Tag Archives: Prayer Book Spirituality Project

On the Shape of the Calendar (Anatomy, Part 2)

Leading from the previous post on the anatomy of the Church Calendar, this bit gets to the big picture view that the prayer book never fully lays out. Here I only get through general principles and Advent—the rest are still under construction…

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The Shape of the Calendar

Competing Calendar Schemes

The Calendar as we currently have it stands in the midst of three different schemes. First, we have the historical Western calendar which has been in use since it solidified around the seventh century. This is the structure that informs liturgical and spiritual writing up through the middle of the 20th century. Second, we have the revision and simplification of that calendar influenced by the scholarship of the Liturgical Renewal Movement and enshrined in the Roman Catholic reform of the Calendar at Vatican II in 1969. While most of the historical pattern was retained, it was reoriented; they superimposed on it an idealized view of fourth-century practice focusing on Easter, Sunday, and Baptism, simplifying and sometimes suppressing features that didn’t seem to work well with these emphases. Third, the calendar of the Revised Common Lectionary that has now superseded the lectionary printed in the prayer book reinforces the process of simplification and the application of modern principles to an ancient system.

Now—since our purpose is to uncover potential spiritual meaning in the prayer book system, my preference will be to foreground complexity and nuance rather than simplification. As a result, the reading of the big picture that I present here will cut against the trend to simplify. That’s not because I believe the Revised Common Lectionary is a bad thing—its common ecumenical use is a real gift highlighting similarities between mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church and enabling us to share lectionary resources. Rather, attention to detail and an awareness of historical precedents will help us find richer meaning in the year’s round.

Some General Principles

Broadly speaking, the emphasis on Easter, Sundays, and Baptism has certain practical effects on the Church Year. There are two major meta-classes of Feasts: feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ and feasts of the saints. As a general principle, feasts of our Lord take precedence over feasts of the saints. The occasions of the Temporal cycle are feasts of our Lord, as are the fixed Holy Days that celebrate events in the life of Jesus and his mother. Likewise, all Sundays are also feasts of our Lord.

So far, so good. As a set of general principles this works pretty well. However, there’s a twist in here that never gets fully explained… In the section devoted to Sundays, three feasts of our Lord get special treatment and get to take precedence over a Sunday. Why these three? Well, this is the complicated part that the book doesn’t explain.

Certain seasons are more protective of their Sundays than others. Basically, the Sundays within seasons that have a distinctive theological character are higher ranking feasts of our Lord than the fixed Holy Days that fall within them. Here’s a chart that may help:

  1. Easter Week/Holy Week
  2. Sundays of Easter
  3. Sundays of Lent
  4. Sundays of Advent
  5. Holy Days: Feasts of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ
  6. Sundays of Christmas

7a. Sundays of Epiphany
7b.  Sundays of Season after Pentecost
7c.  Holy Days: Feasts relating to our Lord Jesus Christ
7d.  Holy Days: Feasts of the Saints

You can see what’s tricky here—there’s a distinction between two different sorts of feasts of our Lord that get treated differently in different seasons. Basically, nothing will ever replace a Sunday in Easter, Lent, or Advent. When it comes to Christmas, Epiphany, and the Season after Pentecost, it depends. The more important feasts (the Presentation and Transfiguration) do trump the Sundays; other feasts offer you an option. If a Holy Day of either sort falls in Epiphany or the Season after Pentecost, it is left up to discretion as to whether the Holy Day is transferred a day or two or whether it is celebrated on the Sunday in place of the Sunday (which just gets skipped over until next year).

Which is better to do when a feast falls on a Sunday in a green season, celebrate the season or the Holy Day? That depends—I would think it better to celebrate the specific feast of our Lord (the fixed Holy Day) over the general feast of our Lord (the Sunday) and to give way to the most important of the sanctoral festivals: the dual feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (concerning which liturgists can debate whether it should properly be classed as a sanctoral feast or a feast of our Lord), and the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels.

While we’re speaking about general principles, I’ll note that the fourth section discussed in the Calendar section identifies a different kind of day from the others. Sections one through three and five (Principal Feasts, Sundays, Holy Days, Days of Optional Observance) are about precedence: what feast gets celebrated when should a conflict arise. Section four is fussing with a completely different issue. Rather than being concerned about what to observe, it focuses on how to observe. This section gives us ascetical directions. And they’re fairly simple—fasting (eating less food than usual) or abstinence (refraining from a kind of food, usually four-footed flesh meat) are proper on Fridays that aren’t celebrations.

You might ask what this is doing here if it doesn’t seem to relate to the topic at hand… It does, however: it balances the insistence on the importance of Sundays and calls us to the balance which is the fullness of the faith. If we celebrate every Sunday as a festival of the resurrection—as we should—we also in an equal way need to keep Fridays as a reminder of the crucifixion. While Sunday should always receive the higher acclaim and the greater focus, we risk falling into danger if we celebrate a resurrection disconnected from a crucifixion, a liturgical theology of glory without a corresponding theology of the cross.

[Added] There’s one more point to notice in terms of general principles and that’s the idea of Eves. Nothing is said in the Calendar section but in the general preface to collects is the note that the collect for Sundays and Holy Days may be used on the evening before. This reflects an old principle that reckons days a little differently than normal. An average day goes from midnight to midnight. However, in reckon the length of feast days, the Church has always shown a preference for the Jewish model, reckoning it from sundown to sundown. As far as liturgical cycles go, that means that feast days—and thus our calendar categories one through three—begin at Evening Prayer on the day before and end at Evening Prayer on the day itself. Thus, the collect should be used at this prior Evening Prayer, and the Daily Office Lectionary makes provisions for eves—proper lessons for the more important days and commons for the others.

Advent

Advent focuses upon one chief affection, watchful expectation, but—as the monastic reformer St. Bernard captured it in one of his sermons for the season—we explore it in three different directions:

We know that there are three comings [advents] of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men… In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within themselves, and they are saved. In the first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.  (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini)

The multiple senses of Advent allows it to be the perfect season to both begin and end the Church Year. Taking the first sense, seeing it as the time in which God’s people waited for the birth of the long-promised Messiah, it serves as the perfect time of preparation for Christmas. Taking it in the third sense, seeing it as the culmination of the year and—indeed—of this present age itself with the coming of Christ as Lord and Judge at the last trumpet, it serves as the perfect conclusion to the Church’s year. And, this third sense was the dominant sense of the season for a long time. Gregory the Great, reforming pope and highly influential author at the end of the sixth century, particularly connected Advent with the second coming; many of the classic hymns of Advent reflect this perspective: Wesley’s “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending,” the old Latin “Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding,” Nicolai’s “Sleepers, wake!” the old Latin “O heavenly Word, eternal light,” and Laurenti’s “Rejoice! Rejoice, believers” to name but a few in our hymnal. Music lovers who are familiar with the “Dies Irae” (O Day of Wrath) from requiems may be surprised to learn that this text was originally composed as a sequence for Advent! While Gregory’s homilies for the season focus on the dread appearance of the Judge, some of these hymn texts remind us to balance this perspective with a hearty dose of Christian hope. Both Laurenti and Nicolai use with good effect the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids to remind us that the coming of the Lord is our summoning to the marriage feast of the Lamb, not just to judgment.

Some modern authors have attempted to downplay the idea of Advent as a penitential season and have seized upon the element of rejoicing at the coming of the Bridegroom as a more fitting attitude. Too, they would like us to see Advent as a pre-baptismal period, another forty-day stretch of catechesis leading up to initiation at the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord on the Sunday after Epiphany. While the elements of rejoicing shouldn’t be suppressed, Advent does ask us if we stand ready for the coming of the full presence of God. For myself, I find this question to be the most fruitful. When I consider the Baptismal Covenant in light of the Advent proclamation that a holy God comes to dwell with a holy people, I inevitably find myself falling short and turn to penitence, less because the season is an inherently penitential one and more because of the realities that the season lays bare. If you’re fine with the Four Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment—the traditional themes for preaching during the season—then, no, it doesn’t have to be a penitential season at all; as for me, I’m not quite there yet!

Even as we consider the third aspect of the season, though, it is also tempered by the second aspect that Bernard mentions. During this season we focus on our own watchful expectation for Christ to be born within us. The coming of the Lord does not have to be as dramatic as the entrance on the clouds in the words of Wesley’s hymn; the affection of the season seeks to cultivate in us an inward watchfulness, spurring us to get our house in order for the coming King. Doddridge’s “Hark! The glad sound!” neatly captures this second, focusing on the inward experience of Advent.

Cranmer’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent strikes a good balance between the three aspects, beginning with the second, making reference to the first, and concluding with the third:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 211)

In every prayer book up the current one, this collect was read as a seasonal collect throughout the season, making it a classic Anglican lens for Advent.

On the balance the third aspect flavors the first part of Advent, while the first predominates towards the end of Advent. The final weeks of the Season after Pentecost begin ramping up the theme of the Last Judgment eliding with the first few weeks of Advent. The shift to the Nativity is heightened by the beginning of the “O” antiphons on December 17; while they don’t appear in the prayer book per se, they are explicitly broken out in Hymn 56, indicating which verse should be used at Evening Prayer with the Song of Mary on which day.

Fragment on the Church Year

This is a section that needs to be said–it just doesn’t belong in the place that I’ve written it and probably needs to get shuffled back into the Essence of the Calendar chapter…

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In one sense the Church Year unfolds like a Gospel, following the life of Christ. Advent reflects the waiting of God’s people for the coming Messiah. Christmas focuses upon the birth and Incarnation. Epiphany combines manifestation and ministry as the early teaching ministry manifests the character of Jesus in both word and works. Lent begins the turn to the cross which is intensified in Holy Week. Easter foregrounds the resurrection and the presence of the Risen Christ in the midst of his people until the Ascension. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost initiates a new period for the Church, and the later ministry of Jesus that unfolds from that point is dually informed by both the Spirit and the resurrection. Finally, Advent once again reflects the waiting of God’s people for the coming Messiah, but this time as the one who comes to preside over the final consummation of all things as Judge of Heaven and Earth.

The danger with only seeing the year like this, though, is that we can view it as a panorama of historical remembrances. To do this is to miss something important. The Church Year is kerygmatic—an act of proclamation in and of itself. It proclaims not just the past but present power of the Risen Christ and proclaims both the presence and the power in our very midst. At Christmas we pray “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light…” and “…you have given your only begotten Son…to be born this day of a pure virgin…” (BCP, 212, 213). During Christmas we pray, “…you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word…” (BCP, 213). Not, “a long time ago you did some things that we now remember fondly”—no! This night, this day, us, new light, in our very midst!

While we see the same language, emphasis, and themes in the second collect for Easter (“O God, who made this most holy night to shine with the glory of the Lord’s resurrection”), they reach full crescendo in the Church’s great song of rejoicing, the Exultet which is one of the high points of the Easter Vigil. Scooping up the great biblical images of redemption in the Exodus from Egypt and the Resurrection of Christ, they are united in our present moment as the faithful stand in a darkened church, staring at the single paschal candle, our own pillar of flame. The deacon sings:

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.

How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord.

How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God (BCP, 287).

This isn’t about the past: it’s about now. The past becomes powerfully present as we reach towards the future promises, but these are all caught up in the moment of song and is our now.

The Church Year isn’t just a catechetical exercise (although it does that), it is means of accessing the power and the promise of God now. This is why the Anglican fathers fought the Puritan attempts to get rid of the Church calendar: they recognized that this cycle too is a means of tapping into the mysteries that God offers us in the sacramental life.

The Anatomy of the Calendar, Part 1

The way that I’m constructing the book is to start each major section with an “Essence” chapter, then an “Anatomy” chapter. The first gives a general spiritual orientation, then the following dives into the prayer book, identifies where the parts are to be found, and offers a more particular discussion of what we find there, drawing on both the general principles and the actual contents. Since we’ve talked about the essence of the Calendar and identified some central spiritual principles (as in part 1part 2a, and part 2b), it’s time to turn to the prayer book contents.

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The Calendar is most clearly laid out in a section at the head of the Book of Common Prayer. After this initial material, several other parts relate back to it and assume its patterns. In particular, the Collects, the rites provided for special days, and the lectionaries depend upon the shape of the year laid down in the Calendar.

  •  The Calendar of the Church Year
    • 1. Principal Feasts (p. 15)
    • 2. Sundays (p. 16)
    • 3. Holy Days (pp. 16-17)
    • 4. Days of Special Devotion (p. 17)
    • 5. Days of Optional Observance (pp. 17-18)
  • [List of Fixed Feasts and Days of Optional Observance by Month] (pp. 19-30)
  • The Titles of the Seasons, Sundays and Major Holy Days observed in this Church throughout the Year (pp. 31-33)

So, the first few pages of this Calendar section lay out the liturgical rules governing the various days of the year. These provide general rubrics for how to figure out what occasion to celebrate on any given day. Next, we have a section that lays out the months from January to December and identifies which fixed feasts fall on which days. Last, we have a list of titles that specify how we name the various liturgical occasions of the year.

For the most part, this section does a good job of letting you know how to order your services, but there are a few oddities worth noting that effect both how we order things and how we understand the wider year.

First, the normative unit of time throughout this section is the day with the consequence that seasons are given short shrift. Notice—there is no section here that talks about seasons of the Church Year. That’s not to say they are absent; the names of the seasons are mentioned throughout the Calendar section and they are used as structuring devices in the listing of the titles on pages 31-3. However, they are assumed rather than explained.

Indeed, many people assume that the colors of the liturgical seasons and the practices around them are listed out somewhere. There are plenty of such lists—but none of them appear in the prayer book!

Second, the Calendar section begins with three paragraphs that discuss the movable date of Easter. The third paragraph emphasizes that “the sequence of all Sundays of the Church Year depends upon the date of Easter Day” (BCP, p. 15). However, it doesn’t actually tell you that there are tables somewhere within the covers that help you figure out when Easter falls each year and the consequent effect upon other days. These tables, which had formerly been joined to the Calendar rules, are now found in the back of the book:

  • Tables for Finding Holy Days
    • Tables and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day
      • Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day (pp. 880-881)
      • A Table to Find Easter Day [from 1900-2089] (pp. 882-883)
      • A Table to Find Movable Feasts and Holy Days [based on the Day on which Easter Falls] (pp. 884-885)

There is much in this section that seems fairly arcane—like the specific rules for determining the date of Easter—but there are also some nuggets in here that will help you if you have any sort of planning to do that involves the Church Calendar. The Table to find Easter Day is a straight-forward list: you look up the year, and it tells you the month and day Easter falls upon and whether it’s a leap year or not. Once you have that, you can turn the page, and look up that month and day in the next table, the Table to Find Movable Feasts, and it’ll provide the number of Sundays after Epiphany, the month and days for Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, the Numbered Proper that the Sunday after Trinity Sunday will start with, and the month and Day of the First Sunday of Advent.

The other thing that’s in here is an explanation of the funny letters and numbers listed in the monthly tables back on pages 19-30. If you look at page 22—the month of April—you’ll see four columns going across the page. The first only appears sporadically and gives a number. This is the Golden Number related to finding Easter Day—feel free to ignore it. The second gives the days of the month. The third is a repeating string of letters going from A to g; these are the Sunday Letters and this column can be handy if you want to know what Holy Days may fall on a Sunday in a particular year. By finding the letter of the current year on the table at the top of page 881, you can learn which letter will represent the Sundays throughout the year. The fourth column, of course, gives the title of the occasion with Feasts in bold type and Optional Days in regular type.

Third, the focus of the Calendar section is on establishing precedence. That is, it helps to identify what days are more important than other days. It doesn’t necessarily help you to figure out what to do or pray in on those days. It turns out that a certain amount of useful material on the Calendar is hidden within the section of the book devoted to the Collects:

  • The Collects for the Church Year
      • Concerning the Proper of the Church Year (p. 158)
    • Collects: Traditional
      • [Collects for Sundays of the Church Year] (pp. 159-185)
      • Holy Days (pp. 185-194)
      • The Common of Saints [for Days of Optional Observance] (pp. 195-199)
      • Various Occasions (pp. 199-210)
    • Collects: Contemporary
      • [Collects for Sundays of the Church Year] (pp. 211-236)
      • Holy Days (pp. 237-246)
      • The Common of Saints [for Days of Optional Observance] (pp. 246-250)
      • Various Occasions (pp. 251-261)

The initial section on the Proper of the Church Year gives us two important principles:

  • The Sunday collect gets used throughout the rest of the week unless there’s a Holy Day.
  • “The Collect for any Sunday or other Feast may be used at the evening service of the day before” (BCP, 158).

Then, a variety of notes get tucked between the collects! There are three kinds of notes here: 1) notes that identify when certain optional movable days occur, 2) notes that give additional directions on how to handle a tricky part of the Calendar, and 3) notes that direct you to other services within the book.

The Calendar section mentions the Rogation Days and the Ember Days but never explains what they are or when they fall; while the “what” never does get explained, the “when” is provided by italicized notes like the one on page 160 following the collect for the Third Sunday of Advent: “Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week are the traditional winter Ember Days” (BCP, 160).

The next page (page 161) gives an example of the second kind of procedural notes: the italics on both sides of the title for the First Sunday after Christmas provide more detailed instructions for how to negotiate the three Holy Days that fall after Christmas and what to do if a Sunday lands on one of them.

On page 166 after the title for Ash Wednesday we find the third sort of note. This one directs you to a proper liturgy for the day in another part of the prayer book. Essentially, these notes are present for the major days of the Redemption cycle that ground the seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter that are gathered together towards the middle of the book:

  • Proper Liturgies for Special Days
    • Ash Wednesday (pp. 264-269)
    • Palm Sunday (pp. 270-273)
    • Maundy Thursday (pp. 274-275)
    • Good Friday (pp. 276-282)
    • Holy Saturday (p. 283)
    • The Great Vigil of Easter (pp. 285-298)

All of this sounds awfully confusing. The reason is because there is no piece dedicated to tying it all together. Allusions and references are made to a wide variety of concepts around the Calendar, but these references assume a big picture sense of the whole that the prayer book never actually provides. In order to understand what the mechanics are and how the mechanics then flow into our spirituality, we need to take the time to construct the big picture view that is implied but never stated explicitly.

Section on the Essence of the Sanctoral Cycle, Part 1

Since we looked last at the seasons of the Temporal Cycle, it’s time to head into the sanctoral cycle. This part is currently incomplete. There’s more that needs to be said here as you’ll see. I’ll indicate some of where we’re headed at the end.

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The Temporal cycle that celebrates in time the high points of the Creed and, in doing so, the main movements in the life of Jesus is mirrored by the Sanctoral cycle that celebrates Christ and his Church in and through the heroes of the faith. The Temporal cycle operates along two major axes: Incarnation and Redemption. That is, the seasons of Lent and Easter focus our attention upon how God acts to redeem us; the seasons of Advent and Christmas along with attendant fests involving Mary and John the Baptist focus us on God becoming human. The best way to think about the Sanctoral cycle is not as some other separate thing that gets plopped on top of the Temporal cycle to confuse it. Rather, the Sanctoral cycle is the logical next step from the Temporal cycle that flows from the life of Jesus and shows us the fusion of both Redemption and Incarnation as they intersect within human lives. The Sanctoral cycle shows us the promise and potential of humanity reconciled with God; it gives us vivid examples of redeemed humans who incarnated Christ in their very flesh to the wonder of the watching world.

Now, some people are a bit wary of the Sanctoral cycle. And that’s understandable. There’s a wide range of attitudes with in the Episcopal Church and within Anglicanism as a whole towards the heroes of the faith and how we decide to remember them in church. A lot of this has to do with the way that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches honor these heroes and desires to—alternately—emulate, learn from, or reject what it is that they do. Some Episcopalians are fine with the Sanctoral cycle and are perfectly comfortable using the “s-word” (saints). Others are much more leery of it, and see the notion of saints as inherently troublesome and problematic. The prayer book and associated materials tries to respect the diversity of opinion yet still providing for liturgical celebration of these heroes. We’re not going to solve the difference of opinion here, but, instead, will try to use the principles of the prayer book to wrestle with the topic in a way that helps us touch the heart of it: the intersection of the dual mysteries of redemption and incarnation.

A Baptismal Ecclesiology: Where the Rubber Hits the Road

The best way to untangle this matter, it seems to me, is to cut to the heart of the matter. It starts with Baptism. One of the real achievements of our prayer book is its embrace of the sacrament of Baptism and the restoration of its place as one of the two great sacraments of the Church. You won’t spend very long around arguing Episcopalians without somebody tossing out the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology” or referring to “the Baptismal Covenant.” That’s as it should be, yet these phrases can seem a bit daunting to when you run across them the first few times.

What is “baptismal ecclesiology” and how does it matter?

Baptism joins us to Christ. Using the language of drowning, Paul speaks of us dying in the waters of Baptism with Jesus and rising from it sharing in his new risen life. This is the moment when we get plugged into the life of God. It can be seen as an individual and individualistic event—me and Jesus. And yet, that’s not how the New Testament or the Church have talked about it. It’s not just me and Jesus—it’s me and Jesus and everybody else who is likewise plugged into Jesus; it’s all of us who are connected by Christ into the life of God. That’s the heart of what the Church is: recognizing all those who are fellow travelers with us by virtue of Baptism. The Church is defined by Baptism. We fail to see the Church properly if we’re only looking at the clergy.  Or if we’re only looking at the people who decide to show up to our church on Sundays. A real, robust baptismal ecclesiology takes seriously that everyone who is, was, or will be baptized shares in a common bond, the union with Christ, without regard to church attendance or denominational lines. Furthermore, Paul’s insistence that baptismal life is a sharing in Christ’s risen life means that we don’t see the line between the living and the dead quite so starkly either.

I fear, despite all of our talk of a baptismal ecclesiology, that we tend to have a “parochial” view of the Church. And I mean that in two different senses of the word. I mean it in the word’s negative sense when “parochial” is used to mean short-sighted and narrow; I also mean it in the word’s most literal sense as it relates to the parish we go to on Sundays. We tend to think of “Church” as restricted to the people we see around us—and that’s a mistake. If we take Baptism seriously, we have to see Church not only as the people within our walls, but also the folks in the church down the street (even if we don’t agree with them on some things), and all the folks who didn’t actually make it to our church or another church, but also including the whole host of those who have gone before us and we see no longer. If the act of Baptism replaces our life, plugging us into the life of God in some fundamental, meaningful way—however we understand that—than the dead share the very same life that we do. We are all bound together into the energies of God. What we do with the dead, how we understand them and our relation to them finds focus liturgically in two days at the start of November: the Feast of All Saints and the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, historically shortened to All Souls. If we want to do the Sanctoral cycle right, we have to start with these two days and what they mean for us.

All Saints and All Souls

If we’re going to approach this topic from a prayer book perspective, than the place we have to begin is one of humility. We don’t have all the answers here, and that’s ok—we have enough to get by on. The first thing to note is that, despite what you might think, the Bible doesn’t spend very much time at all talking about death or what happens after we die. Christian tradition has filled in a whole lot of stuff here and often in some fairly imprecise, rather sketchy, and often down-right contradictory ways. Some of our most treasured notions about what happens when we die are more a product of cultural myths than anything rooted in Scripture and historic Christian teaching. Frankly, that’s part of what makes this discussion a bit tricky—we are touching on treasured notions. It’s certainly not my intention to harm anyone’s faith or pass judgment on what you were taught formally or not. As a result, I don’t plan on arguing against certain presentations of the Christian after-life, but rather want to stick closely to the words and intentions of the prayer book.

In the proper preface for the Commemoration of the Dead, we say, “to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended” (BCP, 382). That’s the foundation upon which everything else is built. Because of our faith in the resurrection and the promises of Baptism, death is a shift—not an end. From that fundamental recognition, the prayer book then makes reference to two general groups: the departed and the saints. Most often, these are placed in juxtaposition with one another. For instance, in the various forms of the Prayers of the People we routinely mention both the departed and the saints in close proximity: “Give to the departed eternal rest; Let light perpetual shine upon them. We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy; May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.” (Form III, BCP, 387) and “We commend to your mercy all who have died, that your will for them may be fulfilled; and we pray that we may share with all your saints in your eternal kingdom.” (Form IV, BCP, 389) and “For all who have died in the communion of your Church, and those whose faith is known to you alone, that, with all the saints, they may have rest in that place where there is no pain or grief but life eternal, we pray to you, O Lord.” (Form V, BCP, 391). Too, we have Commons appointed for the Dead and for the Saints. But how do we interpret these two groups? Are they distinct or does one shade into the other?

I’d suggest that the prayer book is being deliberately vague on these points. The clearest statement that I can find that sheds light on the situation comes from the Prayers of the People in the Rite I Eucharist which reflects the language that we inherited from classical Anglicanism: “And we bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow the good examples of all thy saints, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom” (BCP, 330). This language affirms that the saints of God are partakers of the heavenly kingdom, and also envisions a process of growth that is not ended by physical death.  The pattern that is laid out here reflects a classical threefold division into the Church Militant—we the living, the Church Triumphant—those departed who currently enjoy the fullness of God’s presence, and the Church Expectant—those departed who do not yet experience the full presence of God but who shall as that process of growth is played out and as God’s promises in Baptism and Eucharist are fully delivered in the final consummation of all things.

Keeping these categories in mind, the Feast of All Saints celebrates the mighty deeds of God in and through the Church Triumphant; the Feast of All Souls recalls to us the Church Expectant who shall yet enjoy that final consummation.

Now we get to the tricky part: if we’re saying that we have two buckets—who goes where, and why?

Well, that’s complicated…

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Ok—that’s it for today. From this point I’m heading back to Baptism in order to define the two major definitions for “saint” and talk about when and where we use them. I’m trying to decide if my usual spiel on patron saints, where that notion comes from and how/why it informs this practice is worth the space and is necessary for this kind of work. Part of the wrap-up of this section includes the difference between secular days of memorial/remembrance and the Christian celebration of saints’ days; the main difference, of course, is that the secular world celebrates the dead while we celebrate the living…

More later!

On the Essence of the Seasons

Here’s a section from a chapter on the essence of the Calendar. It’s not the full thing because I’m still dithering about how to talk about the divisions of the day. I’m being sorely tempted to talk about the eightfold division that we see talked about in the late medieval devotional material and how various points in the day were linked with complementary Scriptural notions and narratives (as represented in the bit from the Myroure below). And yet, to what degree those divisions appear within our current prayer book are tenuous at best. I’d argue that they can inform our current book, but it still seems like a bit of an external imposition. I’ll have to keep thinking about that. In any case, here’s a section on the seasons.

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Now, I want to talk about the Christian year from two different perspectives. The first relates to its connection with our doctrine, this seconds relates to its connection with our emotion. We grasp the church year most completely only when we see both aspects, and when the two are understood to be complementary parts of a whole.

Living the creed

Modern Christians like to fight over the creed. What exactly is it, and what is it for? Most often, one of three perspectives prevails: either the creed is a laundry list of ideas, or it is a set of litmus tests for true believers, or is something to be transcended and left behind. Let me suggest that none of these options quite capture the role and purpose of the creed in the life of faith. I believe that our major problems with the creed are due to the fact that we have disconnected it from its proper function: it is a framework to guide our reading of the Scriptures. It turns out that some of the greatest problems and heresies of the early church came about not in spite of the reading of Scripture, but precisely because of it! That is, the Scriptures can be read in many different ways. We can approach it from many different angles. Once we acknowledge – as we must – that Scripture contains both literal and metaphorical material, then one of our chief tasks is to determine which is which. The creed represents a set of interpretive boundaries. It doesn’t tell us what to believe about everything, it just nails down certain points of controversy and renders a clear judgment on the church’s perspective.

It’s worth giving some emphasis to the “points of controversy” notion; I’ve often heard questions and concerns about why the life and ministry of Jesus is not discussed in the creeds. It’s not because the church didn’t think these were important, rather, it’s because there weren’t fundamental arguments about it. The orthodox and heterodox alike believe that Jesus lived, taught, and worked wonders – there was no controversy about these things, and hence no need for clarification.

Rather, the creed addresses specific points of controversy that have practical implications both for theology and for Christian living. For instance, when we confess that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, we are confirming our belief that the creation of the material world came about through the God who is the father of Jesus Christ and not some evil, lesser god who sought to trap the spirits and souls of humanity in flesh. This is in deliberate contrast to a dualistic impulse which tried to see all spirit as good and all matter as evil and was convinced that no good God would get himself tangled up in material things. But that’s precisely what we believe! Not only did God get himself tangled up in material things, but took the material world so seriously that he became incarnate within it. But that conviction begins with the belief that God is the God of creation and that creation is not what we need to be saved from.

Too often, we only note what the creed says – and lose sight of the mistaken interpretive moves that it prevents. We get so caught up in arguing about what it does say, that we forget that it is simultaneously shutting down other lines of interpretation that can have disastrous pastoral consequences and skew our understanding of and our relationship with the God whom the creed confesses.

So what does this all have to do with the Christian Year?

Quite simply, one aspect of the Christian Year is that it is a temporal embodiment of the interpretive doctrines of the creed. Almost each line of the creed has a corresponding feast or fast. For those who feel a little wary about the creed, this facet of the Church Year should, actually, come as good news! What the creeds state quickly, sparsely, the feasts explore at more leisure. The traditional liturgical material that grew up around these feasts reflect a more poetic, meditative approach that gives greater nuance and the opportunity for deeper reflection about the meaning of the event or concept celebrated by it.

Let me give you an example… The feast of the Epiphany concludes the season of Christmas and begins and emphasis on how Christ alternately revealed himself and was revealed to the world. The early church connected the feast of Epiphany with three different biblical events: Matthew’s story of the Magi arriving to honor the infant Jesus, John’s story of the Wedding of Cana identified as “the first of his signs…and revealed his glory” (john 2:11), and the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan which is at least mentioned in all four Gospels. While these Gospel stories were eventually expanded to their own Sundays, an anonymous liturgist operating perhaps in the 6th or 7th century wove these narratives into a single antiphon as a way of driving to the heart of the feats:

This day is the Church joined unto the Heavenly Bridegroom, since Christ hath washed away her sins in Jordan; the wise men hasten with gifts to the marriage supper of the king; and they that sit at meat together make merry with water turned into wine. Alleluia.

Using the central notion of the wedding feast, the doctrine of the incarnation is made even more relational as the wedding of Christ and the Church by means of the sacrament of Baptism. The first miracle of Christ reflects the joy of the banquet, and the gift-bearing Magi hint at the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s promise of reconciliation. This is the sort of liturgical play that helps us return again to the creeds with greater appreciation.

Of course, with Cranmer’s great simplification of the Church services, we lost sight of many of these liturgical gems, but the last hundred years has seen a renewed interest in their perspective and they can be found in several devotional resources like the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book.

The Seasons and the Religious Affections

Doctrines—like those revealed in the creeds—are an important part of the Christian faith. They’re less important for their own sake and more because they help us get a clearer sense of this relationship that we are developing and the identity of the Triune God to whom we relate. More than being an exercise in right-thinking, the Christian faith has been described as a particular pattern of deep emotions shaped over time.

Emotions are tricky things, and the language that we use to talk about them is not always clear or precise. Feelings, having feelings, listening to your feelings is—and must be—an important part of the religious life as well as the whole process of self-discovery. However, we’ve all seen forms of religion that rely upon emotional manipulation—whether that manipulation is based on guilt or a feigned joy—and that’s not what I’m talking about. Emotions, like thoughts, are often fleeting things over which we have little control; they arise within us and we respond to them, express them, give vent to them, or not as we have ability. The affections are more than this; they are more like emotional habits, patterns of feeling that we choose and cultivate. There’s a difference between feeling anger and choosing to live out of an attitude of anger; similarly, there’s a difference between feeling gratitude and choosing to cultivate it as a way of being. The Christian affections, as identified by theologian Don Saliers in his work The Soul in Paraphrase, are gratitude, holy fear and penitence, joy and suffering, and love of God and neighbor.

In what may seem like a paradox, an important part of this “feeling” work is about ideas, thoughts, and doctrines. Just as what we know about a person may influence how we feel towards them, what we know and the ideas we hold about God shapes our feelings in our relationship with the divine. Because of this interrelation between thinking and feeling, the affections are a constellation of beliefs, of doctrines, and feelings that are shaped and reinforced by language that not only provoke emotions within us, but also offer us images and descriptions of reality that help us understand what living out of these perspectives looks like.

When we examine the emotional atmosphere of the great seasons of the Church Year, we recognize that each season provides its own particular entre into one or more of the affections. Lent disciplines us towards penitence; Easter explores holy joy. Advent teaches us about hope and expectation; Christmas also returns to joy—but from a slightly different angle from Easter. These seasons give us an opportunity to concentrate on an affection, to cultivate it, and to understand it more thoroughly. Too, recognizing the seasons as affectional frameworks helps free us from a particular kind of seasonal guilt. Sometimes, I’ll catch myself rejoicing in the Spring air and newly-warm sunshine and feel bad that I’m enjoying myself so much during Lent. Conversely, holidays—particularly Christmas and Easter—can be difficult for those who have recently lost loved ones or who experience familial conflict at these times, contradicting the joyous intent of the Church’s celebrations. If we understand the seasons as training opportunities rather than emotional straight-jackets, we can free ourselves from this unnecessary guilt; it’s okay to feel something different—to experience a whole range of emotions despite an affectional intention of the season as a whole when we understand it as such. Neither our emotions nor the affections should be restricted by the seasons.  Rather, we focus upon particular affections as we move through particular seasons in order that these patterns may become more naturally a feature of our long-term way of being in the presence of God.

The seasons cultivate particular affections in a variety of ways; several factors all converge to create the emotional tenor of a season. The liturgical color often provides an initial first clue as to the season’s character. The bright colors of Christmas and Easter give visual cues as do the darker, more somber hues of Advent and Lent. The use of unflowered greens in Advent and an absence of floral decoration in Lent provide further visual indications of the Church’s mood as you glance around the sanctuary. Music, too, can sometimes change. In the great cathedrals where multiple services were occurring at a time and where the chancel organ played a supplemental role (rather than a dominant role as now) its tones were often suppressed during Advent and Lent. More telling is the use of certain musical elements. The Gloria in exclesis is one of the Church’s great songs of rejoicing and its absence is one of the ways that the Church communicates the time’s tone. It is used at any occasion in Christmas and Easter; not at all in Advent and Lent. The traditional rule that it is only used on Sundays in green seasons elevates Sundays within these seasons of patient endurance. The canticles at Morning Prayer also help shape the season’s mood with some being more appropriate at some times rather than others (we’ll look at this more closely when we go through the Office). One of the more subtle means for creating a season’s mood is in the selection of the biblical readings in both the Office and the Eucharist. For instance, Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah have been a feature of Advent since its creation while Lamentation is a consistent feature of Holy Week.

All of these elements combine to focus us on certain ideas, certain doctrines, and certain feelings that feed into the composite character of an affection. And the affections together with their sometimes complementary, sometimes sequential, movements between love and holy fear, penitence and joy, form the basic grammar of the Christian way of being.

 

The Services of the Daily Office

Writing continues… Here’s the next installment on the Daily Offices. At this point, I’m starting to head into the actual structure and the nuts & bolts of the Office. I start with an overview. The next part will pick up with an examination of the various elements in their respective offices.

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The Anatomy of the Daily Office

The Services

When we consider the Daily Office—the regular prayer services of the Church and our official public services on all days of the year that aren’t Holy Days—we see that there are a number of items that fall under this heading. They are grouped together at the front of the prayer book:

  • Rite I (Traditional language)
      • Concerning the Service (p. 36)
    • Daily Morning Prayer: Rite One (pp. 37-60)
    • Daily Evening Prayer: Rite One (pp. 61-73)
  • Rite II (Contemporary language)
      • Concerning the Service (p. 74)
    • Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two (pp. 75-102)
    • An Order of Service for Noonday (pp. 103-107)
      • Concerning the Service (p. 108)
    • An Order of Worship for the Evening (pp. 109-114)
    • Daily Evening Prayer: Rite Two (pp. 115-126)
    • An Order for Compline (p. 127-135)
  • Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families
      • [Concerning the Services] (p. 136)
    • In the Morning (p. 137)
    • At Noon (p. 138)
    • In the Early Evening (p. 139)
    • At the Close of Day (p. 140)
  • Additional Directions
    • [Directions]
      • Morning and Evening Prayer (pp. 141-142)
      • When there is a Communion (p. 142)
      • Order of Worship for the Evening (pp. 142-143)
    • Suggested Canticles at Morning Prayer (p. 144)
    •  Suggested Canticles at Evening Prayer (p. 145)
    • Psalm 95: Traditional (p. 146)

Let me make a few orienting observations here.

First, a distinction is drawn in the title of some services as “Daily” and others as “An Order…” Four services earn the “Daily”: Morning and Evening Prayer in Rites One and Two. (The brief devotions receive the term “Daily” as a class rather than individually.) This title reinforces their importance and their place in the Church’s understanding of the liturgical round. The others beginning with “An Order…” are recommended but do not have quite the same stamp of authority or necessity that the others do.

Second, you can’t actually pray either Morning or Evening Prayer with just the contents of this section! You need at least three other pieces to complete the service. They are:

  • The Collects for the Church Year
      • Concerning the Proper of the Church Year (p. 158)
    • Collects: Traditional
      • [Collects for Sundays of the Church Year] (pp. 159-185)
      • Holy Days (pp. 185-194)
      • The Common of Saints [for Days of Optional Observance] (pp. 195-199)
      • Various Occasions (pp. 199-210)
    • Collects: Contemporary
      • [Collects for Sundays of the Church Year] (pp. 211-236)
      • Holy Days (pp. 237-246)
      • The Common of Saints [for Days of Optional Observance] (pp. 246-250)
      • Various Occasions (pp. 251-261)

The Psalter (pp. 581-808)

  • Daily Office Lectionary
    • Concerning the Daily Office Lectionary (pp. 934-935)
    • [The Lectionary] (pp. 936-995)
    • Holy Days (pp. 996-1000)
    • Special Occasions (pp. 1000-1001) [Different from the “Various Occasions” of the collects]

Third, instructions on how to do the services are scattered throughout the book. This can be confusing… The majority of what you need to know can be found in the service itself. However, directions on who should do the service are found in the brief “Concerning the Service” notice found just before it; some directions on possible points of confusion get short answers in the “Additional Directions” at the end of the section. Items specific to the Psalms and the Readings may be found in the notes prefacing the Psalter and the Daily Office Lectionary; clarifications on the Calendar are tucked away amongst the collects.

Fourth, the Rite II services and the Daily Devotions agree in dividing the day into four chief liturgical sections: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. The Patristic and Medieval Churches had their own counts for daily liturgical divisions (6 and 7+1 respectively); we have one as well. The fact that we have one at all hearkens back to the Patristic and Medieval models, but the fact that the count is less than both of the earlier models reflects our intention that these hours not be burdensome and ought to be practically possible for the regular working person—not just a monk or hermit.

When it comes to services that you might experience in churches, Morning and Evening Prayer are the big ones. In my years as an Episcopalian, I’ve seen Morning and Evening Prayer done in a number of ways in a number of places. However, as the official public services of the Church on non-Holy Days they’re not as common as you might expect. You’d think that cathedrals at the least would offer these daily: some do, but more don’t. I think that sends an unfortunate message, or rather, fails to communicate an important value that we claim to hold in common. Noonday prayer is less common than the big two. I’ve only experienced it in churches that have a special vocation to keeping the full liturgical round like St. Mary the Virgin, Times Square.  It tends to be a small group or individual office. Compline too tends to be individual or small group due to its nature as a bed-time office. I’ve seen it done regularly and publicly, only in intentional liturgical communities like monasteries or seminaries. It’s not uncommon to use it to conclude evening church meetings or during multi-day retreats, though. Additionally, there seems to be a growing interest in the use of Compline as a choral experience: both St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle and Christ Church, New Haven, have famous Compline services that utilize the office to create a place of chant, candles, and beauty as a means of inviting a wide range of people—Christians, seekers, and non-Christians alike—to experience Christian liturgy as a place of holiness.

I don’t recall that I’ve ever seen an “Order of Worship for Evening” done. To the best of my knowledge, it was an interesting idea with classic roots that was new to this prayer book, but it has never generated the interest that its framers hoped it would.

The Daily Devotions are, by their very nature, not intended to be public church services—these are individual or household liturgies. I honestly can’t say how much they’re used; I can say that I don’t hear very much about them around the church. I think that may be a missed opportunity for us… Personally, I’m fond of them as a father of small children; they instill the concept of regular ordered prayer, but are not too long or burdensome for even young children. Early on, our family adopted the devotion “At the Close of Day” as bedtime prayers for our girls. Since it’s short and sweet, both of them had (quite unconsciously) memorized it even before they were able to read. I’ve frequently thought that a colorful laminated placemat with the text of the “In the Morning” and “In the Early Evening” devotions on either side might be a wonderful way to get these little offices into the kitchens and consciousness of families with children.

The Structure of the Offices

The structures of Morning and Evening Prayer closely mirror one another. It’s readily apparent from looking at how they’re put together that these are twin offices meant to complement and reinforce one another. Noonday prayer and Compline share in the same overall movement as the main offices, but the elements are not necessarily fit together in the same way. Compline, in particular, cleaves closer to models of older liturgies, and therefore follows a slightly different logic than the other three. An Order of Worship for the Evening has its own internal structure and possibilities, some of which mirror the offices, others of which do not—it’s doing a different thing and should be considered apart from the other liturgies in this section.

If we put the elements of the four prayer offices in parallel with one another, you’ll see the common elements emerge. Optional elements are in italics, common elements are in bold:

 

Morning Prayer

Noonday Prayer

Evening Prayer

Compline

[Fore-Office]

Opening Sentence Opening Sentence Versicles
Confession & Absolution Confession & Absolution Confession & Absolution

Invitatory & Psalms

Opening Versicles Opening Versicles Opening Versicles Opening Versicles
Invitatory Hymn Invitatory
Appointed Psalms Appointed Psalms Appointed Psalms Appointed Psalms

Lessons

OT Scripture Reading OT Scripture Reading
Canticle Canticle  
NT Scripture Reading Scripture [Sentence] NT Scripture Reading Scripture [Sentence]
Canticle Canticle Hymn
Apostles’ Creed Apostles’ Creed

The Prayers

Brief Suffrages
The Lord’s Prayer The Lord’s Prayer The Lord’s Prayer The Lord’s Prayer
Suffrages Suffrages
Collects Collects Collects Collects
Hymn   Hymn Canticle
Concluding Prayers Concluding Prayers
Blessing Blessing Blessing Blessing

We’ll get lost in the details in just a moment, but first I want you to notice the arc that we have here. In all cases, we start with Scripture and then we move to prayer. One way to make sense of this pattern is that we start with edification and then we move to praise—but that’s not the best way to think about. This is the Office; it’s all praise! It would be better to say that we begin with praise that reveals and reminds us who God is (and, specifically, who God is for his people through time), then we continue with praise that offers our response to who God is.

The large headings printed in Morning and Evening Prayer divide the offices into four natural parts that can also be applied to Noonday Prayer and somewhat to Compline. (There’s no initial heading which is why I’ve supplied one—though in brackets—in the chart above. I suppose it’s as optional as its contents.) These headings reinforce the character of the arc that we’ve just noticed. The pattern starts with the psalms highlighting again their crucial function in the Office ecosystem. Notice that the presence of psalms is never optional. This book of divine praises is the Scriptural centerpiece of the Office. Then we move to the Scripture readings. I do think that the heading “The Lessons” in Morning and Evening Prayer is an unfortunate choice of words. It reflects a hold-over mentality from the early Reformation era that locates worship’s purpose in its instructional value. Even “The Readings” would be a better way to label what is about to occur that doesn’t prejudice the purpose of these Scriptures in the same way that the term “lessons” does.  Then we move to the prayers. We get several different kinds of prayer in these sections but several cut across the four offices: the Lord’s Prayer, suffrages, collects, and blessings. Our prayer is not all of one type and our offices lead us through a variety as it schools us in the arts of praise.

Now we’ll consider the various elements in detail and do some thinking about what they do for us and how they connect to each other. Because of the differences between the Offices, I’m going to treat Morning and Evening Prayer in parallel first, then will discuss Noonday Prayer and Compline separately.

[To be continued…]

The Essence of the Office

This post follows on the other on the Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving to complete my thoughts on the Essence of the Office.

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The essence of the Daily Office must be found on one hand in Paul’s exhortation for Christians “with gratitude in your hearts [to] sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (Col 3:12), and, on the other hand, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). The two central themes here that we must keep before our eyes are the idea of the use of songs and poetic praises of God and also continuous prayer springing from deliberate acts of periodic prayer. As we consider the Daily Office and its various parts and acts, we will return time and time again to these two basic principles that form its foundation.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

The Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill (†1941) in her book Worship reinforces the poetic character of the Daily Office and the significance of that quality:

Liturgical worship shares with all ritual action the character of a work of art. Entering upon it, we leave the lower realism of daily life for the higher realism of a successive action which expresses and interprets eternal truth by the deliberate use of poetic and symbolic material. A liturgical service should therefore possess a structural unity; its general form and movement, and each of its parts, being determined by the significance of the whole. By its successive presentation of all the phases of the soul’s response to the Holy, its alternative use of history and oratory, drama and rhythm, its appeals to feeling, thought, and will, the individual is educated and gathered into the great movement of the Church. . . . Nevertheless since its main function is to suggest the Supernatural and lead men out to communion with the supernatural, it is by the methods of poetry that its chief work will be done. . . . [P]oetry still remains a chief element at least in the Daily Office, which is mainly an arrangement of psalms, canticles, and Scripture readings. (Worship, p. 119)

 She goes on to remind us of the interpretive errors that occur when we attempt to read poetry literally and miss its deeper sense and direction. As she sees it, poetry in the liturgy has three main purposes:

(1)    It is the carrying-medium of something which otherwise wholly eludes representation: the soul’s deep and awestruck apprehension of the numinous. . . .

(2)    It can universalize particulars; giving an eternal reference to those things of time in and through which God speaks to men. . . .

(3)    It is a powerful stimulant of the transcendental sense . . .

All these characters of poetry are active in good liturgy, and indeed constitute an important part of its religious value. Moreover, poetry both enchants and informs, addressing its rhythmic and symbolic speech to regions of the mind which are inaccessible to argument, and evoking movements of awe and love which no exhortation can obtain. It has meaning at many levels, and welds together all those who use it; overriding their personal moods and subduing them with a grave loveliness. (Worship, p. 120)

Great art—great poetry—is that which can capture our minds and hearts, and suffuse reality with a new light, a new perspective. It helps us see our ordinary, everyday world as not so ordinary, and cracks open everyday reality to help us see the beauty, the glory, and the wonder that is concealed therein. It helps us see new possibilities; it helps us see grander movements.

This is my best perspective on Scripture: it invites us into a different way of seeing the world and our relationships within it. It invites us to experience the whole cosmos arrayed around the throne of God as portrayed in the heavenly throne-room depicted in Revelation 4-6, and leads us to speculate about what it means to live in a world where justice, mercy, and loving-kindness are fundamental guiding principles. We are invited to recognize our own world transformed and suffused with the light of God and to function as mirrors, lenses, and crystals, reflecting—focusing—diffusing—the divine light, casting it through our facets upon the world and people around us.

The Office with its language of poetry reminds us and orients us to this level of understanding and reflection. Too, it can help us get beyond a literalism and dogmatism that can either frustrate or limit our sense of the holy and the divine. The Athanasian Creed can be a hard pill for many to swallow. On one hand, it’s chalk full of complicated and philosophical technical terms. On the other, it ends with a declaration of damnation containing a certainty that seems to arrogate to itself a judgment properly left with God alone.   The Episcopal Church has never been comfortable with it; Bishop Seabury (†1796), the first American Episcopal bishop, wrote that he was never convinced of the propriety of reading it in church, yet did want to include it along the same lines as the articles of faith to show that we hold the common faith of the West. Indeed, the 1979 revision is the only American prayer book to include it. Especially as modern people, we don’t know what to do with it—but the monks did! They sang it as a canticle complete with antiphons at Sunday Prime, the poetic and musical setting potentially subverting its dogmatism and softening its philosophical formality in song.

After speaking of the eight individual hours that formed the Daily Office in the West, Underhill draws them together and unites them with their purpose:

The complete Divine Office, then, . . . is best understood when regarded as a spiritual and artistic unity; so devised, that the various elements of praise, prayer, and reading, and the predominately poetic and historic material from which it is built up, contribute to one single movement of the corporate soul, and form together one single act of solemn yet exultant worship. This act of worship is designed to give enduring and impersonal expression to eternal truths; and unite the here and now earthly action of the Church with the eternal response of creation to its origin. It is her “Sacred Chant,” and loses some of its quality and meaning when its choral character is suppressed: for in it, the demands of a superficial realism are set aside, in favour of those deeper realities which can only be expressed under poetic and musical forms. (Worship, 124-5)

The more we sing of the Office, the more in touch we are with these melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of which she speaks. Yet, even if we are reading it alone in our rooms, we can still find the cadences there.

On a purely literary level, we can go through the Office step by step and note the presence of the poetry and music at every step. The psalms form the heart of the office. We respond to the Scripture readings with canticles, most of which are infused and inspired by the psalms—or songs like them. The suffrages themselves are verses of psalms recombined and related to one another in new ways. The collects and prayers speak in the language of the psalms and Scriptures.

As we pray the Office and sing it—whether aloud or in our hearts—we are incarnating the Pauline injunction to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God and to one another. As its poetry becomes more deeply a part of us, as these songs become more fully implanted within our hearts, they leads us to a more beautiful lens for locating God at work in our world.

To Pray Without Ceasing

This notion of having the songs and psalms implanted in our hearts and consciousness leads us in to the second principle, to pray without ceasing. If we wish to learning the meaning of this phrase, we must turn our eyes to the Desert Fathers and Mothers for it was they who devoted their entire efforts to live its meaning.

The fourth century was a tumultuous time for the Church as Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 meant an end to persecution and brought with it a tacit sign of imperial favor. (Christianity wouldn’t actually become the official religion of the empire until 380 under Theodosius.) While the easing of restrictions against Christianity brought in a wave of converts—some no doubt embracing it for political gain—this same easing equally triggered a crisis of spirituality. For decades, Christian authenticity had been bound up with martyrdom; fidelity to the way of the cross was identified with the willingness to die a martyr’s death. With martyrdom at the hands of the authorities no longer an option, where was an earnest Christian to turn?

The answer came in the form of the desert. Christians who sought to embody the commands of Scripture sold their possessions, renounced family life, and sought lives of prayer and austerity in the deserts, either on their own or in the company of like-minded souls. This way of life, which would flower into monasticism and feed the church spiritually for centuries to come, was popularized by bishops and theologians who wrote inspiring accounts of the lives of simple men and the spiritual riches they uncovered. The great bishop Athanasius (†373) penned the Life of Antony which chronicled the life and spirituality of one of the earliest desert saints and spread word of the movement across the Greek-speaking world. Not to be outdone, the ascetic and scholar Jerome (†367), living in a monastery in Jerusalem, wrote a number of lives that sought to supplement (or replace) the Life of Antony, bringing knowledge of the desert life to the Latin-speaking church. The first great systematic works of Western Christian spirituality, John Cassian’s (†435) Institutes and Conferences, were written for the benefit of his monastery in Gaul, containing remembrances of his youthful spiritual dialogues with heroes of the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts.

As we sift through the literature of the early monastic movement and the desert saints who founded it, we come back time and time again to this injunction to “pray without ceasing,” to praying of some form of the Daily Office, and a fundamental belief that the use of the Office was the key to praying without ceasing. The characteristic pattern of desert life is captured in a brief description of how Antony lived:

The money he earned from his work he gave to the poor, apart from what he needed to buy bread, and he prayed often, for he learned that one should pray to the Lord without ceasing. He also listened attentively to the Scriptures so that nothing should slip from his mind. He preserved all the Lord’s commandments, keeping them safe in his memory rather than in books. (Life of Antony 3, Early Christian Lives, p. 10)

Note the way that work, prayer, and memorization of the Scriptures are interconnected here. This way of life is further clarified by an episode where a desert hermit was disputing with a group of uber-pietists called the Euchites or Messalians concerning prayer without ceasing:

Some of the monks who are called Euchites went to Enaton to see Abba Lucius. The old man asked them, ‘What is your manual work?’ They said, ‘We do not touch manual work but as the Apostle says, we pray without ceasing.’ The old man asked them if they did not eat and they replied they did. So he said to them, ‘When you are eating, who prays for you then?’ Again he asked them if they did not sleep and they replied they did. And he said to them, ‘When you are asleep, who prays for you then?’ They could not find any answer to give him. He said to them, ‘Forgive me, but you do not act as you speak. I will show you how, while doing my manual work, I pray without interruption. I sit down with God, soaking my reeds and plaiting my ropes, and I say, “God have mercy on me; according to your great goodness and according to the multitude of your mercies, save me from my sins [Ps 51:1,2].”’ So he asked them if this were not prayer and they replied it was. Then he said to them, ‘So when I have spent the whole day working and praying, making thirteen pieces of money more or less, I put two pieces of money outside the door and I pay for my food with the rest of the money. He who takes the two pieces of money prays for me when I am eating and sleeping; so, by the grace of God, I fulfill the precept to pray without ceasing.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 120-1)

This blend of piety and practicality is found throughout this early literature. The life described is one filled with basic manual labor—weaving ropes or baskets made from the leaves of the desert palms or scratching out subsistence gardens from the rocky soil—suffused with constant prayer. Indeed, the Egyptian monks in particular were famous for prayers that were “brief but frequent.”

The prayer recited by Abba Lucius is an adaptation of the start of Psalm 51. Reading through the Life of Antony and the description that Athanasius gives of Antony’s struggles in spiritual travail, a pattern emerges. At a great turning point in Antony’s life, during a struggle with demons that left him both physically and spiritually battered he retained his faith and focus by ceaselessly chanting, “If they place an encampment against me, my heart will not fear” (Ps 27:3). When people came from the cities, hoping to find him dead, he would pray verses from Ps 68:1-2 and Ps 118:10. Throughout the literature, the words of the psalms are constantly appearing through their prayers and discussions. In truth their whole conversations are shot through with Scripture, but consistently the psalms predominate. In fact, the Egyptian “brief but frequent” prayers that appear in the corpus are almost always drawn from Scripture and the psalms. One of the works of Evagrius of Pontus (†399) consists entirely of one-liners from Scripture to be used for prayer in a host of situations organized in relation to the eight vices identified by the desert monks.

For these monks—many of whom were illiterate—Scripture came through hearing. Preeminently, Scripture was heard and memorized in the Daily Offices. The foundation of the Office gave them the words they needed to meditate in the midst of their work and to truly pray without ceasing no matter what they were doing.

Perhaps the preeminent connection between the Scriptures, the psalms, and praying without ceasing comes from the second conference on prayer recorded by John Cassian. Abba Isaac says that the whole goal of the monastic way of life can be summed up like this: “This, I say, is the end [goal] of all perfection–that the mind purged of every carnal desire may daily be elevated to spiritual things, until one’s whole way of life and all the yearnings of one’s heart become and single and continuous prayer” (Conferences 10.7.3). Cassian’s companion Germanus asks how this sort of focus can be achieved. The reply from Abba Isaac is that there is one particular formula for meditation that can secure this result:

The formula for this discipline and prayer that you are seeking, then, shall be presented to you. Every monk who longs for the continual awareness of God should be in the habit of meditating on it ceaselessly in his heart, after having driven out every kind of thought, because he will be unable to hold fast to it in any other way than by being freed from all bodily cares and concerns. Just as this was handed down to us by a few of the oldest fathers who were left, so also we pass it on to none but the most exceptional, who truly desire it. This, then, is the devotional formula proposed to you as absolutely necessary for possessing the perpetual awareness of God: ‘O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me’ [Ps 70:1]. (Conferences 10.10.2)

Yes, this is the line that is used as a verse and response to open each of the prayer offices. No, that’s not an accident.

John Cassian makes the explicit connection between the Daily Office and the continuous prayer of the Egyptian monks in his other big book, the Institutes, but he does so by framing it in the midst of one of the disputes about monastic practice. By the end of the fourth century, there were two major centers of monastic practice—the deserts of Egypt and the deserts of Palestine. They had different ways of praying the Daily Office. The Egyptian model was the same in format as what appears to have been done in many of the early cathedrals of the period—one public service in the morning and another in the evening. Twelve psalms were sung, then there was a reading from the Old Testament, then one from the New Testament. That was it for the day. The Palestinian model was to gather more frequently. Jerome, writing from his monastery in Bethlehem, advises this:

Further, although the apostle bids us to ‘pray without ceasing,’ and although to the saints their very sleep is a supplication, we ought to have fixed hours of prayer, that if we are detained by work, the time may remind us of our duty. Prayers, as everyone knows, ought to be said at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, at dawn and at evening. . . . We should rise two or three times in the night and go over the parts of Scripture which we know by heart. (Letter 22. 37)

and instructs the parents of a young virgin dedicated to the church to train her in the same way: “She ought to rise at night to recite prayers and psalms; to sing hymns in the morning; at the third, sixth, and ninth hours to take her place in the line to do battle for Christ; and lastly to kindle her lamp and to offer her evening sacrifice” (Letter 107.9).

The Egyptians responded rather harshly. One characteristic response comes from the Egyptian-trained Epiphanius:

The Blessed Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, was told this by the abbot of a monastery he had in Palestine, ‘By your prayers we do not neglect our appointed round of psalmody, but we are very careful to recite [the prayer offices of] Terce, Sext and None.’ Then Epiphanius corrected them with the following comment, ‘It is clear you do not trouble about the other hours of the day, if you cease from prayer. The true monk should have prayer and psalmody continuously in his heart.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 57)

Thus, he suggested that by having more set hours of the day, the monks were neglecting this continual prayer of the heart and instead were satisfied only to pray when the clock told them it was time to do so. Frankly, this is kind of a cheap shot. An argument could equally be made that since the Palestinian monks were hearing the psalms more, they had better opportunity to memorize them and keep them always in their hearts—but the (Egyptian) sayings don’t see fit to give us the Palestinian abbot’s response!

In light of this argument between the two parties, John Cassian tries to take a middle path. After explaining the Egyptian system, and before talking about how to pray the day hours, he says this:

For, among [the Egyptians as opposed to the monasteries of Palestine and Mesopotamia] the offices that we are obliged to render to the Lord at different hours and at intervals of time [i.e., the day offices of Terce, Sext, and None] to the call of the summoner, are celebrated continuously and spontaneously throughout the course of the whole day, in tandem with their work. For they are constantly doing manual labor alone in their cells in such a way that they almost never omit meditating on the psalms and on other parts of Scripture, and to this they add entreaties and prayers at every moment, taking up the whole day in offices that we celebrate at fixed times. Hence, apart from the evening and [morning] gatherings, they celebrate no public service during the day except on Saturday and Sunday, when they gather at the third hour for Holy Communion. For what is offered [freely] is greater than what is rendered at particular moments, and a voluntary service is more pleasing than functions that are carried out by canonical obligation. This is why David himself rejoices somewhat boastfully when he says: ‘Willingly shall I sacrifice to you.’ And: ‘May the free offerings of my mouth be pleasing to you, Lord.’

 So, John Cassian is, in essence, admitting that the Egyptians have a more perfect practice: the two Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer give the stern Egyptian monks all they need in order to pray without ceasing for the rest of the day. But then he goes right ahead and tells his monks to do the three day hours in Palestinian fashion! The Egyptian way may be better, but the Palestinian is easier—and is likely better training for those still needing to learn their psalms.

In essence, we can say that these two groups show us two different ways of using the Daily Office to learn how to pray without ceasing. The “Egyptian” model is to only have two long Offices with psalms and readings at both. The “Palestinian” model is to have shorter and more frequent Offices with psalmody, leaving the reading of Scripture for the long Office at night. The Palestinian model wins decisively in the West; Benedict expresses in his Rule what has become normative in the West: eight liturgical services of prayer with an additional monastic business meeting—Chapter—that itself acquires liturgical material. Indeed, this pattern of frequency in corporate recitation of the Offices gets taken to its extreme in the monasteries of Cluny to the point that up to a full eight hours of the day were spent singing liturgies!

With the creation of the Book of Common Prayer at the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer put the Anglican churches onto the other path. Whereas for centuries the Western Church had followed the Palestinian model, Cranmer turned us back to the Egyptian model. Up until our present book, our Offices had consisted of just what the Egyptian Office had: psalms, a reading from the Old Testament, a reading from the New Testament and prayers, all done twice a day. (The 1979 book gives a “Palestinian” nod with the introduction of Noon Prayer and Compline.)

If prayer without ceasing is our goal (and why shouldn’t it be?) we must recall that the Egyptian model is the harder path. In order to fulfill the call, we would be wise to take their advice. Pray the long Offices as they’re appointed, but then—throughout the day—make our private prayers “brief but frequent.” Take a verse that strikes you in the morning. Ponder it through the day; make it your prayer. Repeat it to yourself as you sit in silence. Whisper it to yourself as you work. Roll it in your mind while you eat. Make it part of your prayer without ceasing.

This, then, is the essence of the Office—to make our spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. By speaking in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” our hearts are lifted and our minds expanded to see a world imbued with God. As we take the words of the psalms and the Scriptures into ourselves, we provide ourselves with the basic resources to “pray without ceasing.” The practice of the Office—whether together or alone—builds up in us the pattern of praise and points us in the way of the habitual recollection of God.

The Daily Office: Sacrifice of Praise

Here’s a section where I’m going into the essence and the spiritual logic behind the Office…

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The Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving

When the Church Fathers spoke of the chief morning and evening services of the Daily Office—Lauds and Vespers in the Western Church—they often did so with reference to the Temple sacrifices. A classic example is Isidore of Seville (†636) whose encyclopedic writings formed the basis for most Western treatments of the liturgy for almost a thousand years. In describing Vespers, he writes:

Vespers is the end of the daily office and the setting of another daylight. Its solemn celebration is from the Old Testament. It was the custom of the ancients to offer sacrifices and to have aromatic substances and incense burnt on the altar at that time. [David], that hymn-singing witness, performed a royal and priestly office saying: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2). (De Eccl. Off., 1.20.1)

Isidore asserts a few things that we need to look at more carefully. First, he finds Vespers in the Old Testament. Second, he clarifies this remark by talking about sacrifices, particularly around the offering of incense. Third, he mentions David, citing a psalm in support of his statements. What’s he talking about, and in what sense do we take this?

Looking through the legislation in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, we find a double reference to what Isidore was describing. Numbers 28:1-8 gives a summary:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelites, and say to them: My offering, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor, you shall take care to offer to me at its appointed time. And you shall say to them, This is the offering by fire that you shall offer to the LORD: two male lambs a year old without blemish, daily, as a regular offering. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight also one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil. It is a regular burnt offering, ordained at Mount Sinai for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Its drink offering shall be one-fourth of a hin for each lamb; in the sanctuary you shall pour out a drink offering of strong drink to the LORD. The other lamb you shall offer at twilight with a grain offering and a drink offering like the one in the morning; you shall offer it as an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD. (NRSV)

So—lambs, bread, and wine. This legislation is described again at the end of Exodus 29; Exodus 30 then gives directions for the incense altar right before the Holy of Holies in the inmost part of the temple and states: “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations” (Exod 30:7-8). This is where the incense is coming from in Isidore.

Although these twice daily offerings are described separately, we find them joined together in some of the standard summary statements of priestly activity in the Temple. Thus, when King Abijah is trying to persuade the people of Israel to join Judah again he argues, “We have priests ministering to the LORD who are descendants of Aaron, and Levites for their service. They offer to the LORD every morning and every evening burnt offerings and fragrant incense, set out the rows of bread on the table of pure gold, and care for the golden lampstand so that its lamps may burn every evening” (2 Chr 13:10b-11a). When we think about services in the Temple, then, this was a big piece of the daily activity: the twice daily burnt offerings of food and incense. The best description that we have from the time of the Temple is in Ecclesiasticus 50:12-21 where the service is described while praising the Simon, son of Onias, high priest from around 219-196 BC. While interesting in its own right, the only point that we need to observe from this description is that it includes a description of the Levites singing a psalm at the time of the sacrifice. This agrees with the much later—and much more comprehensive—description of this ceremony in the Mishnah (the 3rd century AD written collection of Jewish oral teaching) where set psalms are given for each day.

To recap, then, there were daily temple sacrifices at morning and evening where prayers would be prayed, psalms sung, and sacrifices performed—both food and incense. This is the Old Testament precedent that Isidore is referring to. (Note: I’m not suggesting that there is any direct liturgical link between the sacrifices and the Offices only that the pattern is similar and that common elements are likely due to a Christian appropriation of what they read as Old Testament practice.)

These offerings of food, drink, and incense are the type that anthropologists refer to as “alimentary offerings.” That is, in these sacrifices, the community is feeding the deity; in traditions that include images or statues of the gods, they may be clothed at this time as well. Now—it’s easy to dismiss these as primitive and pointless, but to do so is to miss their deeper meaning. Only the very young or unsophisticated believed that the gods needed these feedings or would perish without them. Indeed, Psalm 50 explicitly mocks this shallow understanding: “If I [, the Lord,] were hungry, I would not tell you, for the whole world is mine and all that is in it. Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High” (Ps 50:12-4, BCP).  Rather, what’s operative behind these ceremonies is that the community is taking some of its common supplies—food, drink, things that people could use—and is choosing to give them up. The fact that useful (and sometimes even scarce) belongings are being exclusively devoted to the deity is a symbol of the community’s dedication to their god. That’s what’s really behind this: these sacrifices are an act of self-dedication showing through the community’s sacrifice what kind of material loss they are willing to incur for the sake of fidelity to their deity. This kind of sacrifice, then (and there are other kinds that we’ll talk about later…) demonstrates dedication because a limited good is being directed towards the god rather than the community’s (or individual’s) well-being.

Psalm 141 with its spiritualization of the sacrifice is pointing to something important when the psalmist asks that the prayer itself be considered a substitute for or (perhaps more precisely) an act of worship united—though at a distance—with the act of sacrifice: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” (Ps 141:2, BCP). Even though the psalmist isn’t burning any lambs, the act of prayer itself reflects an act of sacrifice. A good that is inherently limited—time itself—is being voluntarily dedicated to God.

Thus, if the morning and evening sacrifices of the Temple are seen as acts of communal self-dedication to God, the morning and evening prayer of the Church mirroring these sacrificial acts are also acts of self-dedication. We are voluntarily giving up twenty to thirty minutes at each time to God—time that could be spent doing a hundred, a thousand, other things—and are choosing to spend this most precious resource in the praise of God.

There are two direct links that the Church has chosen to appropriate from the Old Testament legislation that puts us in connection with the spirit of these sacrifices: the use of psalms and the presence of incense. When we sing the psalms at morning and evening prayer, we are uniting our voices across time not just with the early Anglicans of Archbishop Cranmer’s day, not just with Isidore’s Spanish monks, but with the Levites serving God in the Jerusalem Temple. We are separated by centuries, yet united in song.

Likewise, when we choose to use incense—and this usually occurs either at the most formal expressions of public worship or, on the other end of the spectrum, as the act of an individual worshipper praying alone—we should use it in direct remembrance of the incense offered to God in the Temple ceremonies. We’re not trying to recreate the Temple sacrifices or to put ourselves under Old Testament ceremonial legislation, of course, but—like the psalms—we offer it in spiritual unison with the offerings of God’s people through time. Thus, when incense is used at the Offices, it should be used to cense the altar alone and not the people around it. We’re not at this time using incense as a holy purifier but we are offering it directly to God as a sacrifice in and of itself and as a visual representation of the prayers themselves ascending to God’s throne.

By putting substantial prayer offices at the hinges of the day—morning and evening—therefore, the Church joins its worship spiritually and symbolically with the twice daily sacrifices God commanded the Israelites to perform in Scripture. As with their worship, we are sacrificing something of value—our time—to God as an act of dedication. Praying the psalms, saying the prayers, lifting up our hands with or without incense, we are uniting ourselves with the full people of God across time as we offer our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Cassian: Discipline in Prayer

In doing some research for the next section, I ran again across this passage which was marked with double lines, underlines, and a star in the margin in my copy of the Conferences and which must be shared:

For whoever is in the habit of praying only at the hour when the knees are bent prays very little. But whoever is distracted by any sort of wandering of heart, even on bended knee, never prays. And therefore we have to be outside the hour of prayer what we want to be when we are praying. For the mind at the time of its prayer is necessarily formed by what went on previously, and when it is praying it is either raised to the heavens or brought low to the earth by the thoughts on which it was dwelling before it prayed. (John Cassian, Conferences 10.14.2)

I’ll have to stick this back into the Disciplines section somewhere…

Daily Office: Psalms

I’m now heading into the Office section of the Prayer Book Spirituality Project. I’m wrestling a bit with the organization… In particular, I’m trying to decide if the Psalms should receive their own chapter or if Psalms stuff should be folded into a more integrated discussion of the Office. I haven’t decided.

That hasn’t stopped me from writing, though…

So—here’s a section that will go *somewhere,* I just don’t know where yet.

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At the heart of the historic discipline of the Office is the Psalms. Recitation of the psalms has always been a central part of the practice and, not only that, many of the other elements in the Office are either borrowed from or directly inspired by the Psalms. As a result, it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

The Psalms (capitalized) refers to a book of the Old Testament containing 150 chapters. These chapters are, for the most part, discrete poems or songs known as psalms (not capitalized) that involve the relationship between God and his people, whether individually or corporately. What makes them unusual, given our typical perspective on the Bible, is their direction. That is, we ordinarily consider the Bible to be God’s self-revelation to humanity—God’s Word, revealing himself to us. The Psalms, though, are a set of prayers from humanity to God noteworthy for their emotional vulnerability and self-disclosure—feeling often more like humanity’s self-revelation to God!  Thus, the Psalms are a paradox of sorts: divine revelation laying bare the soul of humanity.

Having noted this unusual state of affairs, I now wish to turn to the question of authorship—who wrote the psalms, and how and why does that matter in our reading of them? One view, deriving from modern biblical scholarship, asserts that we don’t know who wrote the psalms—they are largely an anonymous collection. Another view, the traditional view handed down by the early and medieval Church, asserts that King David was the author of the psalms. Yet a third perspective is given by the psalms themselves that help us nuance and appreciate the importance of both perspectives.

By looking at language in relation to dialect shift over centuries, their possible original settings, relationship to other scriptural texts, and parallel material from the Ancient Near East, modern academic scholarship of the Bible sees the Psalms as a collection of material spanning several centuries from a diverse set of sources. Some psalms give a pretty clear indication that they were connected with worship in the Temple; others don’t have a temple anywhere near them. Some are connected to court life; others are written in the voice of the poor pleading for justice against rich oppressors. Some connect the king and Temple worship in ways that require a setting in Solomon’s Temple before its destruction by Babylonian armies in 587 B.C.; others reflect upon that act of destruction and one famously records the lament of those taken exile into Babylon and taunted to sing the songs of their homeland for their captors. Some are gems of theological complexity and subtlety; others reflect a more simplistic conception of God and the human-divine relationship. Some are placed in the voice of the king, yet others (like Psalm 131) are heard more easily in the voice of a young mother.

So what meaning do we take from this? For me, this breadth of the collection, the diversity of the voices, the anonymity of the writers gives me the sense of being in contact with a whole people of God at prayer. This anonymous collective is part of the great cloud of witnesses just as I am—just as I will be when twenty-five centuries have covered my own tomb with dust. From this perspective, the authors who wrote the psalms may be nameless and faceless but are by no means either voiceless or soul-less. Indeed, that is what gaps the chasms of time between then and now: an earnest cry—whether it be joy, or devotion or fear—that I recognize within my own breast as well. Thus, the diversity of the collection and the anonymity of its myriad authors and editors binds us to our heritage of the sons and daughters of God moving through time.

On the other hand, the tradition has insisted upon the person of King David as a centerpoint around whom the psalms are hung. While modern scholarship agrees that at least a few of the psalms contain linguistic and conceptual markers consistent with David’s time and place—and that therefore could conceivable be by him—it rejects the notion of Davidic authorship of the full Psalter as inconsistent with internal evidence from the psalms themselves. Whether it’s historical or not, there is some spiritual value for us in seeing the psalms in relation to David, so it’s worth looking more closely at why this attribution was so important to the Church through the ages.

The first reason is because the biblical narratives about David frequently connect him with music. According to 1 Samuel 16:14-23 even before the episode with Goliath, David was taken into Saul’s service precisely because his music soothed the king. Even after rising to high rank commanding the king’s armies, David still played daily for the him—indeed these music sessions twice became opportunities when the increasingly deranged Saul attempted to kill David lest he usurp the throne (1 Sam 18:5-12; 1 Sam 19:9-10)! Three songs ostensibly from the hand of David appear in 2 Samuel: the first his lament at the death of Jonathan and Saul (2 Sam 1:17-27), then an adaptation of Psalm 18 (2 Sam 22), and finally a song before his death (2 Sam 23:2-7) that names him “the sweet psalmist of Israel.”

Later biblical materials build on this aspect of David’s legacy. Chronicles portrays David as setting up all of the details of the Temple’s worship even though the structure wouldn’t be built until the reign of his son Solomon. Even later still, the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus honors his musical achievements as much as his military ones saying,

In all that [David] did he gave thanks to the Holy One, the Most High, proclaiming his glory; he sang praise with all his heart, and he loved his Maker. He placed singers before the altar, to make sweet melody with their voices. He gave beauty to the festivals, and arranged their times throughout the year, while they praised God’s holy name, and the sanctuary resounded from early morning. (Ecclus 47:8-10)

A more profound reason why the Psalms are connected with David is due to the fullness of the picture that we get of him in the Samuel-Kings material. While the pages of Scripture are filled with memorable people, few are drawn with great emotional depth. Two characters of the Old Testament stand out as fleshed-out emotional beings: Job and David. The view we get of Job is one-sided, though. Due to the purpose of the book, we see Job in various stages of lament and despair. In David, however, we see a man at full-stretch: the passionate lover, the exuberant warrior, the reverent monarch, the penitential father. We see him at his best and worst, in his highs and in his lows; he experiences the complete emotional range that the Psalter explores. In him we can make this anonymous collection personal and individual. We can see how events in his life might have prompted the cries of despair or the calls of joy, and find the parallels in our own.

A final reason why the early and medieval Church emphasized so strongly the Davidic authorship of the psalms is because they saw the psalms as deeply prophetic. They understood David to be uttering divinely inspired praises. But, even more particularly, they saw him engaging in an act of divinely-facilitated clairaudience reaching across the centuries: he was writing in the tenth century B.C. what his descendant Jesus—Son of David—would be feeling in the first century AD. In insisting upon the Davidic authorship of the Psalms, the Church could assert that they gave a unique perspective into the interior life of Jesus. The gospels tell of his deeds and allude to how he felt; having established the genetic connection, the psalms lay bare his own prayers and tribulations.

As modern people, it’s harder for us to embrace this perspective whole-heartedly than it was for our ancestors. Nevertheless, the Christological reading of the psalms has an important place in our spirituality. Granted—it does require some rather creative interpretive gymnastics to explain how some psalms show the psychology of Jesus! However, despite these problematic bits, the Church is saying something profound in attributing the emotional range and depth of the psalms to Jesus. It is another way to explore and ponder the full humanity of Jesus. Only a Jesus who feels deeply, passionately, fully, is a completely human (while completely divine) Redeemer. Indeed, this perspective brings us full circle to the paradox of revelation with which we began—how are human prayers to God part of God’s self-revelation to us? Seeing them in and through Jesus’ own self-communication to the Father clarifies how the revelation of the depths of our own humanity connects to divine self-revelation.

Having looked, now, at the modern idea of corporate anonymous authorship alongside the early and medieval understanding of Davidic authorship, I’d like to wrap up by adding in a body of scriptural material that can serve as a mediating, uniting, term between the two. The psalms in the prayer book are lacking one contextualizing piece that you’ll find when you look up the psalms in a Bible: the superscriptions. These are brief headers that appear at the start of most of the psalms—only 24 lack them in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. These headers aren’t original to the psalms but have been added in the process of compiling and editing them together. Therefore, they likely tell us less about history and more about interpretation. Often, these superscriptions give instructions to the choirmaster or give a tune name. (The tunes themselves have been long since forgotten.) Some superscriptions, however, attribute the psalm to either individuals or groups.

Predictably, 73 of the psalms are attributed directly to David, 14 of which are connected with specific incidents in his life. However, several other names also appear: one is attributed to Moses, two to Solomon, three to Jeduthun (this one’s unclear—this could be a person’s name…or an instrument), then groups identified in Kings and Chronicles with Temple Levites, eleven to Asaph, and twelve to the Sons of Korah of whom Heman and Ethan get explicit shout-outs.

Religious traditions hate a vacuum, though—so in the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek that occurred in Alexandria sometime around the second century B.C., superscriptions were added onto twenty-two of the psalms lacking them, leaving only Psalms 1 and 2 without them. Significantly, Psalms 146 to 148 are attributed to Haggai and Zechariah, writers and leaders of the post-exilic period!

In essence, therefore, the interpretative tradition reflected in the superscriptions enable us to have it both ways… On one hand, they explicitly refer to a wide range of people all of whom were involved in the creation, editing, and compiling of the Psalter. They give enough names to confirm our sense of the Psalms as a communal document in process over a long period of time. Also, they forestall simplistic attempts to pigeonhole the psalms as strictly Davidic. On the other hand, they solidly connect the psalms to a significant, emblematic figure of history—David—who stands forth not only as a heroic figure, an anointed leader, and a cultic pioneer, but also as a thoroughly flawed human being who, nevertheless, was a “man after God’s own heart.”