of Damascus (who knew the Church’s tradition as it had been handed down through the fathers and hymnographers, including the deacons and poets Efrem the Syrian and Romanus the Melodist):

“When they who were held captive in the bonds of Hades, O Christ, beheld Thy lovingkindness without measure, they pressed forward to the light with joyful steps, praising the eternal Pascha.”

“Let us go with lamps in hand to meet Christ, Who comes forth from the grave as a Bridegroom.  And with the heavenly ranks of angels, the let us celebrate the saving Pascha of God.”

“Now all is filled light: heaven and earth and the lower regions [Hades].  All creation celebrates the rising of Christ, in Whom we are established.”

“How lifegiving, how much more beautiful than Paradise, and truly more resplendent than any royal palace proved Thy grave, the source of our resurrection, O Christ.”

The light of Christ — the Light Who is Christ — illumines all!

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It’s time.

In my last posting I discussed the incarnational dimension of the Divine Liturgy – indeed, of any of the sacramental mysteries. That in these mysteries we are ushered by the Spirit into the realm of God’s acting. That He really does “show up” and answer our prayers. That He really, in His Spirit, is with us, and we with Him. That His ascension is fulfilled: we are taken into God, and God comes to us. Both/and, as we like to say.

This is related to another aspect or dimension, I’d like to briefly address, and that is that of “time.” An overt feature of Eastern Orthodox liturgy is that we enter into God’s time, or the time of God’s acting. If the Scripture uses the word “chronos” to refer to regular, linear time, which we count with hours and watches, then it uses the word “kairos” to refer to time in a more abstract, less bound way.

A good first stopping point is Psalm 95 (94 LXX), which is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Today if you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” The Apostle explains that this “today” is not limited to a 24-hour period in the distant past. It is a “today” for all who have “ears to hear” and respond. This “today” is now, this age of redemption, this age that precedes the Age to Come, as we say at the end of the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world [age, actually] to come.”

The “age to come” is that of the new creation and the life of the “day without evening.” Meanwhile, we live in this age but which has been in-broken by the Kingdom of God, which has come, is coming, and is still to come. The work of God is not bound by our minutes and hours and days. It is “today.” “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One.” “Today [the Lord] has shone forth in our world.” “Today the temple of curtain is torn in two.” Today He rises as he said He would. Today He is coming back to judge the world that He made.

This is the eternal Now of the Kingdom.

When the Church gathers to celebrate God’s saving acts in Baptism, the Eucharist, on a feast day, we enter into the kairos of His salvation. As my priest says, “There and then becomes here and now.” Time – old man chronos – is collapsed, and the realm of God breaks in. We “enter into the joy of the Lord.” One of the prayers for preparing for Holy Communion calls the Eucharist “an earnest of the life and kingdom which is to come.” This is what the deacon means when he quotes Psalm 119 (118 LXX) at the beginning of the Liturgy: “It is time for the Lord to act.”

We’re as good as there.

This is not escapism. We are here and now. But God’s acting is not confined to the very real historical events of the past. They are eternal. They are now. We don’t escape into the past. We are just not confined to the present. And the past isn’t confined. There is a real communion of persons and events and realities.


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Liturgical Dynamics, Part VI: Incarnational = “Both/And”

“God has visited His people.”

Some years ago, I had a short but recurring good-natured banter with a godson over the nature of the Divine Liturgy, in which we celebrate the Eucharist and participate in Holy Communion. The “substance” of the give-and-take was, whether we were taken up to Heaven in the liturgy or God came down to us. This is ridiculous talk, of course, much like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! (At least they’re dancing.)

In a mystery, a sacrament, a rite in which we really do believe that we ask God for something and He meets our request in His grace and mercy, one oughtn’t analyze what cannot be analyzed. One receives the gift. It’s a bit like asking someone who’s given you a present how they managed to afford it. It’s rude and misses the whole point. Accept with thanks, know that your relationship is renewed, and move on, hopefully changed (for the better) by the encounter.

The mystery of the Incarnation assures us that, forever and “unto the ages of ages,” we will be plumbing “the depths of the knowledge of God” “to know what is the heighth, and the length, and the breadth, and the depth.” It has been made known to us: “of his fullness we have received, and grace for grace.” One gets the idea of layer upon layer, level upon level of grace discovered, revealed, experienced, made known – a never-ending supply. C. S. Lewis wrote “farther in and farther up.” St. Paul said of it, “ever-increasing glory.”

This mystery – “Christ in you, the hope of glory” – is revealed and renewed in the Mysteries of the Church, most especially the Eucharist – the “participation in” the Body and Blood of Christ. The prayer which the Church makes asks that God send His Holy Spirit “on us and on these gifts” so that they may become that Body and Blood of which St. Paul speaks, referring to what our Lord said, “This is My Body…This is My Blood.”

In the Mystery of the Holy Communion, the Incarnation of Christ is renewed, made manifest again on earth in “these gifts here set forth,” the bread and the wine. As the Holy Spirit hovered and brooded over the primeval waters, and as He hovered and brooded over the immaculate womb of the Ever-virgin, so He hovers and broods over the Holy Gifts. (One must not forget the waters upon which we call down the Spirit at Theophany and at Baptism, as well as the Holy Oil of Unction and Chrismation. And the reading of the Gospel.)

But in the Divine Liturgy, we do not believe that the Spirit only shows up at the “consecration” of the Gifts. No, indeed. We pray before we begin, “come and abide in us.” And we bless “the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We read from the Holy Scriptures, “God-breathed,” or “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” The hymn we sing on Palm Sunday, which is sung before major councils, applies to any of our meetings “where two or three are gathered in My Name,” and where “two on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done”: “Today the Holy Spirit brings us all together.”

It is this ministry of the “other Paraclete” which our Lord promised to send after His glorification – His Spirit of Truth – which is revealed in the common greeting amongst the Orthodox: “Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!” This greeting is the fulfillment of the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!” In the Spirit which He has given, He is present in His Body, the Church.

In our Eucharist, the Presence and Body are revealed. And we know the line of the prayer, “You have taken us to Heaven and endowed us with Your Kingdom which is to come.” Our common humanity was taken into the very depths of the Undivided Trinity in His Ascension, and that Kingdom was bestowed upon us in the Spirit which He sent “from the Father.” Paradoxically, He never left. We’ve already left. And we meet in that timeless place of grace, the time of God’s acting, the place of God’s visitation.

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“Good” Liturgy

I hate that term.

It’s meaningless in a Christian setting, at least one that is of the Apostolic and Catholic Faith and Tradition. I say it’s meaningless because Christian liturgy is about Christ and the operation of His Holy Spirit as well as His Body, the Church. In a real sense, all that we have to do is show up.

Show up and utter our collective “Amen.”

What I mean is that, for our liturgy to be effective, we need to be available to God. We need to do the liturgy, which means that someone has to read the scriptures, say the prayers and say “amen.” We don’t have to feel as certain way. (In fact, trying to is rather dangerous, and woe if you succeed.) We don’t have to pray hard. We don’t have to have some magical level on the sincerity meter.

This doesn’t mean that our faith and effort and desires and so forth are irrelevant. Not at all. But we can’t induce God to do anything. He doesn’t need bribing. He doesn’t need wooing. He doesn’t need enticing. (In fact, He’s the one who bribes woos and entices.) And He isn’t a machine or Natural Law whereby – when the various elements come together just right – He automatically does This.

Perish the thought. Christianity isn’t paganism.

God has already done what needs to be done. “It is finished,” said the Victim of the Sacrifice, “once for all.” We need but enter into it. Humility is necessary, as is repentance and faith. But we have these in imperfect quantities. And even if we had them in perfection, it’d not be possible to manipulate God with them. I don’t think that He impresses easily.

In this sense, the liturgy simply is what it is. What little faith and repentance we bring are equal because God is constant, and when He promised that “where two or three are gathered” or “agree on any thing,” He meant it. He’ll do it. He does it.

However, it’s not true that on this earthly plane all things are worked out equally. It’s not true that God’s Word goes forth unimpeded. It’s not true that all liturgy inspires faith and repentance, reverence and prayer, praise and thanksgiving in equal measures. To the extent that God works with the tools that we provide, He works with, in and through us, and we don’t always show up – fully, anyway. It’s a mark of God’s grace that He’ll get done what He needs to get done in spite of us, and for that we’re all grateful. But it’s nice when the physical context of a liturgy outwardly shines forth in humble beauty and simple reverence.

Without attempting to judge their inner workings, I recently attended two liturgies that, to my experience and understanding, seemed exemplary. Not ideal but exemplary.

I took the last two weeks off of my church responsibilities. I hadn’t done so for quite a long time (by choice; no complaint here), and had seen the parish through the summer and winter festal seasons. I was starting to wear thin due to the weakness of the flesh, and knew that the vista of Great Lent was approaching. So, I took time to re-create and renew my strength.

As part of this, I attended two Roman Catholic masses, one alone and one with a friend. Both “featured” music sung my choirs of skilled singers who sang the traditional Gregorian chants along with motets written in sacred polyphony. At the first, settings of the Mass by Palestrina were used. In both, the current Novus Ordo was celebrated, in the first with Latin, in the second in English. Both were celebrated in local parishes that had undertaken recent renovations of their previously-drab facilities.

It’s this last point that I should like to begin with, reflecting that these were, in the physical sense and to my mind, “good” liturgies. Because I believe strongly that the physical space for worship ought to have due attention. It is the least a host can do to clean his apartment before guests arrive. And it’s the least a community of believers can do to see to it that, within their means and within the bounds of local propriety, the house for the Church be conducive to communal prayer. When a place is beautiful without ostentation, it is welcoming. It invites all to enter with a common purpose.

I also believe strongly that there is much ugliness in our world and homes, and churches ought to be built to provide places of beauty that speak of God’s presence. This is an act of charity to this and future generations, as well as to the poor who often do not live amidst beauty. And to the rich who often don’t understand beauty.

In both churches, the presiding presbyters were focused and clear, serving the Mass and saying the prayers with reverence, but a reverence suited to this age. They didn’t mumble as though prayer required the lowest possible decibels, or proclaim the Gospel as though it weren’t a story, or give a homily over the heads or under the feet of the congregation, or in a style divorced from the proceedings. Both honored the traditional gestures of Holy Mass, and had taught their altar servers to do the same. This engendered in me, not a sense of stiff, lifeless and cold formality but of grace and gratitude. These gestures are simply the way that politeness is expressed in church – a politeness that honors the presence of God and His image in fellow celebrants as well as the liturgy itself.

Finally, music in both places was honored as a real vehicle for worship. The choirs stood in lofts behind the congregation where they could be heard and, when required, lead communal singing. But being behind, they could do what they needed to do without distraction. Beauty was taken seriously. It’s impossible to not have a sense of performance in a public service of any style and tradition. It is possible to let that sense overtake all else. But it’s also possible to use beauty as incense is used, and as kneelers are used, and as gestures and vestments and decorum are used: not as an end in itself, but as a tool to serve the greater end of service. This is service to the Blessed Trinity, and part of the outward manifestation of “our reasonable worship.”

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Liturgical Dynamics, part VI: Orthodox Communal Life is Incarnational

Two things: First, I realize that I’ve been publishing blogs under the subtitle “part I, II,” etc. How dull. Eventually I’ll go back and add descriptive subtitles. (I bet it doesn’t happen real soon.)

Second, I got a bit irked within myself at an acquaintance on Facebook the other day (This was originally written – er – in early December…), who opined that he was glad that at his church they “could remember” Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection more than once a year. I asked “Who waits?” or something like that, since I find that kind of remark to be a straw man: certain churches don’t especially like holidays (I call it liturgical laziness!), and disparage others by accusing them of only “remembering” this or that “once a year.”

Hogwash! Most churches don’t even properly “remember” the Incarnation or Resurrection even once a year, because they’re either Arians who don’t believe in the true divinity of Christ which He shares with His Father; or because they’re Platonists who don’t actually believe that matter matters. So, God becoming flesh and raising it from the dead is highly suspicious.

But my acquaintance is right: If the Church truly confesses the Incarnation of the Son of God in the world as a real human being, and if God truly raised Him from the dead, then it’s not the subject of occasional “remembrance.” It’s everything who we are. Which is the main reason I became an Orthodox Christian. There just simply is no service, no prayer, no outward expression of the Faith that is not rooted in and expressive of the Incarnation.

Orthodox worship, and its resultant liturgy, is incarnational. It not only refers to the Incarnation as though it were the one thing that, other than creation itself, has changed everything. It manifests the Incarnation as a reality in which we live. The Incarnation of the Son of God was not a one-time event in history, “when August ruled alone upon earth” and Cyrenius was governor of Syria,” in the days of Herod the King. It was that, but it established a new reality: “God is with us.” Christ said, “The Kingdom of God has come upon you.” The emissaries of Prince Vladimir to the Great Church in Constantinople said, “God dwells there among men,” and while they had a pagan idea in mind – they were pagans, after all – they did speak the truth: The dwelling of God is with men (Rev. 21:3).

In liturgical worship, this world becomes the theater of God’s work; His Kingdom breaks into the Now; this time becomes God’s “today” (that’s the next posting). The profane is redeemed by the sacred. Symbol unfolds reality. The sign reveals the thing itself. The outward is joined to the inward. Earth and Heaven are bridged, and Man communes with God. And Man communes with Man in a way more true and sincere than he knows.

“Today salvation has come to the world!”
“Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One!”
“Today You have shown forth in our world, O Lord!”

There and then – in the garden that early Sunday morning, in the cave-stable at Bethlehem, in the Jordan as John baptizes – because here and now. Because we “remember,” we make anamnesis. There is no “them.” It’s only us. We don’t simply recall; we make present. This presence is made by our common agreement (“Where two or three agree about anything…”), by our fellowship (“Where two or three are gathered in my name…”). And, as the above statements from Orthodox festal hymns show, it’s not just in the Eucharist that this anamnesis is “effected”. (What a horrid word!)  It is whenever we gather to make present the saving plan of God.  This is “remembrance” par excellence, but the Church learned its worship while celebrating the Holy Communion, and so applies it to all its worship – especially the feasts.

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