I have to confess that I don’t appreciate the word “ritual.” But I love the rite. Ritual – that’s often nothing more than the understandable attempt to bring structure again into an unraveling world. Usually, however, one perceives the contrived nature of it. “Introduce some new rituals” recommends the website “gofeminin” in the case of lovesickness “for which time was always lacking in the past. On Sundays go have brunch with your girlfriends or cook dinner together one evening.”
A yearning for stable forms is certainly present, but the answers that are offered are banal. Their meaning doesn’t extend beyond normal leisure planning with this one difference: that one thinks that by practicing them regularly one can stabilize oneself spiritually. And one thing more: a rite is more than a mere intellectual operation; the body participates too. One can gather from the “Theological Encyclopedia” that Christian modernizers also have developed “new rituals.” At the side of the wedding ceremony now stand – please note, religious – “divorce rituals.” Even the entry into menopause can be accompanies by a ritual of the Church. On the protestant side there has to be a kind of neurotic rite–envy or solemnity complex vis-a-vis Catholics and Orthodox. Otherwise these experiments are unexplainable.
And yet there could be things that are more beautiful and a more serious and reverent as well. To kneel down is just such a simple gesture – one in which everything is meaningful. It is traditional and in the one or the other variation distributed all over the world. Humility is the proper attitude towards God. The epistle of Paul to the Philippians views kneeling as the spiritual version of the profession of faith. ”So that before the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in heaven, on earth and under the earth.” I know an old man whom I admire every Sunday when I see him kneeling with his back ramrod straight. This gesture in its simplicity and universality, however, doesn’t appear to be enough for many people.
I go to another Protestant website. It is called “Faith ABC” and run by the Lutheran Church – thus, it is somewhat official. But between “cloisters” and “collect” I can’t find the word “Kneel” ( Translator: all 3 words begin with “k” in German). A second attempt with the word “genuflection” also leads nowhere. Only the extremely traditionalist “Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church”, a kind of Pius X Society of Protestantism, deliberately fosters kneeling. Everything that came of the Reformation at Geneva, from Calvin, however, put an end to genuflection.
Humility, faith and obedience go together. The pride of autonomy doesn’t belong here. And no rite can bring blessings that can’t be performed on bended knee.
The Easter Alleluia
The alleluia acclamation contains the praise of God as imperative: “Praise the Lord!” it is woven frequently into the psalms. In the New Testament, strangely enough, one finds the alleluia only a single time. In the 19th chapter of Revelation John depicts a vision: “Afterwards I heard something like the mighty voice of a great host in heaven: Alleluia! Salvation and glory and the power are with our God!”
Here is celebrated and praised the destruction of the city of Babylon, the “great Harlot” who has now been “judged.” Then, as with the “roaring of many waters” and the “rolling of mighty thunder” John hears the call once more: “Alleluia! For the Lord, our God, the Ruler of the universe, has become King.” Depicted here is the dramatic image of a spiritual war and victory.
While in American and especially Pentecostal Protestantism the joyful acclamation of “Halleluiah” is always present and left to the spontaneity of the congregation, in the Catholic Church it has a very specific place and is intoned as sparingly as in the New Testament. In Eastertide, which of course does not end with Easter Sunday, the alleluia has an importance unlike any other time in the Church year. The resurrection of Christ is the ultimate victory. Here joy has its proper place and necessity. Now in Eastertide, everything is interwoven with the ever recurring “alleluia”.
But the formulaic divine praise is not the only element of the divine service that has its exemplar as above. The threefold “Sanctus”, another part of the liturgy, derives from a vision of the prophet Isaiah. He sees the Lord “sitting on a lofty and exalted throne, his train fills the sanctuary.” Around Him stand the Seraphim, high angels, who ever and always call to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the entire earth is filled with his glory.”
And from this one can start to derive a philosophy of the liturgy. It is, in essential parts, absolutely not the work of man but an imitation of a heavenly chant, and, in addition, the imitation of a heavenly event. A liturgy is “good” to the extent that it is less “made,” to the extent that it sees as its mission to make understandable to man this origin from above. Creativity and construction may be always desirable – here they would be misplaced.
One could almost say that this philosophy of the liturgy resembles in many aspects ancient paganism. As the Chinese emperor imitated the course of heaven by his strictly regulated ritual gait and thus renewed the harmony of heaven and earth, so should the liturgy comport itself – without an emperor, but with another King.
What does it mean to love Jesus?
I have read Karl Rahner’s short essay “What does it mean to love Jesus?” for the second time after twenty five years. Once again in every line I have the impression that here speaks an eminent thinker in theology. And yet the book remains for me as strange as it did then. Is it the fault of the language, which in ever renewed cascades talks of the “unconditional” and the “radical,” as does existentialism? Have we been washed so thoroughly in the waters of postmodern irony that we have lost our appreciation for this kind of grandiloquent discourse, or is something else involved?
Rahner relates a conversation with a Protestant theologian. “Then I said to him: Yes, you see, in reality one only has something to do with Jesus if one falls around His neck and recognizes in the depths of one’s own existence that something like this is possible also today.” I have here the feeling that I can’t follow this. It smacks of ranting, heated indiscretion – pious, if you like, but also very German. The gestures of closeness, of which the New Testament speaks, appear to be rather more unobtrusive and delicate.
In the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to John a scene from the last supper is handed down. Immediately preceding is the emotional turmoil of Jesus in the face of the impending treason. “One of his disciples lay at the table at the side of Jesus; it was he whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter gestured to him to ask whom Jesus meant. He leaned back on the breast of Jesus and asked Him: Lord, who is it?” Art has often depicted this moment; now and then with the addition that John – for it was he “that Jesus loved” rests his hand on the hand of the Lord.
Now, in principle that doesn’t change anything regarding the appropriateness of the question set forth in the title of Rahner’s essay. The resurrected Christ Himself asks it of Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others? He answered Him: yes, Lord, you know that I love you. He said to him: Feed my sheep!” He repeats the question two more times. Peter answers as well as he can, and both times he received the mission: “Feed my sheep!” What is demanded is not an expressive answer in a dramatic gesture but faithfulness in the fulfillment of an apostolic office.
One could say that the New Testament answers Rahner’s question with a slight shift to the institutional, in which the personal has to prove itself. The command to love Jesus is possibly not meant as a summons to immediate, direct revelation. For one loves Jesus, and orients one’s life to Him first, in prayer, and then in the reception of the sacraments. But Rahner wanted the starting point for answering his question to be not so much in the organized Church but in the individual man. Therefore for him theology finally became humanized – faith became “trust” and the death on the Cross “solidarity”.
The Sign of the Antichrist
In the last book of the bible we encounter again old acquaintances who, however, have grown larger. The snake of the first book of the Bible has become a dragon. The twelve tribes of the chosen people have been transformed into the 12 times 12 times one thousand (or 144, 000) saved. And while earlier, in the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah, there arose only counter-preachers and false prophets, we now meet, after the appearance of the Messiah, his negative as well: the Antichrist. He is as similar to Jesus as a parody is to the original. Christ appeared in the image of the lamb, the Antichrist as the beast which rises from the sea. And he can also show a miraculous cure – of himself.
The Revelation of John is a difficult book. It can lead to false applications to the present age of the images of the end of the world. This was Luther’s attitude. He knew exactly what he was talking about in the sectarian and revolutionary epoch of the reformation, when “fanatics and mobs” found particular inspiration in this book.
There are, however, serious reflections concerning the apocalyptic signs. The Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev wrote more than a hundred years ago his “ Short Tale of the Antichrist.” We stop short, however, right at the word “serious.” For Soloviev’s work, a negative utopia of our twenty-first century which can be easily compared to Orwell’s “1984,” is also just as witty and wise as one would expect from an author schooled in Gogol and the literary grotesque.
The Antichrist appears as the inspired benefactor of mankind. He has written a trailblazing work that will solve all problems: “The Open Way to Peace and Prosperity for the World.” The United States of Europe has been set up for a long time now and even a secular-progressive world empire has arisen. Now – it is in the year 2077 – the emperor and Antichrist summons a council in Jerusalem. He promises to each religion what it most desires. Except for one thing: the heart of the matter.
Orthodoxy receives a great “World Museum of Christian Archeology “in Constantinople for its icons and liturgical rites. He promises to the Protestants, who have arrived with a delegation of prominent scholars from the University of Tübingen, a “World Institute for the Free Investigation of the Scriptures.” After all, the theology department of Tübingen had just awarded him an honorary doctorate. Finally, the Antichrist wants to tempt the Catholics with the principle of authority, which he himself naturally incorporates. A universal “civil religion,” totally of his own making and backed up by electronic miracles, shall become the new faith.
Pope Benedict XVI in his most recent book “Jesus of Nazareth” has strongly stressed this deeply serious joke of Soloviev. A splendidly staged, but gutted religion: is this the sign of the Antichrist?
The Divine Service and the Community
The interior history told by the Old Testament is very simple despite all the colorful and often, in the details, confusing twists and turns. The idea of God becomes clearer in successive stages against continuous resistance and relapses. The divine service takes shape and finally the house of God is built. Even in the time of the Judges we are still dealing with the Ark of the Covenant which recalls the forty years in the desert and the time of the tents.
David, as King, first made Jerusalem to the center of the cult, and it was only his son Solomon who had the temple built. This is the culmination of the Old Testament – all the rest is decline, Babylonian captivity and then the restoration of the temple by Ezra. The Maccabees defend the temple one last time against desecration by foreign powers and purify it. The visions and images of the prophets also proclaim only one thing: the rebuilt house of God on Mount Zion and the return of the house of David.
The divine worship is fixed in the smallest details, beginning with the garments of the priests (which material may be used for them and which not?) and the diadems which crown them. How the curtain before the Ark of the Covenant should appear and what colors it should have. How the candelabra and the brazen basin should be formed. How the sacrifices are celebrated and how the priests are consecrated. In the construction of the temple by Solomon the form, dimensions and precious metals are also precisely specified. Nothing is optional; rather, each aspect is carefully thought out.
Whoever makes the effort to read these parts of the Old Testament dealing with worship and house of God – which may at first seem superficial- cannot escape a feeling of admiration. He overviews a good thousand year period in which an understanding of worship first takes shape and then is defended against all resistance.
After the canon of the Scriptures had been concluded, Jesus appears, the fulfillment of all that has been prophesied. The worship of God is once again dealt with in the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles. Here one encounters the word “Sacred Tradition” which is to be preserved.
One can now form a judgment of the distance that separates us from the Old and the New Testaments. Recently we saw on the concrete walls of a church in Frankfurt paper images of the Passion made mostly by children. A sign encourages one to bring in home-baked goods which, after being blessed, can serve as hosts. The community wants to have itself and its creativity appreciated; the priest should look at them. It has long ceased to be a question of technical liturgical issues. We are encountering another philosophy. It is the humanistic democracy which will probably emerge as the victor from the liturgical wars.
Worship and Nature
Religious worship in the ancient world not only organized itself by instituting a calendar and prayers but also by nature – it distinguished the realms of the “clean” and “unclean.” Yet this was not intended to be a matter of hygiene in the contemporary sense.
The 21 chapter of Leviticus, the third book of Moses, sets forth the strict rules that the Lord promulgated for the priesthood. “If one of your descendants in future generations has a bodily defect he may not approach to offer the sacrifice to his God. Then no one may approach who has a bodily defect, no one who is blind or lame or mutilated; no one who has a limb too long; no one who has a broken arm or leg; no one who is hunch backed or consumptive; no one who has white spots in his eye or who suffers from scabies, scurvy or hernia.”
Admittedly that is a very extreme quotation. It indicates, however, that man originally started from the idea of an interconnected cosmos, in which the Creator could make demands upon the nature of creatures. Now if there is a supportable concept of the “modern,” it would state the exact opposite. We can summarize its position as follows: between nature and worship the greatest possible distance should be established; the two spheres should not touch at any point and no element of one should be used as an argument to substantiate the other. In other words, the book of Leviticus has become foreign to us not only in its details but also in its claim to issue rules, based on the divine cult, which intrude into nature.
Therefore all the questions and topics that critics advance against the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – the ordination of women, the blessing of homosexual couples, the admission of homosexual priests – at the end of the day relate back to the one question whether theology has any kind of jurisdiction in the natural sphere, whether criteria for admission and exclusion can be obtained from nature itself. Viewed philosophically, opinions part company here.
Jürgen Habermas calls this development the “reduction of the sacred to speech” and assesses it very positively as the very beginning of modernization and rationalization. In the place of ritual sanctity stepped the “liberation of communicative action from sacrally protected normative contexts.” “The exorcising power of the sacred becomes the unitive power of claims to validity that are subject to criticism.”
If one really wants to discuss the current issues that are rocking the Church, he must start almost from the very beginning, especially with philosophy. He has to make at least conceivable that ritual can make demands on nature
Incense and Myrrh
Incense is not a question of faith, it has probably never been the object of dogma. On the other hand it is a part of religion, yes, of almost all religions – thus of the principle of religion, just like candles. Not only the Church, but also Shintoists in Japan, Brahmans in India and Buddhists all over Asia use incense. The “scent of sanctity” is evidently indispensable in this matter.
The Old Testament already provided detailed rules for the service of incensation even during the wandering in the desert, even before the construction of the temple. The book of Exodus describes the splendid altar of incense, still portable in the time of the tents and of the forty years’ wandering. It was made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. “For this purpose he prepared the sacred oil and the pure fragrant incense as prepared by the apothecaries.” When the Magi bring gold frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Child they were no doubt thinking of anointing and altar.
But why is incense used? If we turn to a treatise of Plutarch to get information from an ancient author who himself was a priest of the mysteries, we experience an initial surprise. For precisely mysteriousness is absent here. Plutarch is a reasonable man, enlightened by the standards of his time. He resolves the entire Egyptian system of rites according to natural philosophy. He explains the daily incensations by noting that the “Egyptian priests always place the greatest value on measures that promote health.”
Air, grown stale through breathing – “ at once gloomy and heavy” – is purified and ventilated by incensation with resin. The “pneuma” – the soul – which inhabits the body is aroused from its weariness. Towards noon the priests then disperse the humidity, the “mucky,” with myrrh. But as so often with reasonable speech, that which is intended to be explained is not. Rather, reasonable explanations are superimposed after the fact.
The biblical explanation is otherwise. Incense and prayer are in an intimate relationship, they are, so to say, the same thing projected on different screens. “May my prayer arise before Thee like incense” says psalm 141. The missal adds an echo to this: “May my prayer, O Lord, be directed like incense before Thy countenance.” John in Revelations relates a vision which clarifies the interrelationship and even the identity of each element: “each bore a harp and a golden bowl full of incense; these are the prayers of the saints.”
In opposition to such a service, comprehensible by the senses, there always arises the endeavor to radically clear out the stage of the sacred. Whoever wants that should know that he is separating himself not just from an arbitrary custom specific to one confession but in this case from a universal religious action.
The Beauty of Thy House
You are visiting the Frankfurt center of an American-style Protestant sect. The assembly hall would remind you of the local community center if a great black cross hadn’t been set up in front above the stage. It is set off somewhat from the wall and behind it shimmers blue neon light. An altar can’t be seen.
This place thus really reminds the visitor of the democratic origin of many small protestant churches. What is striking is the meteoric growth of these religions of American origin since globalization has picked up speed. Simplicity and immediacy of the teachings, and an undemanding theology are the secrets of success
But even before you even begin to address the theology of the group, the hall itself stops you. The sacred has to express itself differently, so you think, and neon, the hard and cold light of the New Objectivity, is out of place. It doesn’t correspond at all to the inward light that after all should arise.
These reflections are not superficial, faithless aestheticism. “I love, O Lord, the beauty of Thy house, the noble dwelling of Thy Glory” says Psalm 26. But how should one represent glory? Should it only refer to the sacredness of the word, without a thought for the external? Admittedly Psalm 93, that takes up once again the word “beauty,” can suggest this interpretation. In Luther’s translation it reads: “Thy word is true doctrine. Holiness is the eternally the adornment of Thy house.” According to this it could appear that the word of doctrine is adornment enough.
But the religions, when they arose in the ancient world, never thought this way. All sought their own form of splendor appropriate for the sacred. And perhaps most impressively of all in the Revelation of John, in the vision of the New Jerusalem. The whole last book of the Bible is a just a cascade of splendors: all that is sacred is bathed in white and gold. One image follows upon another because one alone cannot comprehend the vision.
And then there is the city walled about by precious jewel jasper. It is itself “of pure Gold, like pure glass.” The heart of the vision is the supernatural light of holiness. The city has no more need of a sun, it has reached God and is itself entirely a temple – and thus doesn’t contain one anymore.
It is adorned with twelve kinds of precious stones. And in addition, there are pearls. When you read the Apocalypse, you have at the end the impression that the utterly precious is the essence of glory. Even the most radical Protestantism of the Word cannot cancel out this impression. But from it flow consequences for the aesthetics of churches. Whoever wants holiness cannot be silent about beauty.
What it isn’t
Every Blessing has something solemn about it. The blessing of the Church accompanies stages in the life of the faithful, the blessing of the parent the life of the children. A blessing has protective and sanctifying effects. That which has been blessed must on its side fulfill specific demands. At a minimum it must admit the solemnity of the blessing. One doesn’t bless a cabaret, a carnival or a “Love Parade.” And what of a parade on Christopher Street Day? The blessing of same sex couples as made possible by the Lutheran church of Hessen-Nassau poses a crucial test or the churches. Representative Erika Steinbach left this church. In other parts of Germany as well this topic is creating unrest. The Protestant church of the Pfalz (translator: the Palatinate) has announced in Speyer that it will develop its own liturgy “to accompany same-sex couples in the divine service.”
In this controversy it is worth examining the theories developed by active homosexuals and lesbians, like Judith Butler. In the internal discussions of homosexuals and lesbians those forms of personal identity which contain an element of parody enjoy the greatest respect. Those, for example, in which there is a difference between the anatomy and the played out gender role – like what a transvestite makes fun of. The merry or funny – the English expression is “gay” – is typical of many homosexual self–portraits. Almost forty years ago Susan Sontag named the homosexual style “camp.” “It is the love for the exaggerated, the crazy, the “everything is what it isn’t.” Esther Newton, another lesbian theorist, writes: “My “external” appearance (my body, my sexual identity) is feminine – but my inner essence (within me myself) is masculine.” A blessing that is given to a parody does not remain uninfluenced by it. At sometime or other it can itself become a gay “everything is what it isn’t.”
Avalon isn’t Rome
There are priestesses in mediocre fantasy literature. To be sure, the ancient world also knew of priestesses. These were, however, occupied exclusively with the cult of female deities. The “pontifex maximus” after all always remained a man. Or, the origin of a sanctuary was linked to an earth mother, like the Greek site of the oracle of Delphi, where Pythia, induced into a trance by vapors emanating from a crack in the earth, declared the universal will.
Because the Old Testament had no goddesses it had no priestesses. The New Testament took over this exclusion. In the First Epistle to Timothy the Apostle Paul stated: “A women should accept instruction silently in all subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach. She also should not desire to rule over the man but should be still. For Adam was created first and then Eve. And Adam was not seduced but the woman let herself be seduced and it came to the fall.”
This passage is not an isolated one. Its views are not limited to Paul but are shared by Peter. An explanation of the evident inequality could possibly be that precisely the young Church wanted to concentrate totally on proclaiming the gospel and avoid additional areas of conflict with the in many other respects difficult non-Christian environment. But this supposed pure pragmatism would once again eliminate the biblical explanations plausible to the early community.
The positive model of the Old Testament is Sarah, the spouse of the patriarch Abraham. She is even named in praise “the Lady.” But it is precisely Sarah whose beneficent actions were limited to the interior realm of the family. She never appeared outside – for example, in political negotiations. With Eve, however – so the thought may have gone – this division of tasks had been distorted. She took over, even usurped the exterior relationships with disastrous results.
In the meantime, the voices are growing from circles of Catholic laity demanding the ordination of women. The best known, but certainly not the only, advocate of this reform is Hans Küng. Canon law is clear: “Only a baptized man can receive holy orders.” The problem facing the Church is dramatic. If she only refers to traditional practice and relies on no better reasons, she can certainly exclude women from the priesthood another fifty years. At some time, though, the walls will break. On the other hand, she could decide on a real, philosophical, anthropological and biblically founded explanation for her position – one that contradicts any kind of equality. This however, would lead to a conflict with everything that is taught today about sexual and even more so gender differences. There isn’t a third way.
Julien Green in Church
Are the supporters of the traditional liturgy in the Catholic Church motivated by a frivolous and thus totally non-religious aestheticism? Let’s recall that in the early seventies it was above all men of aesthetic judgment who rejected the post-conciliar liturgical renewal – among them famous names like the authors Jorge Luis Borges and Evelyn Waugh, an artist close to surrealism like Giorgio Chirico and the film directors Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. Isn’t it evident that it was only an elite circle which basically remained aloof from the “people of God?”
On the other hand, they were serious. They contemplated the form without which even the most revered content dissipates. The most moving witness of concern for the Church is found in the diaries of the French – American Author Julien Green (1900-1998). Among the spiritual practices of a layman attending church should be foremost. Now Green was a great visitor of churches – one can hardly find a comparable spiritual diary. He who had learned Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament had a hard time with his skepticism regarding the reforms. He noted in July 1976: “the mass in French – I will try to accustom myself to it, perhaps love it. “ But he doesn’t succeed – he feels repelled.
On June 15, 1976 he records, after a visit in ht chapel of the Rue Cortambert, that the sisters don’t sing anymore; “The birds don’t sing in winter – winter has come to the Church.” What he was seeking was a liturgical form that makes present the mystery. So he begins to turn his gaze to the churches of the East. They were not foreign to him, since even as a boy he had taken part in a service in which prayers were offered for the recovery of the Tsarevitsch. Here among the Russians and the Ukrainians – and also among the Armenians whose church he had vested during a trip to Iran – he finds what is threatening to disappear in his own church. He doesn’t hesitate to call it the “poetic.” Everyone who has once participated in an Orthodox service knows what Green was speaking of. What is external is precisely not he superficial. And anyone talking of “aestheticism” should grow reflective on reading Green’s description of the deep singing voices of the Ukrainians. He hears a thundering that creates an inner turmoil, which “touches and vivifies the oldest faith of all – that of the child to whom the Kingdom of Heaven opens.
When people speak of “ecumenism” a German thinks mostly of the Protestant churches. In Rome other regions come into view: the Anglican world church and especially Greek and Russian Orthodoxy. And we know that Benedict XVI’s gaze is especially directed to the East.
Copyright 2011 by Lorenz Jäger