Piety, Processions, and Puppetry

This post is really just a string of ideas rather than a planned construction of coherent thoughts and I claim no authority beyond being a servant of Christ's Church who often fails miserably at his calling to be even that. Yet a conversation I recently had with a priest, shortly after witnessing the services of Holy Week and Pascha, got me to thinking a little about the liturgy of the Church and how, through it, we enter into the worship of God.

I love the multi-layered symbolism of the corporate worship of the Church. When we begin to explore it, there is so much that gives us the firm grounding from which to elevate our hearts to God. It is doctrine expressed and acted out, often in the most accessible way possible. Processions, prostrations, crossings, the opening and closing of the doors - some of these things speak to us immediately and have an obvious meaning. Yet some of them have depths of meaning that only come to us with time and being steeped in the Church's worship. For instance, at the old Paschal Vigil which we serve on Holy Saturday afternoon in the form of the Vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, we hear the reading from Isaiah, (the same one that provides the inspiration for the oft-repeated hymn, Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem), in which we hear:

And thy gates shall be open continually: they shall not be shut day nor night.

- Isaiah 60:11

So the doors of the iconostas remain open through Bright Week, and are not closed until the beginning of the Ninth Hour on Saturday of that week, for this is the week of thr renewal, when we celebrate most fully the conqeuring of all that separates us from the fullness of union with God.

However, I wonder at the nature of some of the things that have crept into Orthodox practice and the degree to which they are in keeping with the Tradition of the Church. One of the most powerful symbols of Great and Holy Friday is at Matins. After the fifth Gospel, which ends with Christ taking up his Cross and being assisted by Simon of Cyrene, during the fifteenth antiphon, the priest solemnly carries the large icon of the Saviour on the Cross from the altar and sets it in the midst of the church for the edificaton of the people. This becomes their focus as they hear the remaining Passion Gospels, which tell of the final events in the Passion of the Saviour, including his death. After the service, the people may come forward and venerate the icon, kissing the feet of their Saviour on the Cross.

Today is hung upon a Tree He Who suspended the earth upon the waters.
Today is hung upon a Tree He Who suspended the earth upon the waters.
Today is hung upon a Tree He Who suspended the earth upon the waters.
He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wrapped the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery,

He who freed Adam in the Jordan receiveth a blow on the face.

The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.

The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a lance.

We worship thy Passion, O Christ,
We worship thy Passion, O Christ,
We worship thy Passion, O Christ: show unto us also thy glorious Resurrection!
- The fifteenth antiphon of Great Friday Matins

Yet a custom has developed in some places of setting up a plain Cross in the midst of the Church before the service begins, and the icon that is carried out at the fifteenth antiphon is of the corpus only. This often has holes pre-drilled in the hands and feet, through which nails are inserted, and the priest hammers the icon to the Cross during the service.

I have never seen this done in full so I cannot comment on it experientially. However, it seems to run contrary to everything that I have been taught about the place of icons in the doctrine and praxis of the Orthodox Church. Icons serve to focus the mind and heart on the holy one represented in the image.

For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Rejoice and be glad with all thy heart. The Lord hath taken away from thee the oppression of thine adversaries; thou art redeemed from the hand of thine enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of thee; thou shalt not see evil any more, and peace be unto thee for ever."
- from the decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

With that in mind, the traditional practice of placing the icon of the crucified Saviour in the midst of the people and their later veneration of it seems very fitting. However, I, personally, struggle with the idea of an icon being used as, if I may be forgiven, a theatre prop. I'm just not sure that this action of nailing an image of the Saviour to the Cross is in keeping with the Orthodox theology of the icon and I am not sure it is something that should be encouraged. If the honour paid to the icon is passed to the holy person represented therein, what are we doing when we hammer nails into an icon of the Saviour? In the quiet piety of Orthodox Christians, an icon, if accidentally knocked over, is often picked up quickly and kissed before being returned to its place of honour, because people understand what the image represents, even if the Saint is largely unknown. Yet we are speaking here about pounding nails into an icon of the Christ.

Even if we leave aside the matter of the nailing, I do not like the concept of the detachable corpus being placed on the Cross, and then taken down during the Vespers service and wrapped in a shroud to be taken into the altar, (which is the second half of this late practice). For the same reasons as the nailing, it seems not to sit well with the concept of the icon as an object of focus and veneration. My priestly interlocutor said to me that the Orthodox understanding of the icon does not extend to puppetry. It may seem a shocking statement to make at first but, having given it some thought, I find myself unable to disagree.

The Church's services have a drama of their own, in their shape and structure, in the way one element flows into another, which then overlaps with the next, in the readings, in the hymns, in the actions of the clergy and people - all of these things carry beautiful meaning and symbolism, and speak of the mystery of salvation into which we are to enter more fully through these services. If we think, for example, of the traditional Great Friday ceremonies, they are actually very restrained while being very rich. When we focus on the Passion of the Saviour at Matins, the Cross is set up in the midst of the people and censed. Before Vespers, the Cross is quietly removed because the focus of this service is not the Passion but rather the burial of the Saviour. There is no theatrical taking down of the icon of the Saviour's body from the Cross and wrapping it in a burial shroud. Where the Cross once stood, we now see the sepulchre of the Lord, on which is placed the plashchanitsa, which is an icon showing the body of the Saviour, often surrounded by his Mother and the Holy Myrrh-Bearers. It is carried out solemnly, and offered for veneration by the people. Offerings of flora and rose water are laid on it in honour of the Christ depicted. Then, during the Midnight Office of the Paschal Vigil, the plashchanitsa is removed from the midst of the people with the same solemnity with which it was placed there, and when the people go outside for the procession after the Midnight Office, the sepulchre is quietly removed, so that when the people re-enter the church, it is simply not there, having been replaced by an icon of the Resurrection.

So it seems to me that the mystical drama into which we are to be caught up is inherent to the services themselves and is not to be found in extraneous re-enactments of Christ being crucified, taken down from the Cross, or wrapped in a shroud.

Another historical example of this is the procession of Palm Sunday. A very late development in parts of the west in Orthodox times, possibly originating in France, was the custom of including the Holy Things in the procession on Palm Sunday. This was different from the custom known among Roman Catholic people today, of carrying the sacrament in procession as a sign of devotion. As it came to develop in Britain by the late mediaeval period, an elaborate portable shrine was constructed, on which would be carried the Holy Things. As this approached, the choir would sing antiphons hailing the coming Christ, reminiscent of the Hebrews greeting the Saviour with shouts and hymns as He entered Jerusalem, which would continue through the procession. This was not simply a devotion to Christ in the Mystery of the Eucharist, (although the extra-eucharistic piety, including such processions, is perhaps intrinsically questionable anyway), but rather seems to have been a theatrical re-enactment over and above the natural drama of the Church's liturgy, using the sacrament in a very unusual way.

How did this sort of thing creep into Orthodox custom? These things do not appear in the rubrics of the services but are simply pious additions which are largely unknown outside of Greek practice, so I wonder whether these are latinisations, (in terms of the way of thinking about how we worship rather direct borrowings of practice), that permeated the Greek church under Ottoman rule. I recall once reading that a number of Greek clergy during this time were trained in Roman Catholic seminaries. Whatever the origins, is it something that is in keeping with the way that we understand worship, that we feel worship, that we do worship? Is it something that we ought to continue? I don't think so, personally, but my saying so comes largely from gut feeling based on what I have been taught and what I have absorbed, and how it has moulded me over the past few years and is not something that I can argue academically. However, given the centrality of worship to the Christian life and the importance that has in transmitting the Faith to the innermost parts of our beings, I do not feel that the degree to which the way we worship affects our understanding of our own place in relation to Christ and within the life of his Church can be thought of too lightly.

Anyway, there my thoughts are. I don't know what, if anything, others make of them.

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