Archive for April 11th, 2008

The Problem with History

April 11, 2008

One of the first times I noticed a problem with history, as generally conceived, occurred during an Orthodox Liturgy (of all places). I been used to serving in an Anglican context (largely modernized liturgy) where the nature of a service is what I describe as “linear.” First one thing happened, then another, almost never two things at once. The bulletin was therefore very useful, for, just as it indicated, first one thing and then another happened.

The first liturgy I participated in as an Othodox Christian, that is with a liturgical role other than as a layman, was the service in which I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate. Indeed, in the course of that service, I was tonsured a reader, a taper-bearer, ordained as a subdeacon, and later as a Deacon. I had a service book in my hand, but I quickly began to notice that the book was only marginally helpful for someone trained in a linear fashion. For an Orthodox liturgy is highly non-linear. Many things happen at once. They are all written in the book, but while you’re looking at what someone else is supposed to be doing or saying, you yourself may very well be required to do something else and say yet another thing. At some points, it will seem like the entire liturgy is like juggling six or seven things. That none of them are dropped is nothing short of amazing. I would like to say that nothing was dropped during that service of my ordination – but that would not be the truth. Newly ordained as I was, I lost my place, almost hopelessly, and was rescued by a very kind Proto-deacon.

It is hard to describe this to someone else unless they are used to team sports, or playing in an orchestra, or have participated in many of the non-linear events available to us. I like jazz (or at least certain forms of it) and have had the pleasure of occasionally playing some with others in a small combo (this is many years ago). The sheer joy when a band is playing and the score, in any strict sense, has been left behind. Everyone is improvising, and yet everything works. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve had the experience. Jazz is very non-linear.

For that matter, the whole universe seems pretty non-linear. At any given moment a billion, billion things are happening (I know the number is bigger but that’s as high as I can count) and more, some of them so mysterious we have no names for them.

This becomes the problem of history – at least for me. It is often told in a linear fashion (“discuss the three main causes of the Civil War,” the history test asked). But such an accounting never really does justice to the truth of any event. Every telling, if it is told truly, has a “multivalent” character – it means more than it says because nothing is every simply linear.

This is true of Scripture as well, I think. A linear (purely literal) reading is too thin, not nearly rich enough to convey the fullness of truth. Thus Scripture rightly has a liturgical context (especially). The story of Jona and the Whale, read on Holy Saturday (as it is in the Orthodox Church) takes on a completely different meaning because it is read in that context. Thus Scripture is never just Scripture (a book to be read), but is a reading to be heard in the context of the worshipping community and in that context far more of its fullness is revealed.

Of far less import is the question of what an author may have meant than “when is the Scripture read in the Church?” “What season?” “What feast?” What else is read and where else might it be read? Are verses of this Scripture also brought into other places of the Liturgy? When and why?

And so go the questions that begin to realize that Scripture is not able to be read in a merely linear fashion, for the “linear” world is purely the product of imagination – a rational construct and not a description of reality.

A page of Scripture may consist of several thousand words. But the words are several thousand feet deep (at least and some have no bottom at all). Thus reading and interpreting are very difficult things indeed – much like knowing the Living God.

Drawing Near to Pascha

April 11, 2008

I can feel the pace of Lent quickening (it begins to reveal itself in my schedule). I also feel the march of time towards the Day of all Days, the Pascha of our Lord. In my experience, Lent brings not only the discipline of the fast and additional services, but seems to carry with it as well a series of events in my life and in the parish. Rough edges appear. Crises manifest themselves. There are days when getting out of bed is difficult or hearing a phone ring.

But all of these “trials” are occasions for yet more prayer and shout aloud to us: “My Soul, My Soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The End is drawing near.” (The Kontakion from the Great Canon)

I remember that the witness of Scripture, when it speaks of the Last Days, speak of days of great difficulty and tribulation. As Christ Himself draws near, it’s as if “all hell breaks loose.” I think this is not only so at the End of all time, but at every drawing near of Christ. He is the true Judge of the universe, and to draw close to His presence is to invite judgment into our lives. Things that can be shaken are shaken. Things that need His light begin to reveal themselves as nothing more than darkness. And so we draw near.

But my memory of Pascha, which is itself a liturgical experience of the Last Judgment, is also a memory of the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Oration, that bids all to come – even those who have been heedless. It is a simple, straight-forward presentation of the good news of Christ. And in my joy I see as well just how truly heedless I have been and am overwhelmed that such goodness should still greet me come that great day.

So I offer encouragement to my brothers and sisters. If your Lent is like the ones I know and many others, be patient. The End is drawing near and even your heedlessness will be forgiven.