Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Early Christians Lived Holy Week

Sunday many western Christians will gather to commemorate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a few days before his death. In many places they will gather outside the church and form a procession, each person bearing a palm branch or a part of one. As you know, this day, usually called Palm Sunday and, less often but also correctly called Passion Sunday, gets its name from the palm branches said to have been strewn on the ground in front of Jesus as he rode his donkey into the city. Once inside, the usual liturgies will be said, but we will also hear a long reading of the Passion of our Lord. How old is this tradition?

Very. About 381, a Gallic woman known as Egeria (or Aetheria and even sometimes, Sylvia) made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She kept an account of her travels in a long letter to a circle of women back home. Fragments of the letter survive and, among other things, tell us something about the customs in Jerusalem at Holy Week. A liturgical year, that is, a year divided into seasons related to events in the New Testament, was developing and would become a universal practice in the Church during her century. She provides a first hand account of what the Jerusalem Church, and by extension, much of Christianity was doing at such festival times. And it is clear, the customs were well established in Jerusalem when she visited. I thought you might be interested in a brief summary of her report about Holy Week.

On Sunday, “...which begins the Paschal week, which they call here the Great Week, when all the customary services have taken place...they the greater church, which is called the martyrium [so called because it is where the Lord suffered].” Following some liturgical observances which she doesn’t describe, everyone goes home until the “seventh hour.” After they dine, they reassemble “in the church in Eleona, on the Mount of Olives, where is the cave in which the Lord was wont to teach.”

In the church there on the Mount, “...hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and place are said, and lessons in like manner.” This continues for two hours and at the ninth hour, the worshippers begin to process as they sing hymns, to “the Imbomon, that is, to the place whence the Lord ascended into heaven...Hymns and antiphons suitable to the day and place are said, interspersed with lections and prayers. And as the eleventh hour approaches, the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord...and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one another: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighborhood [even infants on their parents’ shoulders]...all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives [escort the bishop] in the same manner as the Lord was of old.” The procession continues “from the top of the Mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to [the sanctuary of the church] at a late hour. And on arriving, although it is late lucernare (the evening office) takes place, with prayer at the Cross; after which people are dismissed.”

Egeria includes Maundy Thursday, though she only calls it "the fifth weekday." After the usual service, everyone goes to the Mount of Olives for prayers, hymns and lessons, where they spend the night. “At the first cockcrow,” they come down and go to the place where Jesus prayed alone. “And then all, even to the smallest child, go down with the bishop, on foot, with hymns to Gethsemane; where, on account of the great number of people in the crowd, who are wearied owing to the vigils and weak through the daily fasts...come very slowly to Gethsemane.” The passage in which Jesus is taken is read, “...and when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.”

As Friday dawns, the whole assembly heads to the Golgatha. Again, they turn to the Gospel and read of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. “...Afterwards, the bishop addresses the people, comforting them for that they have toiled all night and are about to toil during that same day, (bidding) them not to be weary, but to have hope in God, Who will for that toil give them a greater reward.” The bishop continues to speak to them, sending them home to rest because yet to come is a four hour vigil before “the holy wood of the Cross, each one of us believing that it will be profitable to his salvation [as we] apply ourselves to lections and to prayer until night.” But they do not go straight home. They go to pray at the column where Jesus is thought to have be scourged, and then go home.
When they reassemble at Golgotha, they bring out a small casket in which is kept the wood of the Cross and the titulus that contained the charge against Jesus. The wood is placed on a table, and with deacons carefully watching, “both faithful (i.e., the baptized) and catechumens, come one by one and...” each person who approaches the wood, bow and touch the wood with their foreheads and then with their eyes before kissing it.

At the sixth hour, no matter what the weather, all the people assemble in a courtyard. The bishop’s chair is brought and from the sixth hour until the ninth, lessons are read, including Old Testament readings which seem to predict the suffering and death. Hymns are said and prayers are prayed and “...the emotions shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful...[as they] lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us.” Finally, at the ninth hour, a portion of John’s gospel is read in which Jesus “gave up the ghost.” A prayer and dismissal follow.

As we make our way through Holy Week, let us hope our liturgies will be as important to us as they were to our kin in the 4th century, even though they will be remarkable shorter.



Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Avatars and Affairs

Last week I spent a day attending a seminar on the topic of affairs in marriage. The seminar was for counselors and focused on influences that lead to affairs and how we can help couples who are trying to deal with an affair.  One of the topics was, “What Is An Affair?” High on many lists is sexual infidelity, and until fairly recent times, this would have been the definition. 

In our time, the definition of infidelity has changed a good bit and the simplest is the keeping of secrets in an intimate relationship. This keeping of secrets often has a strong emotional component, leading the non-sexual relationship to be labeled an “emotional affair.” The secrets may involve a person or not, and as you’ll see below, maybe a virtual person. Secrets are being kept in these emotional affairs, secrets that the unsuspecting spouse would be stunned to learn.  Today, when we can text, tweet, and email, and largely avoid face to face interactions if we wish, boundaries are easily crossed and secrets are easily kept. In my very limited practice in retirement, I’ve had more than one couple who presented with an emotional affair made possible by Facebook, texts, and tweets.

In January attending another conference, this time on sexual addiction, I learned there is a website onto which one can log and join. The requirements, besides a credit card--must be married and wanting to have an affair.

Another shocking revelation had to do with online games. There is one in which players create an avatar and live in a virtual world doing all the real world kinds of things: earning money, building things, and the stunner--having virtual sex with another avatar. I’m guessing both of these fall into the category of something kept secret from a spouse.

So why is this in Theological Musings? I’ve become very interested in addictions of all kinds recently. One core theory of addiction is the addict, is using in order to dull the pain, anxiety, frustration, even guilt that rests at the core of many lives. There is an existential “hole” inside that the person tries to fill up by over eating, shopping, substance abuse, sex and emotional invulnerability to name a few practices. I’m pretty sure the virtual world falls into the same category, especially since people may play the game for 15-20 hours a week!

As the Palmist says, “As a deer longs for the flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Psalm 42) What is it with so many in our society that rather than longing for the flowing streams, keeps them content to drink at stagnant pools? Why the deep pain and why the wrong solution? More pointedly, what is the Church’s response to this growing phenomenon? Closer to home, what is our individual response?

Peace in a fretful world,


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Nones

An article in the 12 March issue of Time titled, “The Rise of the Nones,” described the Nones as people who say they have no religious affiliation.  This group, the article says, has more than doubled since 1990 to about 16% of the U.S. population. It is the fastest growing “religious” group in the country. Yet, only 4% of the population characterize themselves as atheist or agnostic. So where do the Nones fit? They describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious, that is, they have no affiliation with organized religion, but “they’re not rejecting God...they are rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic,” Time quotes Erin Dunigan, a Presbyterian cleric who ministers to a group of Nones.

Diana Butler Bass, a noted author on trends in churches makes the point in her newest book, Christianity After Religion, that this phenomenon is touching nearly every religious tradition.  She includes the megachurches who historically market themselves to people turned off by organized religion. A 2009 Pew Forum survey found that, “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly religious” in that they reported they believed in God and prayed fairly often. Many of the respondents reported they hoped eventually to find a suitable religious home.

Time goes on to remind us that the organizers of the so-called emergent-church movement are trying to “take religion away from the musty pews and fierce theological fights by creating small worship communities that often meet in members’ homes.” The historian in me can’t help but remember that long before the Church coalesced into an organization, it existed as small groups in peoples’ homes.  When St. Paul writes in his letters to the church in such-and-such a place, it is to a house church in that city, or maybe several house churches, not to the local cathedral--they didn’t exist.
What the Nones tend to do, at least the group covered in the time article, is gather for weekly worship, hear sermons, engage in spiritual dialogue and prayer, deliver food to sick members and work with the poor. In other words, they do something very much like any vitale institutional church, such as St. Mary’s. So what is the difference? I wish I knew for sure.

There is some evidence that those churches that market themselves to the “unchurched” or “disillusioned” or “Nones” emphasize informality, group cohesion, (small groups within the larger group who have a separate identity, like an on-going, more or less self contained Sunday class), contemporary religious music, and what I would call “warm fuzziness,” (because I don’t otherwise know how to characterize the atmosphere or experience).

I’m not being critical. If this is what helps you build your relationship to God and to others and gives you hope for the next day and the future--great! What I am being is curious about two things: (1) what happened besides scandal and infighting in the institutional church to turn these folks off, and (2) what this suggests to St M’s about reaching this group. I have a theory about number 1: incompetence and inattentiveness. By incompetence I mean, the institutional Church’s tendency to turn out people who don’t lead worship well and don’t preach well. How many jokes have you heard about counting ceiling tiles during sermons or compiling grocery lists? And by inattentiveness, I mean the membership’s reserve or reluctance to welcome others who show up on Sunday and to take them under your wing. See an unfamiliar face on Sunday: introduce yourself and invite them into the hospitality time in the parish hall for starters. The other inattentiveness is the institutional Church’s tendency not to teach pastors how to effectively care for parishioners and to develop the parishioner’s ability to care for each other. Again mentioning Paul, he did say we “should bear one another’s burdens.”

So with regard to number 2, there is not marketing plan to attract them, but if a None (or anyone else) visits on Sunday, we have plenty to offer. We just need to remember that making people feel welcome and at home is everyone’s responsibility, not just the clergy.



Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cross Bearing

The Gospel for Sunday included Jesus’ statement, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What does it mean to “take up the cross?”  Maybe not what you think. Here are some thoughts I shared about this in a recent sermon.

Many have equated cross bearing with enduring life’s tragedies. Perhaps some terrible event has been visited on us and we talk about bearing it as a cross. For some, personal tragedy such as, a wayward child or a chronic painful condition or the death of a spouse is considered their cross. In this vein, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” might be viewed as a cross to bear. I get it.  I confess to sometimes thinking that way myself.  But is that what Jesus is talking about?  I don’t think so.

The obvious model of taking up the cross is being willing to die for the faith. After all, Jesus died on a cross, so perhaps we are called on to make that same sacrifice. Maybe that’s what he means. When he goes on to talk about losing our lives for his sake and the sake of the Gospel, that surely adds credence to this way of understanding him. Christian history if filled with stories of men and women who have literally died, some even on a cross, as a witness for the faith. Yet, I’m not sure this is what Jesus means, or perhaps more precisely, I’m not sure this is all Jesus means.  Let me explain why.

Let’s start with the concept of “losing life.” He clearly includes laying down our physical lives once and for all. But, our one time sacrifice can’t have the same impact that his one time sacrifice does. On the other hand, we can lose our lives in a figurative sense repeatedly. If we think Jesus is talking about loving others in our cross bearing, then being a servant to those in need over and over is an example of that kind of love. We follow the first part of his statement about denying ourselves when we put our lives on hold in some way to give that time and energy to others. Serving in a soup kitchen is a simple illustration of this. Listening to a friend going through a rough time is another.

I also put going to worship in this category. In our busy world, how easy it is to sleep in on Sunday, to convince ourselves we deserve the rest. Yet, our faithful attendance to worship not only empowers us, it is a witness to those who see us go--the neighbor who is mowing his yard as we pull out of our driveway in our Sunday best, for example. Too, I happen to think as we learn more about our faith in Christian formation and experience the grace of God in our worship, we are strengthened to live more Christ-like lives the rest of the week. If we do so, we will be noticed--our very example of kind, generous, tolerant, graciousness will stand out because those qualities are scarce in the world.

I don’t presume to suggest I know what your cross should be. And it does have to be yours.  Jesus does say, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross...” Lent is a good time to wonder about what denial is being asked of you and what cross waits. I’m pretty sure the denial of desserts or booze isn’t what Jesus is suggesting, but if denying yourself those things helps you figure out what is actually standing in the way of your following Jesus faithfully, I support you in that. Whatever it is, Jesus, no doubt, is waiting for you to discover it or to devote yourself anew to it.