Apr. 22nd, 2015

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(This is something else I wrote just before Easter, but it was wrong to post then. I'm not totally sure it is right now, but anyway, here goes....)

Orthodoxy gets many things right, but one thing it gets wrong, IMHO, is its liturgical handling of the Friday and Saturday before Easter. That is in monasteries and cathedral churches (which includes ours), which do the full range of services 'out of the book'.

Instead of stopping everything the commemoration of Christ’s death and burial early on Friday afternoon and re-assembling some time on Saturday night for the Resurrection Service, Orthodoxy adds in an additional two services. On the Friday evening there is a long meditation/lament on Christ’s death, wound round the Mattins service (yes, at liturgically dense times of year like Holy Week you end up saying Mattins is in the evening and Vespers in the morning!) followed by a burial procession round the church. On the Saturday morning there is a sort of Easter-in-advance service, consisting of Vespers with is a long slew of Old Testament readings (about an hour and a half if you do the full lot, including the entire book of Jonah) which then expands into a liturgy (communion service) with the first Easter Gospel from St Matthew already read. The logic is, I guess, ‘we know what the disciples did not know, that Christ is already risen’.

I suppose the reason for these two services is that in monasteries you have to do something with the monks for the 30 hours interval, the more so as the strict rule is for total fasting on Friday and minimal food on Saturday. But the result is that the full impact of Christ’s death is lost: that vital period of ‘nada’ which the deep psyche needs to handle Christ’s death goes to the wind.

Yes, the Saturday service has some useful side-benefits: it provides an Easter of sorts for people who are too old or infirm or have kids who cannot handle the midnight services, or who cannot afford a long taxi ride home – the Orthodox have not Sunday daytime Easter liturgy like Catholics or Anglicans: everyone is too exhausted after a midnight service lasting till 2 and then eating and drinking till the early hours. It also enables us to do a service for outlying parishes where we serve once a month (for me a 60 km drive down the motorway to Namur) and cannot do the Easter night. It also provides an Easter for the altar party, who at the midnight service are on liturgical automatic pilot, battling through the hordes who come this one time in the year, clutching baskets of Easter cake and painted eggs and (if you have a Polish parishioners, large hams) to have blessed.

But the Friday evening service, no. I went only because as the second cathedral deacon my absence would be too obvious, and I needed to be decent to the first deacon, who has taken the brunt of the Lent services, especially the uninspiring weekday ones which I missed (OK’s he has a free apartment and a small salary, and I don’t, but even so). The lament which takes up most of the evening, in the form of the 176 verses of Psalm 118/119 with a response to each verse, is far from inspiring, even if you understand the Slavonic. I image a Greek monk sometime in the fifth of sixth century writing it to order and running out of imagination. For most people it boils down to standing for an hour in a poorly understood noise, broken by occasional censings. The footwork is complex, and you can easily get it wrong, and if the service is led by an ecclesiastic for whom the key to salvation, and perhaps the whole purpose of his ecclesiastic existence, seems to be to get liturgy right, it is a tense and unhappy exercise.  When after two and a half hours, he finally went out of the sanctuary to bless the people, the other deacon and I looked at each other across the sanctuary, crossed ourselves, and gave each other that ‘Thank God it’s over’ half-smile which every cathedral deacon knows.

Whether God was looking or listening, I don’t know. I think he was busy with other things, like a preaching trip to the lost souls in hell. I dreamed the night after that the curtain that closes off the sanctuary from the nave was torn in two, but no, in the morning, it was still intact. Pity, perhaps….


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