Yesterday, I received an email from Jon Elfner, a friend of mine. The email read, in part:
Articles under Liturgy
[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
The Sixth Sunday of Easter is not the flashiest of liturgical events. We’re a good ways out from the euphoria of Easter, but not quite at the Ascension yet. It seems like a good time to step back at think about the liturgy in general.
Poetry tills and harvests in the fields of metaphor.
When Shakespeare’s Romeo muses, “Juliet is the sun,” he is not making a statement that is literally true. But it is true. How so? Oddly enough, answering this question involves us in more metaphorical speech.
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, April 7.]
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was more than a new event within the old, tired world, laboring under sin and death. In fact, it was the end of that world and the inauguration of a new creation. All who are baptized into Christ belong to this new creation, and our lives “are hidden with Christ in God.” As the first creation was made in six days, with God resting on the seventh, the new creation required a new day, the ‘eighth day’, a day outside of the closed cycle of the broken world.
One important symbol of this eighth day is the celebration of an ‘octave’. Each day between Easter Sunday and the Sunday following (now referred to as ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’) is part of the same Easter reality, each day a liturgical solemnity, the eight days of the new cosmos breaking into ‘secular’ time and renewing the old world from within.
Traces of the eighth day motif are already present in Saint John’s gospel. It is on the eighth day that Jesus appears and invites Thomas to touch his hands, feet and side, and Thomas comes to believe. Jesus then pronounces blessed all who believe without having seen, who put their faith in this hidden life in Christ.
In the present Roman calendar (of the ‘ordinary form’), only two official octaves remain, those of Christmas and Easter. In the medieval calendar, virtually all major feasts had ‘octaval’ commemorations at the very least. The liturgical reformers around the time of the Second Vatican Council considered these to be cumbersome complications. Perhaps this was so in some cases. It also may be that the traditional language of the eighth day had fallen into desuetude, perhaps as part of the overall weakening of an eschatological theology (a theology of the ‘last things’, as both present and yet to come). The Orthodox churches have tended to retain a robust sense of the octave as theologically central. In the center icon of Christ in glory behind the altar in the monastery church, one sees two interlocking stars of four points each. The combined eight points indicate that Christ’s coming, both now at every liturgy, and fully revealed at the summation of history, happens on the eighth day. As we celebrate the eighth day of Easter, we are overjoyed to join with you to praise God for the victory of His Son and the gift of new life in the Spirit.
One of the implications of a “new creation” is that God’s manifest beauty is, in the memorable words of Saint Augustine, “ever ancient, ever new.” Kevin and I have frequently discussed together the importance of the creation of new liturgical music that reflects the perennial confidence and vigor of the Catholic faith. After making a few attempts to realize a collaborative Renaissance English setting of tonight’s troparion on Psalm 115, we decided that this would be a perfect text for our own collaboration. We took turns setting the verses meant for the Schola as part of an effort to forge a shared style. We hope that all profit from our labors as we meditate upon and celebrate our own Exodus from the world to the Kingdom of God.
Christ is truly risen!
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, March 3.]
According to St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and co-patron of Europe, every day in a monk’s life should be as if in Lent. I like to think that this is because every tomorrow for a monk is the Resurrection. We rise early every morning in the hope of Christ’s glorious return, and learn to live in this taut expectation.
The Church’s liturgy offers us a similar perspective, this time on the life of all the faithful. We might say that there are indications that the lives of Christians during Lent should be more ‘monastic’. One interesting indication has to do with the place of the Psalms in the Church’s liturgy for Lent. This can be best seen by looking at the Church’s Divine Office antiphons during Advent and comparing them to Lent.
The antiphons for Sundays in Advent tend to be somewhat free paraphrases of texts from Isaiah and other prophets. This allows for an enjoyable re-interpretation of the typical Psalms sung on Saturday and Sunday evenings and on Sunday morning (Pss. 144b-147, Pss. 109-112, and Pss. 50, 62, 117, and 148-150 respectively). The antiphons color the meaning of the Psalms and encourage us to pray imaginatively.
During Lent, the situation is a bit more plain and even, we might say, ‘chaste’. Now the antiphons for Sunday are taken from the Lauds Psalms and so highlight the Psalm texts themselves, unadorned with the prophetic sense of expectation. Traditionally, the Psalms are to be prayed with the voice of Christ, and in this fashion, we are drawn repeatedly to contemplate the Passion of Christ, His appeal to the Father in ‘reverence [Hebrews 5: 7]’, and His triumph in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, we are called not so much to a focus on repentance that might become self-involved; rather we are invited to contemplate the One Who walks with us this path to redemption.
We note a similar phenomenon in the liturgy of the Mass. The texts of the communion chants for each weekday of Lent are taken from consecutive Psalms, beginning quite deliberately with Psalm 1. That is to say that Psalm 1 appears as the communion on Ash Wednesday, Psalm 2 on the following Thursday, and so on. This intense focus on the Psalms is quite ‘monastic’, as any monk would be quick to point out. The 150 Psalms shape everything we do at prayer in community, and much of how we think even in private.
The focus on the Person of Christ comports well with the traditional gospels for each Sunday (preserved as the selections for ‘Year A’ in the current lectionary cycle). The First Sunday retells Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the Second Sunday brings us the foretaste of Christ’s glorification in the story of His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. And on this third Sunday, we find Him promising the Holy Spirit to the woman at the well.
These indications within the liturgy are a good reminder that the austere life of the monk is not at all meant to be joyless, but provides precisely the atmosphere in which the believer can better assent to the fullness of the Good News of our salvation and sanctification. Lenten fasting and abstinence is far more than a means simply to address deficiencies in our moral characters; they form the context in which we conform ourselves to Christ’s self-emptying [Philippians 2:6-11], so as to receive with greater intensity the indwelling of the divine life given at our baptisms. This we long for as we make our way toward the renewal of our baptisms at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, the foretaste of our own resurrections in Jesus Christ.
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Friday, February 2.]
The Feast of the Presentation is one so expansively rich, it is not easy to know where to begin a short reflection such as this. At the center of the many images surrounding our Lord’s first visit to the temple in the flesh is the temple itself, and a bit of scriptural archaeology perhaps can unearth certain foundations for us. The temple is the meeting place between God and man, but—importantly, if uncomfortably—it is also the place of sacrifice.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in obedience to a commandment found in the book of Exodus: “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me [Ex. 22: 29]. As Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson has conclusively demonstrated, this would have been understand by ancient peoples as requiring human sacrifice. However, we know from plentiful other commandments of the Lord that, unlike the bloodthirsty gods of neighboring peoples, God in fact abhors human sacrifice. Much as he asks a last-minute replacement for Isaac, just as Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son, in Exodus, God also provides a ’redemption’ for the first-born sons of the Israelites. Parents are not only permitted, but required to “buy back” from God the little child with an animal sacrifice, a substitute for the real thing.
So far, so good; but what perhaps is still a bit unsettling is the whole idea of the ritual sacrifice of a child in the first place. The word “sacrifice” is derived from a Latin compound using “sacer” and “facio,” and it means to “make holy.” The sacrifice of any item is meant to translate the object from the profane realm into the realm of the holy. This was typically done by slaughtering an animal and burning the portion meant for God. In the case of human sacrifice, the people who practiced this (and we know that it was a constant temptation for Israel as well) understood themselves to be giving the person to God, as a servant. It was the greatest gift one could make. The prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of the people who had sinned against God, asks what a fitting gift would be to reconcile with God, as a sign of heart-felt repentance. The prophet asks rhetorically, “With what shall I come before the Lord?…will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? [Micah 6: 6a, 7]” After this rhetorical question, in which the gift of the son comes last in a series, demonstrating that it is the highest gift Micah’s hearers can imagine, Micah makes a stunning statement, dulled to our ears by out-of-context repetition. What is the great gift? “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justive, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [v. 8]?”
So God, as a good teacher, honors the good intention behind the wrongful action, and directs, but the laws of redemption, a practice initially pagan, driven in no small part by fear and superstition, toward the liberating and enlightened truths of revelation. This change of perspective is, already in the Old Testament, a foreshadowing the great enlightenment that Jesus Christ was to bring. And He brings this light not only to the chosen people of Israel, but to all peoples. Sacrifices of all kinds, as well as substitute political rituals like public executions (including crucifixion) have slowly been disappearing ever since the Christ appeared in the flesh as the one, true sacrifice, the one fitting offering that we can make to God.
Now, to acknowledge that we are still impelled to offer something when we come before the Lord is to acknowledge that in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament and to reveal sacrifice for what it is, Jesus had to assume our mortal flesh and submit to death. In this statement we see how today’s feast points in two directions, forming a hinge between Christmas and Easter: in order to make the one sacrifice to end all sacrifice, Christ needed to become man. As the letter to the Hebrews says it, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. [10: 5].” But Christ also needed to be offered, and today in the temple, the offering of our human nature upon the Cross is foreshadowed in the mysterious fulfillment of the law. God and man are reconciled by the supreme gift of Christ’s human nature to the Father, and His divine nature to us.
May our gratitude for this overwhelming gift cheer our hearts in these dark and cold days of February, and spur us to a fervent celebration of Lent, that we may again proclaim the Light of Christ at the Easter Vigil.
Guests frequently ask us why we leave our Christmas tree up until February. This isn’t mere sentimentalism on our part, but is rooted in the nature of this time of the Church year, even in the “ordinary form” of the Mass.
Traditionally, the time between Epiphany and Lent is marked by a gradual transition. This is clearer if one is celebrating the extraordinary form with the old calendar. This Sunday will be the Second Sunday after Epiphany rather than the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. However, the new calendar and the ordinary form of the Mass still conform in important ways to the old rite. This week, the collect at Mass (the opening prayer) is the same as that in the old rite, and the collect, prayers, and chant propers for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time are the same as for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. This correspondence continues for several weeks. So even though we are in Ordinary Time, the prayers and chants continue to emphasize the mystery of Epiphany, the appearance of God made visible in our human flesh.
This is not as clear if you don’t sing the traditional chants! But we do.
There are two primary hinges that move us away from Epiphany toward Lent. The first no longer appears in the calendar, and that is the Sunday called “Septuagesima.” This is roughly 70 days before the Easter Octave, and in the extraordinary form, one wears begins to wear violet vestments and stops singing Alleluia, as if Lent had already begun. This Sunday is movable, and this year falls on January 28. We don’t follow the old calendar, but we still mark this date with a higher level of asceticism in the cloister and darker chants at Mass.
The second hinge is the Feast of the Presentation. This is traditional a ‘joyful’ mystery in the prayer of the rosary, and it is especially known for the blessing of the candles to be used at the liturgy throughout the year. But it also has echoes of a ‘sorrowful’ mystery. Christ is presented in the temple as a sacrifice. He is redeemed, ‘bought back’, at the price of two turtledoves, but the imagery is clear. This is the child destined to offer Himself for the salvation of the world, to be the new and true temple. This celebration falls forty days after Christmas, and is really the end of the season that follows Epiphany. Hence, we keep our tree up until the Presentation.
We hope to see many of you at 7:00 p.m. on the evening of February 2, when we will celebrate Solemn Vespers. It will be your last chance to see our tree for this year!
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Sunday, December 31.]
The coming of God in human flesh is the central event in human history. After the Word became flesh, all of creation appeared changed to those who encountered Jesus Christ risen and glorified. Christ’s sacred humanity became the key that reinterpreted all of the Scriptures and indeed unlocks the mystery of the human person and human destiny: to be divinized by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Incarnation has had a way of scandalizing those who feel that it is beneath God’s majesty to inhabit the ordinariness and weakness of the human state. Early ‘gnostic’ movements in the Church’s history invented a variety of ways of protecting God from His own rashness, it would seem. In this milieu, the Church discovered that the virgin birth by Mary, the Mother of God was a central guarantee of the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ took flesh from the Blessed Virgin while retaining His divinity, as shown by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
As the Church re-read the sacred Scriptures of Israel to understand more profoundly the mystery of Christ, she also began to discover a multitude of allusions to the mystery of His conception and to the sanctity of His Mother. The antiphons (the short texts at the beginning and end of each Psalm) of today’s solemnity assist us in reinterpreting the Psalms according to their Christology and excavating for us hidden meanings of the Old Testament. The mysterious fleece of Gideon (see Judges, chapter six) was covered with heavenly dew while all the ground around it remained dry and barren. This descent of the dew portended the Lord’s triumph in battle and salvation for Israel. The bramble bush that drew the attention of Moses burned with heavenly flame but was not consumed. And from it, he heard God’s Word, the Son, according to the Fathers of the Church. Mary received the fullness of deity in her womb without losing her virginity, nor being consumed by God’s powerful presence. And the Word that was her only Son was to lead all peoples, not through the Red Sea, but through death itself. He did this by taking our sins upon Himself, becoming the Lamb of God, attested to by John the Baptist.
The length and density of the traditional antiphons attached to today’s solemnity are unusual. Most antiphons quote or directly paraphrase Biblical texts. The theological content of these ‘mystical’ antiphons is surely related to Mary’s status as the ‘vanquisher of all heresies’, the guarantor, as explained above, of the orthodox interpretation of the Incarnation.
Even more unusual is Josquin’s decision to do a full setting of the antiphons of this one liturgical day. Aside from his numerous Mass settings, Josquin set almost no fully liturgical music (in contrast to the paraliturgical devotional works for which he is justly renowned). Musical settings of Mass Ordinaries (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc.) have the advantage of being usable on almost any day of the year, whereas the ‘proper’ antiphons for today’s solemnity can only be performed on this one day of the year—at least if one wishes to honor the traditional placement of liturgical texts.
In Josquin’s day, the Roman liturgy celebrated the Circumcision of Christ on January 1, but this was a relatively recent observance, especially at Rome. And even when the Circumcision was adopted in the universal Church, it retained the more ancient association with the motherhood of Mary. Surely part of Josquin’s decision to set these texts is motivated by his own well-attested Marian devotion and the growing popularity of such devotion (especially in the use of the rosary) in his day. Even so, it is striking that he chose to set the texts of this solemnity rather than other devotional poems, which were numerous in his day.
The richness of this evening’s liturgy admirably brings 2017 to a close and reminds us of the fecundity of the mystery of our Faith. May the New Year be blessed by the Lord, the Lord of history and King of the nations!
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, November 18.]
A church building is an eschatological sign. Explaining this and this evening’s Magnificat antiphon from the prophet Ezekiel is the burden of the rest of these notes. First of all, what is eschatology?
The dictionary definition will say that eschatology is the study of the “last things,” from the Greek word eschaton, “the end.” This definition is not, however, theologically precise. The believing Christian does not merely study eschatology any more than the believing theologian studies God. We can, of course, and should, learn things about God. But our God is a living God Who “cares for us.” In a more ancient sense, theology is the simple act of knowing God more and more intimately, the ascent of the mind to greater union with the mysterious Trinity.
In a similar way, the Christian does not study eschatology as if it were something yet to come. The former things are passing away as I type, and the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us, if we possess the eyes of faith to see it. We already dine at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb, every time we approach the altar, whereupon the one and only sacrifice for sins was and is offered. This one sacrifice inaugurates the end times.
In fact, we entered into this new existence at our baptisms. It is for this reason that the baptismal font is traditionally at the entrance to the church, and why we re-activate this baptismal grace by signing ourselves when we come into church. We go out from the world to undergo a “translation” from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son [cf. Colossians 1: 13], who is the Light that enlightens everyone. Our entry toward the altar is a figure of our ascent, as the Body of Christ, to where the Head has gone before us, in His return to the Father.
This is why the church is an eschatological sign. The church building is meant to be more than a gathering space or even a worship space. In a recent lecture, master iconographer Vladislav Andrejev cautioned us against understanding icons as windows to some other place, openings by which we look through to something not yet entirely here. In fact, the icon is a kind of “surface” of the present spiritual realities. It makes visible to our physical eyes what is truly present to the eyes of faith, so that the eyes of faith may become more and more accustomed to the otherwise blinding light of divine life.
I would like to suggest that the whole of the church building is just this kind of “surface.” Thus the twelve pillars of our church are not merely symbols of the Twelve Apostles, the foundation of the heavenly temple being built up from the bodies of believers. They are the Apostles, manifesting themselves as great supporting columns of the space in which these spiritual realities are appearing.
Sacred music is a similar phenomenon. It is not merely a diversion, a sign of the beauty of something that we hope to encounter one day. It is the song of the angels, made audible to our ears.
This can only happen if human creativity is bridled by genuine asceticism, the work of listening to what is already being sung in heaven by those who have received the gift of hearing from the Holy Spirit. Cooperation requires a silence with regard to earthly sound, even secular music. This is perhaps why, in many churches today, music and art don’t strike the worshippers as “sacred.” It’s music and art that comes from us, not from the inbreaking spiritual world.
All of this said, we can now look at the antiphon for the Magnificat. “I saw a closed gate in the house of the Lord, and an angel said to me, ‘It shall remain closed; the Lord alone shall come and enter in and go out.’” This passage is taken from Ezekiel’s stunning vision of the reconstituted temple (which had been destroyed some years earlier by the Babylonians when they captured Jerusalem in 587 B.C.). Solomon built the first temple based on a pattern given by Moses. Moses saw this pattern in a vision of heaven. We would say today that this vision of Moses was a first glimpse and foreshadowing of what was to be the reality of the true Temple, the Body of the Lord, which was destroyed not by the Babylonians, but by the Romans, only to be raised up in three days as the sole and eternal Temple.
Only God could bring this about. Only God supplies the gifts of the artist, the composer, the singer. We receive this gift from God; we do not earn it or otherwise bring it about. God alone will rend the veil that separates this world from the new age, the spiritual kingdom that is breaking in as we sing together this evening. May our gathering and common liturgical prayer open the eyes and ears of our hearts, that we may receive Him Who is coming!
The Church celebrates the birthdays of only three individuals, preferring, in most circumstances, to celebrate instead the entrance of the saints into everlasting life. The three exceptions appear in the monastery’s Deisis, the triptych of icons above the high altar. On either side of Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, are the two esteemed forerunners of His gospel. On our right is John the Baptist, the greatest prophet and exemplar of the Old Testament or Torah. On the left, the Holy Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, whose birth was the dawn of salvation. Parallel to John the Baptist, she is frequently named as the greatest disciple of her Son and the exemplar of the new life of grace.
Today’s celebration marks nine months from the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The Catholic Church has formulated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The large window in the south transept of our church shows Pope Pius IX declaring the dogma infallibly, surrounded by a variety of Church Doctors whose teachings had clarified Mary’s role in salvation history. The pope’s decision to define this dogma has occasioned some controversy and some tension—hopefully creative tension—with the churches of the East, where Our Lady’s sinlessness has been understood in differing ways.
This range of interpretations makes today’s feast all the more significant doctrinally and historically. The first celebrations of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary take place in the East, probably in Syria. This is a clear indication that the devotion of the faithful to the Mother of God included an awareness that her birth was extraordinary.
In fact, the roots of this awareness go back even further, to the remarkable second-century document known to us today as the Protoevangelium of James. Calling this book “apocryphal” is something of a slight, even if it was not ultimately accepted as Holy Scripture. In it, we find the story of Joachim and Anne, an annunciation of the birth of the Virgin (again, parallel to the annunciations by the Archangel Gabriel of the births of John the Baptist and Christ Himself), and the early consecration of the child Mary to service in the temple.
Recent scholarship has made this temple service more plausible. It seems that groups of virgins were designated to weave the curtain that separated the main body of the temple from the Holy of Holies, the same curtain that was torn at the death of Christ. In iconographic depictions of the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin Mary is shown either reading Scripture, or, in the Eastern fashion, weaving. Whereas the curtain separated the sacred from the profane, Our Lady would, from that moment on, knit together the body of the Savior, Who weds heaven and earth, drawing all things to Himself in a supreme act of reconciliation.
As Solomon’s temple had been understood to be God’s residence on earth, the womb of the Blessed Virgin became the new tabernacle, the tent in which sojourned God the Son before the time of His birth. As the temple was to be kept pure, Mary’s body was understood to be free of the stain of Adam and Eve’s transgression. Quietly, in an obscure home in Nazareth, God prepared a dwelling for Himself and began, with the consent of the Virgin Mary, the restoration of the cosmos.
With this momentous event now widely known and celebrated, the Church hearkens back to an even quieter and more obscure commencement, the entry into the world of the one person chosen to be the Mother of God and the Mother of all the living. And here is the last distinguishing feature I would like to highlight. In ancient patriarchies, the birth of a son was widely anticipated and celebrated. Here is a new occurrence. We celebrate the birth of the great “daughter of Jerusalem,” and it is precisely Mary as woman that we honor. In the Blessed Mother of God we glimpse the full and unique dignity of women. Rightly let us sing together, “Today is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose splendid life illuminates the whole Church!”
[Please come and pray Solemn Vespers with us tonight–Friday–at 7:00 p.m.]