Monthly Archives: April 2007

Our Easter Vigil

Our Easter Vigil experience was, overall, a pretty good one. It was very cold (for here) and very early when we got up and it was a challenge to get the little ones dolled up in their Easter finery and out the door to make it by 6 AM. It didn’t happen either. That’s ok–we were close enough to on time to get to file past the new fire and to hear “The light of Christ!” as the Paschal candle disappeared into the church several hundred people ahead of us…

I would have been worried about not getting seats except ours are perpetually saved by ingrained years of habit on the part of other churchgoers; Lil’ G is really good in church–when she can see what’s going on. Everybody’s trained not to sit in the first few pews–so that’s where we headed and, sure enough, there was space.

There were only 3 readings and no psalms (choir anthems, rather) but minor nit-pickiness aside it was a good celebration. I busted the bell-cluster M put together for me by over-vigorous ringing during the Gloria… The sermon was good–it stayed focused on Easter and the resurrection and the power of the living Jesus which was just right for the occasion. The only real hitch for us was when Lil’ G refused to receive Eucharist from the lead cleric (more of a large-man-with-beard thing than a church-politics thing).

Lamb dinner at home followed. It was nice to enjoy an Easter service as a family. I imagine we’ll have very few of these in the coming years…

The only liturgical oddity from Triduum I’ll note was the Veneration of the Cross. M and I are quite attached to the rite, it being a major academic interest of hers, but this one was very…well…protestant. A large cross was processed to the chancel, but then we just stood there and stared at it while the choir sang a number of anthems. No prostrations or kneeling before it, no kissing of it, we got to look but not touch–the rite just felt strange and disembodied.

On Kneeling in Easter

One of the major changes that the American ’79 BCP wrought was a look Eastward. The mainstream of BCP tradition was that of the Western Church as filtered through the Sarum Rite. Furthermore, the previous great movement towards Big-T Tradition–the various parts of the Anglo-Catholic movement–took the high medieval West as their paradigm. Something that I’ve heard from the time I started frequenting Episcopal Churches is that you don’t kneel during Easter. But what I’ve observed at many traditional churches–and even at a few liberal ones–is that the common culture is to kneel during the prayers of the People and after the Sanctus as usual.

We ran into this on Sunday. The congregation was split from what I could tell…

I’ve been told that the move to not kneel in Easter is an ancient decision of the Church codified in the Ecumenical Councils of which–according to Andrewes’ dictum–we recognize the first four (though most Anglo-Catholics retain the first seven…). I have to admit a certain degree of suspicion here, though. One of the things I’ve noted in the VII revision and its Protestant offspring is a desire to de-emphasize the penitential and to emphasize the joy and rejoicing throughout the Christian year. Insofar as this is a reaction against an overly sober and somber way of being the people of God, I’d agree. But, like many things, I want to make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing to far. Get too far on the other side and we capitulate to the cultural message that we’re all just fine the way we are, no repenting, no introspection, no cultivation of virtue needed (and when in doubt, blame somebody else…). So I got curious about this and thought I’d look it up…

Now, what I had in mind was John Cassian’s comments. This is what he says in the Conferences:

But it is now time to follow out the plan of the promised
discourse. So then when Abbot Theonas had come to visit us in our cell during
Eastertide after Evensong was over we sat for a little while on the ground and
began diligently to consider why they were so very careful that no one should
during the whole fifty days either bend his knees in prayer or venture to fast
till the ninth hour, and we made our inquiry the more earnestly because we had
never seen this custom so carefully observed in the monasteries of Syria. (Conf. XXI.11)

What I’ve taken away from this is that not kneeling during Easter was a custom assiduously observed among the desert monastic communities in Egypt–but apparently not in Palestine and maybe other places as well (Rome?).

In essence, this seems to recommend what I’ve received, to wit, not kneeling during Easter was an ancient custom practiced in the time of the Fathers particularly in the East.

So far, so good.

But then there’s the reference to the Ecumenical Councils… Here’s what we find in the canons of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea:

Canon XX

Forasmuch as there are certain
persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost,
therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed
everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that
prayer be made to God standing.

Ancient Epitome of Canon XX.

On Lord’s days and at Pentecost all must pray
standing and not kneeling. (First Ecumenical Council, Canon XX)

[As a note, it must be said that “Pentecost” was used as the name of the season between the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Pentecost (cf Tertullian).]

Hmmm… This does mention not kneeling during the whole 50 days–but also on every Sunday! While I’ve heard the first part of the custom proclaimed, I’ve not heard this–nor would I want to, really. I find kneeling to be a very effective way of kinesthetically experience the liturgy and it does help the proper attitude of supplication. I think the key to remember here is the principle of balance. This canon assumes a culture of near constant liturgical activity with numerous prostrations every single day. For them, then, not kneeling or prostrating themselves was a celebratory shift from a more penitential norm. But that’s so not our case… When I say the Office by myself I sit, not kneel, and in my experiences of the Office in community at Smokey Mary we didn’t kneel either. For us to obey the canon’s letter seems to miss its spirit in terms of kneeling and prostrations.

The canon’s explicit spirit isn’t about kneeling, though. It’s about liturgical uniformity. I find this interesting particularly in light of Cassian’s comments above: he was writing about a hundred years after Nicea… Whatever uniformity the council hoped to establish didn’t take.

So where does that leave us? Well, it means that:

  • there is ancient Eastern precedent for not kneeling in Easter (Egypt)
  • but also ancient Eastern precedent for kneeling (Syria/Palestine).
  • There’s also Western precedent for kneeling in Easter.
  • An appeal made to the Council seems specious on a few grounds.
    • First, it makes a really selective reading that undercuts the authority of the canon.
    • Second, the canon seems to make sense within a very different liturgical environment than we have today.
    • Third, the canon attempts to create–or impose–a liturgical uniformity that did not obtain throughout the Church.

So, if you’re going to try and use this custom in your parish, it’s really not a good idea to appeal to the council. (Here’s where my earlier suspicions come in to play about motive…) Furthermore, competing precedents show no clear voice on the matter from the practice of the early church. There’s no reason why, all other things being equal, East should trump West.

My personal feeling? Actually, I think I’m for not kneeling during Easter…(but for kneeling the rest of the time, naturally). I think our current problem in the church is forgetting that Easter is fifty days long. We are able to remember that Lent is forty days, but have misplaced the fact that Easter is fifty… Things like using the Pascha Nostrum as the invitatory at Morning Prayer and standing at Mass do actually help with this by shifting our routine for the length of the season. But we should teach accordingly–that is, tell people why we’re doing it and how it ties in with a proper and joyful remembrance of the resurrection…which is the point of this whole exercise anyway…

On Monastic Interpretation

A junior colleague of mine stopped me in the hall after a class we teach together and wanted to get my advice on the history of New Testament interpretation. He’s in the usual graduate seminar that surveys such things. Now, my program is such that it actually gives an entire semester to the pre-Reformation history of interp. I don’t think most other programs do this, considering such “pre-critical” readings as not useful for modern NT scholars. Anyway, he’s been assigned to present on medieval monastic interp and want to pick my brain for a bit. His first question was essentially that which any NT scholar would ask: “They’re just reading the Fathers and using that, right?”

My answer was a classic yes–but no. It took a while…

In the aftermath, I was thinking through how I would go about teaching medieval monastic exegesis to try and communicate just what was going on. Here’re some initial thoughts:

  • Give them a sense of monastic life as life within an intentional liturgical community.
    • Yes, have the students read the section in the Rule on the Offices to give them a sense of Benedict’s concept of the monastic cursus.
    • Then, have them read a corresponding section from the 10th century Regularis Concordia to show them how different and how much more complicated the monastic liturgical life was than Benedict had ever envisioned.
    • Then give them some photocopies from the Breviary to reinforce that a) all liturgy is not just your Sunday morning liturgy; b) Scripture is constantly in juxtaposition with other Scripture and with non-Scriptural texts; c) this is far more complex in practice than it sounds.
  • Give them a sense not just that the patristic authors were used but how and in what contexts
    • Remind them about manuscript production costs, then emphasize and re-emphasize that the monastics didn’t have the Patrologia Latina at hand. Or even the Ante/Post Nicene Fathers. No–Paul the Deacon’s homiliary for the Night Office & Cassiodorus on the Psalms really were the sources for 90% of what 90% of medieval monks knew of the Fathers.
    • Yes, some monks probably read the Fathers for study material but the paradigmatic encounter with them was in the liturgical setting. The sermons, homilies, or commentary extracts would be interrupted four times for responsaries thematically tying the third Nocturn back into the main biblical content of the first Nocturn as determined by the liturgical season… The main point being: their encounter with the patristic interpretation was in a far different setting than either ours or even the works’ original contexts–and that would effect how they would hear it.
    • Have them read a homily by Bede or Gregory–then have them read the corresponding “adaptation” by somebody like Aelfric. Highlight, too, that what was on the page was not necessarily what was heard…
  • Give them a sense that biblical interpretation in this setting is not fundamentally about data and information. Rather, it was about experiencing the text and its transformative potential through an elaborate and interconnected system designed for this purpose.
    • This is underscored and reinforce by how the many lectionary cycles fit together. The way (as I was saying before) the Mass Epistle shows up in the versicles & responses for the Little Hours and verses from the Mass Gospel appear as the Canticle antiphons through the week…
    • Guiding and directing a lot of this is the liturgical year. The seasons themselves are interpretations of biblical events and texts and the texts within the seasons were chosen to fit within them–but, at the same time, their actual content nuances the meaning of the seasons. Furthermore certain kinds of interpretive material either appear or disappear based on the season…

It’s complicated. And, in many ways, this is my chapter 3–to lay all of this out in a (more or less) comprehensible fashion.

One of the major themes that I see running through my pedagogical attempts is interpretation and appropriation through recontextualization. That is, yeah, they used patristic material–but in a different way from which it was intended which has the effect of altering its purpose so the same text is acting in a new way and producing a new result.

Another major theme I see is reinforcing the alien nature of the interpretive culture. This kind of interpretation is not about a guy at a desk with a book. Its about a communal experience and embodiment of the text. There’s a reason why so much of the monastic exegesis can be classified as “moral”–it’s because a major focus was not on “thinking thoughts” about the text but rather on how to put the text into practice. Maybe what we label the “moral sense” might be better labeled “the sense capable of being embodied”…


Easter Repertoire

A new season inevitable means the chance for new musical settings for the Office. I’ve been looking over the offerings from a variety of (printed) sources. I’m trying to be good and stick with the official Episcopal resources but, in truth, I find myself bouncing between settings in the Hymnal ’82 and the St. Dunstan Psalter.

Normally the Hymnal has at least one–sometimes more–settings of the traditional breviary hymns. Not in Easter, I’m afraid. The Vesper hymn appears twice, once with a chant setting, (and no, I don’t have the numbers in front of me) but the Lauds and Matins hymns are nowhere to be found… While settings exist on the web and elsewhere, I’m seriously thinking about just using the Victime Paschali Laudes for a Lauds hymn this season…

Quick Easter Survey

M and I were quite puzzled this year. Most of the higher churches in the admittedly MOTR-to-low diocese did Easter Vigils this year–at 6:00 Sunday morning. Only a couple retained the usual Saturday evening position. I’d never heard of that before, yet a bunch of folks seemed to do it en masse.
Did anything like this happen around your dioceses or this just a localized phenomenon?