Sunday, December 19, 2010

icons of redeeming love

Around this time of year, a fleeting, but meaningful, transformation takes place within even the staunchest of non-liturgists, anti-traditionalists and individualists. This particular season seems to arouse in us an all too dormant desire to encode our world with meaning and rich symbolism through images and creation, declaring the unification of earth with heaven by the God-man, Jesus Christ. Winter, trees, candles, wreaths, ornaments, colors, nativity scenes, lights, scents, music, clothing/vestments, decorations - all of these become icons of redemption as we worship together the Savior of humankind (and all of yearning creation), drawing and being drawn together in mystical union as the body of Christ, joining in adoration the chorus of the universe as we worship in God's cosmic cathedral. In this way, even we, who are not typically wont to, indeed become liturgical in our orientation, traditional in our foundation, and communal in our expression. During Christmas, we reveal (even if ever so slightly) the freedom found in needless beauty and our bent toward litury. And, bear in mind that here I intend "liturgy" in a broad sense, in some basic air of agreement with Alexander Schmemann who writes (though we should note that he is speaking in the context of the Eucharist as liturgy):

There exist today "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" churches and Christians. But this controversy is unncecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding - the "liturgical" understanding of the liturgy. This is the reduction of the liturgy to "cultic" categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the "profane" area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself. But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals - a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or "ministry" of a man or a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were meant to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose.
Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world afte the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. (Schmemann 1973 [1963]:25)

Couching our activities in Schmemann's language, when we gather together to sing hymns and spiritual songs, feast together, pray together, and prepare together during this advent season, we recognize the inherently communal aspect of the body of Christ (which is corporate in perhaps the truest sense of the word) as we, by God's grace, become what we are meant to be and "bear testimony to Him and His kingdom." In this season, through art we beautify and adorn - ascribing, constructing, but also recognizing meaning as we coporately manifest the already/not-yet tension of being between two comings.

It is, perhaps, too easy to dismiss our sense of excitement, longing, and anticipation as simply childhood nostalgia; but we deprive ourselves of something deeper that verily relates to childlikeness, and the bent that directs us toward liturgy. Consider the following observations by the Catholic priest Romano Guardini (1885-1968) regarding "the playfulness of the liturgy":

The liturgy offers something higher. In it man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God. In the liturgy he is to go "unto God, Who giveth joy to his youth." All this is, of course, on the supernatural plane, but at the same time it corresponds to the same degree to the inner needs of man's nature. Because the life of the liturgy is higher than that to which customary reality gives both the opportunity and form of expression, it adopts suitable forms and methods from that sphere in which alone they are to be found, that is to say, from art. It speaks measuredly and melodiously; it employs formal, rhythmic gestures; it is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life; it is carried out in places and at hours which have been co-ordinated and systematized according to sublimer laws than ours. It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody and song.

Such is the wonderful fact which the liturgy demonstrates; it unites art and reality in a supernatural childhood before God. That which formerly existed in the world of unreality only, and was rendered in art as the expression of mature human life, has here become reality. These forms are the vital expression of real and frankly supernatural life. But this has one thing in common with the play of the child and the life of art - it has no purpose, but it is full of profound meaning. It is not work, but play. To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God's sight - not to create, but to exist - such is the essence of the liturgy. From this is derived its sublime mingling of profound earnestness and divine joyfulness. The fact that the liturgy gives a thousand strict and careful directions on the quality of the language, gestures, colors, garments and instruments which it employs, can only be understood by those who are able to take art and play seriously. (Guardini 1998:70)

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedic XVI), in the introduction to his book of the same title as Guardini's, further expounds the notion of liturgy as play and the utter needlessness of its beauty:

Children's play seems in many ways a kind of anticipation of life, a rehearsal for later life, without its burdens and gravity. On this analogy, the liturgy would be a reminder that we are all children, or should be children, in relation to that true life toward which we yearn to go. Liturgy would be a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift. Seen thus, liturgy would be the rediscovery witin us of true childhood, of openness to a greatnes still to come, which is still unfulfilled in adult life. Here, then, would be the concrete form of hope, which lives in advance the life to come, the only true life, which initiates us into authentic life - the life of freedom, of intimate union with God, of pure openness to our fellowman. Thus it would imprint on the seemingly real life of daily existence the mark of future freedom, break open the walls that confine us, and let the light of heaven shine down upon earth. (Ratzinger 2000:14)

And so, too, the Christmas season is marked by "useless beauty" (Scmemann 1973 [1963]:30) and the sense of "play" by which we embrace true childhood as a key attribute of the people of God's kingdom (Mark 10:14-15). This is the non-utilitarian beauty that belies practicality, the adornment which elevates above the seemingly mundane. In every wreath, ribbon, tablecloth, and candle, we demonstrate the "unncessary" nature of beauty, which, far from depriving it of meaning, collaborates to inform its meaning as we, in joyful freedom, anticipate the life of the world to come.

Guardini, Romano. (1998). The Spirit of the Liturgy (A. Lane, Trans.). New York, NY: Herder & Herder. (Original English translation published in 1930; Original work in German published some time during WWI)

Ratzinger, Joseph. (2000). The Spirit of the Liturgy (J. Saward, Trans.). San Francisco, CA: Ignatius.

Schmemman, Alexander. (1973). For the Life of the World: Saraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwook, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published 1963)

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