Last night I went to Vespers for the first time in a few months. Vespers at the Orthodox Community of St Andrew here in Edinburgh is always at 6:30. Last time I was there, it was winter. 6:30 in an Edinburgh winter is black, dark night. The chapel is lit by the oil lamps hanging in front of icons and a few lights behind the iconostasis as well as a lamp on the lectern.
Vespers in May in Scotland is bright, sunny. We are still tending towards sundown (wait six weeks for Vespers in broad daylight), but there is a nice, fiery, late evening glow to the light shining in through the windows and playing on the icons, the chandelier, the censer, Father Raphael’s gilt chasuble (not sure if that’s the right word).
Shafts of light from this late evening sun illuminate the clouds of incense.
It is fitting, in this Easter season, to sing and pray in the light, for Christ is the light of the world.
Last night, I was also appointed lector for about 5 minutes. I read out a Psalm and recited, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ several times during some of the prayers.
I think Alexander Schmemann said that it takes 46 books to do the whole cycle of Orthodox services. Father Raphael and I were having a bit of difficulty finding where we were meant to be — Feast of Mid-Pentecost along with St Simon the Zealot and Tuesday evening — but Father Avraamy arrived, saved the day and took over as reader.
There is a different comfort here from winter, a brighter invitation at the Feast of Mid-Pentecost than in the bleak mid-winter.
I thought about making the title refer to ‘typical Anglican’ liturgy or the ‘appeal’ rather than the ‘power’, but power runs deeper than appeal, and common prayer runs wider than Anglicans.
Last week I blogged about my experience at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, France and how much I liked it. There were two facets to the service that really appealed to me — orthodoxy and something at the time that was less tangible but which Bosco Peters pointed out as common prayer. I believe that the latter bolsters the former, which is part of its power.
‘Normal’ eucharistic liturgy in a western tradition, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, will follow a particular structure which will have many elements in common with the Divine Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches.
This right here is part of the power of a ‘normal’ liturgy. It is so normal that it is … common. Common prayer, following a structure with certain elements across Christian traditions and throughout space and time. If you go to a liturgical church, chances are that each Sunday you are engaging in ritual actions in your worship of God that are connected with fellow believers in almost every country of the world in a vast array of languages — and they aren’t even all of your denomination!
That’s a comforting thought. The liturgy brings us together. Assuredly, if you set foot in some churches, their liturgy may seem strange, and the ‘common’ elements harder to spot, but they are there. And possibly more of them than you think. Through a ‘normal’ liturgy, the unity of Christ’s Body is demonstrated in a way that transcends the barriers raised in the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, 1700s, last year.
Among these common elements, I want to pick out just a few: God’s word written, confession, the ‘sursum corda‘, and hymns.
God’s word written is an inescapable element of common prayer. I grew up at a church with an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. This is the typical breadth of an Anglican service when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, so it is sensible that a significant portion of our worship be spent in giving attention to it.
Furthermore, for most of Christian history the bulk of the congregation would have been illiterate, so the public reading of the Bible was the primary way ‘ordinary’ Christians would meet the written revelation of God. The Bible is central to the liturgy.
Part of this is found in the use of a lectionary to provide the readings. Most mainline churches and Roman Catholics use the Revised Common Lectionary, providing a three-year cycle of readings to give us passages of Scripture tied to the Church year and keeping our attention on Jesus and the Gospel all year through. Some Anglican dioceses still use older Prayer Book lectionaries, and the Orthodox communions use their own lectionaries keyed to their church year.
Such lectionaries have several benefits: they force preachers to preach on things they would not normally choose; they keep a year-round, global focus on the full richness of Jesus’ life and ministry; they, like common prayer at large, bind churches together across time and space. Someone else somwhere else somewhen else has read this selection of Scriptures at Eucharist as well.
Besides these appointed readings, if you start paying attention to your liturgy, and not just the Communion, you’ll find that Scripture is everywhere. And biblical theology is interwoven into those places where the words themselves are lacking. The Bible is central to liturgical worship, not peripheral.
Confession is an important aspect of all Christian lives. Some of the 16th- and 17th-century so-called ‘Puritans’ in England (not all of whom were Calvinist) felt that there was no need for a prayer of confession before Communion — after all, the true Christian will repent the moment he/she is aware of sin, and therefore turn up on Sunday with a clear conscience. This argument presupposes that a. only ‘true’ Christians make it to the Eucharist (and the Church cannot actually police that, as St Augustine observed), and b. Christians are mindful of their sins throughout the week. It also imagines that indidivual prayer and confession are all that matters.
However, throughout the Bible we have examples of the nation of Israel being called to corporate confession. Furthermore, prayers of confession in the liturgy tend to cover a lot of bases — ‘what we have done and what we have left undone.’ Part of common prayer is to teach us corporately how to pray individually. Confessing our sins to God together is a way of reminding us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory God and that we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table — and so, as we prepare for the feast, we lay bare our souls to God.
And if you think that your church has a strong emphasis on confession or that the Prayer Book goes too far, read any of the eastern liturgies, or go to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts some Wednesday in Lent and touch your forehead to the ground and ask yourself what true repentance looks like.
The ‘sursum corda’. You know this bit:
The Lord be with you. And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts. We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God. It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …
That was straight from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. I did hear it almost every Sunday for over 25 years of my life, after all. Here is where ‘normal’ liturgy begins to time travel. The power of this prayer lies not in the fact that Christians from Anglicans and Methodists to Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox pray it but that it transcends time as it transcends space.
This piece of the liturgy — ubiquitous until the Reformation — first appears in Hippolytus in the early 200s. From what I’ve read, everything in The Apostolic Tradition is, actually, traditional. Thus, it dates back to the second century at the latest. When we pray a ‘normal’ liturgy, we are praying with the earliest Christians who ever prayed.
And the eucharistic structure remains largely unchanged as well, while the preceding part of the service, ‘the liturgy of the Word’, has visible roots in synagogue worship. A ‘normal’ liturgy is normal for the second century as well as the twenty-first, if not the first.
Hymns. Here we come to the least common element of all, you might think. What has an Anglo-Catholic choir singing music by Tallis to do with their low Anglican neighbours singing Matt Redman or the Byzantine chant from the Oktoechos down the street? What has John Wesley with the Methodists to do with John Michael Talbot with the Catholics? An organ vs a cappella? A rock band vs a four-part (40-part) choir?
Whatever our take on the musical aspect of hymnography, the hymns do, in fact, unite us. The hymns are a more changeable aspect of the liturgy. A typical Anglican church will have a minimum of three or four, some add more during Communion or at different points within the service. Yet each week, common prayer gives western churches (I admit to ignorance re the East here) the chance to be flexible to the worship and needs of their own situation — we choose our own hymns.
Yet even in this difference, we are united in the praise of Almighty God, whose worship transcends all liturgy, all hymns, all confessions, Scripture itself. This is what matters when we meet together to pray to and praise the Most Holy Trinity, and I believe that there is deep power in a ‘normal’ liturgy, in common prayer united across space and time, through the ages and around the world, to do just that.
Today is the Octave Day of Easter, the first Sunday after Easter for us who follow the western calendar. For the Orthodox, it is Easter (Χριστός ἀνέστη!). In honour of that fact, I give to you the Apolytikia of the Resurrection in the eight tones.
An apolytikion is a dismissal hymn sung at the close of Vespers, the content of which reflects the theme of the day. Byzantine hymnody is based around eight tones (which do not correspond to western music’s octave). Here are they are (Tone 2 is my favourite):
Whilst the stone was sealed by the Jews, and the soldiers guarded thine undefiled Body, thou didst arise on the third day, O Saviour, granting life to the world. Therefore the Powers of the heavens cried out to thee, O Life-giver: Glory to thy Resurrection, O Christ: glory to thy kingdom: glory to thine oeconomy, O only lover of man.
When thou didst condescend unto death, O life immortal, then didst thou slay Hades with the lightning-flash of thy Godhead; and when thou didst raise the dead from the nethermost parts, all the powers of the heavens cried: O Christ, Life-giver, our God, glory to thee.
Let those of heaven rejoice, and those of earth exult, for the Lord hath wrought might with his arm: he hath by death trampled upon death, hath become the first-begotten of the dead, hath delivered us from the belly of Hades, and granted to the world great mercy.
The women-disciples of the Lord, having learnt from the Angel the glorious message of the Resurrection, and thrown off the ancestral sentence, exultingly spake to the Apostles: Death is spoiled, Christ the God is risen, granting to the world great mercy.
Plagal Tone 1
The word co-unoriginate with the Father and the Spirit, that was born of the Virgin for our salvation, let us, the faithful, hymn and adore; for he was pleased to ascend the Cross in flesh, and to endure death, and to raise the dead by his glorious Resurrection.
Plagal Tone 2
The Angelic Powers were upon thy tomb, and the guards became as dead; and Mary stood at the grave, seeking thine undefiled Body. Thou has spoiled Hades, not being tempted by it; thou didst meet the Virgin, granting life. Thou that didst rise from the dead, — O Lord, glory to thee.
Thou didst by thy Cross destroy death; thou didst open Paradise to the Thief; thou didst change the lamentation of the Myrrh-bearing women; and didst command them to proclaim to the Apostles: That thou art risen, O Christ the God, giving to the world great mercy.
Plagal Tone 4
From on high though didst descend, O tender-hearted One; thou didst submit to three days burial; that thou mightest deliver us from our passions. Our life and Resurrection art thou, O Lord, glory to thee.
Translation by JNWB Robertson from The Divine Liturgies of Our Fathers Among the Saints John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, London, 1894.
Given that it is Christmastide, I felt that looking at a member of the Holy Family was only appropriate.
According to tradition, Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage at the time of his betrothal to Mary. This handy detail allows Jesus to have brothers and sisters and for his mother to remain a perpetual virgin.* Whether we believe this tradition or not, it is most likely that St. Joseph was older than the BVM. That’s how things were — girls got married as soon as possible and were pretty much pregnant as earlier as biologically able. Unfortunately.
Joseph lived in Nazareth at the time of his betrothal to the BVM, and nearby was another village (the name of which escapes me) that had been trashed in a riot. This provided steady work for people in the carpentry business. Stuff needed to get built. It is entirely likely that he was doing work there; at this stage in history, most people who laboured with their hands were essentially day-labourers. Show up at the site or the market and get hired, then paid at the end of the day (like that parable Jesus tells about the guys who work in the vineyards). I imagine St. Joseph to have been one of these.
So here’s Joseph, our hard-working contractor, putting in many hours a day, preparing his household for the arrival of his wife.
Who, it turns out, is already pregnant. Joseph, being a righteous man, decided to put her away quietly. It is the ‘quietly’ part that is due to his righteousness, not the putting away. By doing things quietly, he could reduce shame (a big deal in societies more ‘Eastern’ than ours) and possibly even save her life.
St. Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy of the BVM was probably like this hymn from Christmas Eve sung by the Orthodox:
Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honour, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?
Joseph received his response from an angel in a dream who told him that the child from from the Most High.
What follows is what makes St. Joseph of Nazareth really stand out for me.
He decided to face the shame and not divorce Mary and raise this child on his own.
Now, much is made of the BVM given that she is one of the few (if not the only) biblical persons who receives a message from on high and says, “Let it be unto me according to your will.” However, to believe that Jesus is something special takes a lot less faith when you are the person who conceives virginally. But when you are the dude betrothed to the woman, to accept in faith the words of the angels requires larger faith.
I’m not saying Joseph had larger faith than the Theotokos. I’m just saying it takes a lot more trust to accept that the child is from God if you aren’t the person carrying the child in your womb. That’s all.
St. Joseph’s faith was not blind faith; he had a dream to go on. Dreams are kind of a big deal in the ancient world, and I think there’s more to them than Freud has led us to believe. But that’s a discussion for another time. Nevertheless, I think this saint is an example of how great our faith can be. We need to trust God and act accordingly. This is the great example of Joseph of Nazareth.
The next and last we hear of Joseph in the biblical record is when Jesus is “lost” at the Temple. Tradition tells us that he died during our Saviour’s youth. I see no reason to question, given that he is never again mentioned in the Gospels.
Let us pray to the Lord of Hosts for faith like that of Joseph the Carpenter of Nazareth. May we know Him well enough to trust Him so deeply.
*The needlessness of this doctrine and the fact that it makes Joseph into some sort of strange creature the like of which I know not are an obstacle for me swallowing the bitter pill of Orthodoxy, one reason why I have yet to sail up the Aegean to Byzantium.