Monday, April 27, 2015

The Problem of Worship, Revisited; Thoughts Shared at St Hilda's House

[Last week I met with the interns at St Hilda’s House and we talked about worship, starting with some thoughts from the first chapter of my book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014). Here are some of the ideas we shared. This is cross-posted at their blog here.]

“Worship” in English-language Bibles refers to something quite different from the activities or ideas for which contemporary Christians use that word. Most of the time in the New Testament it is used to translate Greek words referring not to prayer, or singing, or community rituals, but to literal acts of physical obedience and submission - like prostrating oneself on the ground. “Worship” is not what goes on in temples or synagogues, or even in homes where Christians meet, but happens wherever social relations of dependence and obedience are expressed. It has more to do with politics and ethics than with what we would call worship, although it has a necessary physical and embodied aspect. It doesn’t mean religious practice, and it doesn’t mean faith either - but both could be part of it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem - words do shift in meaning. The problem is that we may tend to ignore the shift, and just project our experience onto theirs as we read, or vice-versa. We tend to think, I suspect, that “worship” in our sense is an obvious thing, that connects us with the scriptures and the early Church; in fact our concept doesn’t exist in the ancient world.

That sounds rather startling, and someone might quickly object that there are things about “worship” in our modern sense that do connect us with the scriptures and the early followers of Jesus. I agree; and I can see two ways we could trace those continuities.

The first is to leave the word “worship” alone for a moment, but to acknowledge that we have a set of communal practices of prayer and ritual that do stem from the NT roots of the Church: daily prayer, Eucharist and baptism are all characteristic of the Christian movement, and always have been. These are a distinctive set of actions, a habitus, that along with dispositions of love and justice to the community and to the world makes the Church what it is, just as surely as the confession that Jesus is Lord, i.e., that he is the one worthy of obedient service, of worship. But “worship” of Jesus, while it includes these characteristic actions of communal obedience, is not actually more about them than it is about actions in other parts of life.

The other way we could work is to grasp the “worship” language, instead of avoiding it, and to think about Christian life (including its communal and liturgical aspects) as a pattern of obedience and service. This leads us again to baptism, eucharist, and prayer; not because they are Christian versions of some wider phenomenon called “worship” (i.e., not in the modern sense) but because they are our concrete and distinctive forms of obedience to Jesus (think “pray thus” [Matt 6:9]; “do this in memory of me”; “go, make disciples…baptising them…”).

Staying with this second approach, what I have just provided is a fairly protestant version of a rationale for the Christian sacraments, in keeping with the Calvinist tendency to call them “ordinances”. We could however come to these actions with language and concepts slightly less rooted in the giving and receiving of orders, but from notions of dependence and love, which are equally valid or arguably far better ways of characterizing the Christian relationship with the God of Jesus Christ who no longer calls us servants but friends. Thinking in these terms, we can reflect on the sacraments not only as ordinances but as gifts, the embodied enactment of our grafting in to the beloved community.

This still leaves the faintly puzzling language and concept of “worship” today. As I have already implied, we have this language not because it is an inconsequential name for corporate religious ritual, but as a specific product or vestige of Christian notions of obedience and service as the heart of communal sacramental action. This is also why we still have events called “services,” by the way, although we have mostly forgotten the connection, and the now-common phrase “worship service” is surely a feeble attempt to make two meaningless words stronger by combination.

The accidental products of this shift or loss are profound, and often tragic. If we start with the notion that “worship” describes whatever is customary or entertaining or even edifying to do for an hour on Sunday, we certainly miss the point. The idea, for instance, that music (or a particular genre thereof) is the essence of corporate worship is curious at best. Of course music, like buildings and food, can be put in service of God (not least in conjunction with Eucharist and prayer), but not because music is inherently more about worship than are other types of activity.

There are however two good places from which to start and which might lead us to diverse, engaging and challenging liturgy: first and unavoidable is the characteristic Christian sacramental habitus; the onus is on anyone who professes faith to say why this is not the center of communal gatherings. Second, and quite differently but leading to the same goal, there is the recognition that while all life is service, community is the focus of presenting our whole selves to God in love and obedience; the communal gathering then serves to build up, equip, re-inforce, express, etc., the reality of the Church. This however does not make it “worship."

I was recently at a Church which ended its liturgy with the words “Our worship has ended, let our service begin.” It’s a worthy thought, even if a cheesy line, but it actually underlines the problem of the language and the practices more than solving it. The fact that this is supposed to be a sort of pun or play on words reveals the tragic loss of significance of “worship” (and of “service” too). In fact you could better reverse the terms and make the point intended, if as I have been suggesting “worship” is not the Sunday morning part of Christian life more than the rest. Ideally we should understand that worship is not liturgy, it is life; which does not make liturgy less important, but clears the way to ask what it is for, and what then we must do to engage in it well and faithfully.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Eating our Words

[Originally preached at Trinity College Chapel, 24th April 2005; published in memory of Homaro Cantu, d. 14th April 2015]

The sushi made by Mr Homaro Cantu, the executive chef at Moto restaurant in Chicago, looks a lot like that served at other upscale restaurants, appearing on the plate as round coloured disks; they also, by all accounts, taste deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer. Cantu prints images of sushi rolls on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

The Revelation to John reminds us that eating words and images is not an altogether new idea:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Rev 10:9–10)
In using this image around the year 100 of our era, the author of the Revelation was actually reviving a traditional recipe going back further centuries to the prophet Ezekiel, who had a similar vision wherein he was instructed to eat a scroll as a prelude to taking its message to Israel (Ezek 3:2). Ezekiel’s scroll however was and remained sweet, and not bitter. This later scroll in Revelation contains a paradox; it is sweet because true, but bitter to the stomach, since the experience of the one who knows the truth will often not be uniformly pleasant.

If Chef Cantu with his Inkjet sushi is one postmodern inheritor of that tradition of eating words, another and more self-conscious one is Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose hinges on the quest to uncover another ancient scroll—the lost book II of Aristotle’s Poetics, the section on comedy. Eco clearly has our Revelation passage in mind when, in the climactic scene, the evil Brother Jorge who has hidden this dangerous treatise lest it encourage the dire sin of laughter, eats it and dies in a final act of suicidal defiance, knowing that its humorous content has actually been written with a poisonous ink; the sweet words turn bitter in the stomach.

What Eco and his biblical predecessors are all playing with is the power and paradox of making words into flesh. Each of the eating protagonists seeks to make themselves one with the text: the evil Jorge to destroy both, and the seers Ezekiel and John to give both life.

Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 collect for the Second Sunday of Advent from the first Book of Common Prayer works with the same idea:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
But the story does not always seem like comfort food, as the seer John knew. Those of us who are concerned with texts—not so much literally eating them, I say to mollify any anxious librarians lurking among us, as studying them and seeking to internalise them—can hear in the idea of eating the text—prophecy, treatise or menu as it may be—the problem and the promise of how words and stories and images impact on us, or not. It is not enough merely to ‘learn’, if learning means that we compartmentalise what we learn into a purely theoretical knowledge. The metaphor of eating words expresses this well; truly to learn is to make what we learn a part of ourselves, not just the object of the mind’s activity but part of the actual means by which we will go on learning. Put thus, wisdom is not just about words and minds; it is about bodies and actions. Truly to learn, truly to be wise, is to make knowledge human, to make it flesh. What others have known with their hearts and hands, as well as minds, must become real in our own lives if we are to be wise.

Today is Passover; this evening, Jewish households outside of Israel celebrate the second of two Seders, the festive meal of the Passover, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. The Seder is a sort of eaten story too. One of its principles, expressed in the Haggadah or narrative order of service, is that participants should not simply remember historical events that took place in their ancestors’ times, but understand that they too, as they eat and drink, were brought out of Egypt.

In Christian tradition this motif of making words flesh has its fulfilment in the incarnation. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus not merely as a divine being who has ‘beamed down’ on an ‘away mission’ to impart propositions to earth-dwellers, but as the ultimate personification, the making human, of God’s Word and wisdom.

In this Easter season for Christians, we affirm that something similar to the logic of the eaten wisdom of Passover can and must take place. Hearing the story again, we are invited not only to examine its propositions but also to consume it, to make it our own. In this last and longest chapter of the resurrection narrative, in the absence of the risen body of the Word once made flesh, we who feed on his story, his wisdom, and make it real in our own flesh, may thereby become that body in the world.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Washing Feet: Maundy Thursday

Two years ago Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he performed the Holy Thursday ceremony of footwashing, not at St Peter’s Basilica but at the Chapel of the Casal del Marmo juvenile prison outside Rome. More striking still for some was that two of the twelve young inmates whose feet he washed were women. Last year the Pope played it relatively safe by comparison, washing the feet of aged and disabled people at the Don Gnocchi residential center. The internet reveals, thanks to time differences, that today he washed the feet of six male inmates of the Rebibbio prison and six women from a nearby detention center, as well as the infant child of one of these latter.

The Pope had courted controversy in these cases, because the tradition which he was enacting and which we will follow this evening in our own way, had in recent memory usually been performed in St Peter’s Basilica, with the participation of twelve well-scrubbed choirboys, seminarians – although sometimes seminarians are admittedly likened by themselves or others to inmates! - or priests. Over time, Roman Catholic papal theology had presented the event more and more as a sort of celebration of the institution of the priesthood itself. Yet this is not where the roots of the ceremony actually lie.

The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in John 13 is powerful, but has often left Christians scrambling to make sense of it and the attendant command: "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

But do what exactly? Powerful as it may be, the earliest Christians seem not to have performed a rite quite like this one with footwashing acted out communally and symbolically in Church. What we do know, however, is that members of the Church community - and perhaps Christian women in particular - went not into Church but out of it, to the housebound and to prisoners, to wash their feet. They went not with crosses or choirs, but more or less privately, although certainly with reverence and a sense of evangelical and even I dare say sacramental seriousness.

The First Letter to Timothy hints at footwashing as related to social outreach in its job description for  what we could call the oldest religious order, the community of widows:

"Let a widow be put on the list” the author of the Letter says," if she …has shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way."

Just a little later, around 200, the African writer Tertullian laments the fate of a hypothetical Christian woman mismatched with an unbeliever; what pagan husband, he imagines, would "put up with her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the community to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints’ feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup…"

Again we sense the connection between foot washing and concrete human need, and with courageous service - but with controversy too, in this case. It is, I think, acts of service like these to which Jesus is referring in the Gospel of John, rather than to any imagined ceremonial foot washing.

Consider also that the Gospel of John also knows of a woman’s controversial footwashing, told only a few verses before this: "Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3). You will recall that this story provokes Judas’ opposition, ostensibly in connection with charitable purposes for which the cost of the perfume could have been deployed; but Jesus here defends Mary’s own charitable action towards him. So too in tonight’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to overcome their scruples against either offering or receiving the washing of feet, not as a communal performance but as the prosaic reality of getting some feet clean, and some hands dirty.

This ancient ritual and practical action, not a liturgy in our formal sense but arguably sacramental nonetheless, did not survive quite in this form but took on various more symbolic guises through the middle ages, often still associated with charity; kings and bishops were known to offer such service to the poor on given occasions for instance. And despite its ancient roots, footwashing did not find a place in the public eucharistic liturgy of this day until the 1950s. When it did, it soon fell victim in some quarters - including the thoughts of some of Francis’ predecessors in the chair of Peter - to the idea that it figured the ministerial priesthood first, rather than the call of all Christians to humble service.

But you caught the resonance between ancient footwashing and the recent papal examples, I hope. I doubt that Francis was thinking of ancient evidence for footwashing when choosing his partners and venues these recent years, but the man has good instincts on this front at least. Going out to wash, and keeping company with women and prisoners in doing so, puts him in far better company from the point of view of apostolic tradition than are his modern critics.

But what of this evening and our own ceremonial washing? We wash feet here just as we break bread; no, the mandatum or footwashing ceremony does not have the status for us that the sacrament of the Eucharist does, but there is a connection - apparently one that John’s Gospel makes by giving us this story in the place where we might expect the institution of the Eucharist.

Augustine of Hippo spoke of the Eucharist in these terms, which we can apply to washing as well as to eating and drinking: "these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” When we grasp and wash feet here symbolically, we are committing ourselves to loving service of humanity when we go out from here, and the truth of actions performed by hands and feet tonight will be judged by the ways we walk and work outside; so too, the Eucharist itself demands a fulfillment in our lives that shows it to be truly sacrament, effective sign.

As we wash and are washed, we signal our willingness to serve and be served, which in turn tells us what the reality of the Eucharist effects in us; Augustine went on to say to his congregants, seeing the Eucharist, “be what you see, receive what you are.” Washing and eating alike tonight, we bear witness to our faith in the one who has served us in both; and we hope, feasting and serving alike, to become who we are.

[Maundy Thursday Sermon from St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City]