Thursday, March 01, 2007

Lenten Observance

The purpose of being "away" from here is to impose some discipline on my thinking and posting, rather than waking every morning like a drunken cowboy just in from the trail ride, shooting at everything that moves in a wild release of pent-up energy. I'm also trying to keep Lent, which is no easy task, not having grown up with the discipline and having to make up things largely on my own, or find meaning in liturgies that have gone unknown to me for several decades.

One of those liturgies, which I find more and more a framing device (as all liturgies, properly, are) is the Easter Vigil. The Anglican liturgy can be found here. Unfortunately, the Episcopal service reflects only the Service of the Word. The UCC service I used as my model (not, sadly, available on-line) had four divisions: Service of Light; Service of the Word; Service of Water; Service of Bread and Wine. Each was quite distinct. A nice summary of the history of the liturgy itself can be found here. As the entry in New Advent indicates, this service was common throughout Christian churches well before the Great Schism of 1054, so it is easily the oldest liturgy (despite many changes) in Christian practice. I used to use a version of it on Easter morning, trying to recapture some of the mystery of the day and bring over the despair and fear of Good Friday (which most people pass up in favor of Easter Sunday). Even people in my first church who wanted me gone admitted they were moved by this service (I take no credit for that, by the way); such is the power of liturgy.

Walter Brueggeman has recently taught me that liturgy is repition for the sake of remembrance, an idea I want to spend more time on later. There is repitition as pointlessness, and repetition as something practical, a distinction I would like to explore. Liturgy as remembrance is captured in the Easter Vigil which begins, as New Advent mentions, with fire:

This vigil opened with the blessing of the new fire, the lighting of lamps and candles and of the paschal candle, ceremonies that have lost much of their symbolism by being anticipated and advanced from twilight to broad daylight. St. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of this night that was as bright as day, and Constantine the Great added unprecedented splendour to its brilliancy by a profusion of lamps and enormous torches, so that not only basilicas, but private houses, streets, and public squares were resplendent with the light that was symbolic of the Risen Christ.
That, of course, cannot be recaptured today, but the service I held would start in a darkened church (no lights, no candles) and while I never lit a brazier outside (especially in Chicago, where it is still quite cold at Easter), I would start with a reading from the Gospel, always one version of the burial story, then light a paschal candle and bring it in while stopping three times to proclaim: "Christ our light!" (One year I actually sang, a cappella, "Were you There?" before lighting the candle. To tell you what church politics can be like, my wife overheard the choir director muttering about this "solo" in the bulletin, wondering why she didn't know about it. She didn't know because until the last minute, I wasn't sure I'd have the courage to do it!)

I would proceed to the chancel with the candle, and lead the congregation in prayers (this was the UCC, you understand, not The Episcopal Church; I had wide leeway there to craft worship as I saw fit) for the "Service of Light." That ended with the reading of the Resurrection story and then an Easter Hymn, during which song the lights were turned on, candles were brought out, flowers (lilies, of course) were produced and placed, and the altar cloths and vestments were placed (I came in in my black robe, no stole or a black stole, left and returned with a white stole); in short, the splendor of Easter morning was, finally, restored. We then proceeded to a service of the Word, a service of Water (renewing baptismal vows, an echo of the baptism of catechumenates from centuries past. Sadly, I never had the nerve to use wet branches to sprinkle the people in the pews in all their Easter finery), and then a Service of Bread and Wine. It took awhile, but hey, it was Easter!

The Service of the Word is the part I found most important to Lent, because it was a recapitulation of the salvation story found in the scriptures. You can see it here, in the listing of scriptures: Creation, the Flood, Abraham and Isaac on Moriah, the crossing of the Red Sea, the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. I could never use all of those stories, but I tried to use as much of it as I could (and you can see how the original could go on all night). It was the one time in the church year that, in the worship space with the church gathered, all of that story was told. Lent is the one time in the church year we actually contemplate that story; or, at least, when we should.

Lent is not a time for "giving up" something, so much as it is a time for shrivening. "Shrove Tuesday" is the old word for the day before Ash Wednesday: it meant the day one cleaned out the larder of fat and eggs and other things that, frankly, were probably going bad, or about to, by that time. Living directly off the land there are times when the land needs to rest and cannot offer anything new, and we have to live off what we have saved, and wait patiently for the land to produce again. "Give us this day our daily bread" was less a request for abundance than it was for assurance that the needs of the day would be met by evening, which would seal up all in rest. The manna provided to the Israelites in the desert was "bread from heaven," but it was good only for the day, and there was only enough for each person to have that day, and not enough to store for later. So Lent came at a time when stores were drawn down after winter, and nothing was available to build them up until spring, which made fasting a very natural part of relying on God. In a sense, fasting at Lent has long been an anachronism meant to remind us that we are not, in the final analysis, the masters of the universe we always imagine ourselves to be. We are not entirely in charge, and we are not entirely responsible. That, too, is a lesson of Lent.

But the lesson here is the time set aside for reflection on the whole story of God presented in the Scriptures. Lent focusses on the salvation story, which is appropriate enough for the season leading to Easter, the raison d'etre for the Church. There is more to it, too, than just the stories that fit in the Easter Vigil service. Allow me, then, from time to time, to give you a listing of scriptures and stories for your readings, if you choose to use them as such. I will try to be diligent and keep up with this as it deserves. Maybe it will serve both of us to do this.

May it be so.

Begin, then, today, with Esther, and add to it, if you are so inclined, Psalm 71, and Psalm 136.

For tomorrow, look at Genesis 18:20-32, and Matthew 5:21-25(or as much of Genesis 18 and Matthew 5 as you like). For Saturday: 1 Kings 17:13-16; Luke 14:16-23; Matthew 13:43-49; and Psalm 44. Just suggestions. Somewhere to begin.

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