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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Theatre of the Incarnation

In this post, I will begin a series of several devoted to the relationship between theatre and theology, a topic which has already seen a lot of ink spilled over the past three or four generations, but which I hope a can contribute a couple fresh new insights.  In the spirit of medieval manuscript writing, I shall begin with a prayer for God to guide my work, and bring it to a speedy conclusion.

In particular, in this post I wish to explore the different specific genii of the Latin and the Greek rites, in order to determine more rigorously what constitutes a false Latinization in the Byzantine Rite, what constitutes an improper influence from the Greek Rite in the Latin as distinguished from genuine cross-fertilization and mutual enrichment, and why each Rite has its own integrity that must be preserved, despite the arbitrary and manmade character of the specific differences of the two Liturgies.

To begin with, one must emphasize that the different poles of expression I am emphasizing are postdictive constructs, impositions of unity attributed to Liturgies whose historical development was convoluted, arbitrary, organic, and did not occur with the symbolism I describe consciously present to mind.  Nonetheless, the historical development was guided by common cultural, philosophical, and theological assumptions that enforced and guided the historical path that the liturgical developments took.

The claim I am presenting here is that the Latin (Tridentine) and Byzantine Divine Liturgies are both dramatic expressions of the Incarnation, presented from opposite but complementary perspectives and points of reference.  The fundamental principle guiding these complementary points of reference is the difference in the metatheological analogy informing theological expression and spiritual direction, and the zenith of liturgical efficacy lies in the purity of these two complementary perspectives, implying that spiritual convergence between ritual traditions lies not in greater similarity of rite but in greater fidelity to their own traditions.

As a premise, I assume the dramatic nature of the Mass or Liturgy, already discussed in great detail, especially in context of the liturgical dramas that arose as part of the medieval Mass and developed into mystery plays, evolving into all subsequent Western theatre.  Secondly, the nouvelle Theologie has emphasized the dramatic character of "salvation history", most notably in Hans Urs von Balthasar's series Theo-Drama, and the mystical re-presentation of salvation history especially in its climax on Calvary during the Liturgy gives the Liturgy itself a sharing in this dramatic character.

The metatheological analogy informing theological expression in the East is that of martyrdom, which since the metanoia of the relationship between Church and State under the direction of the Emperor St. Constantine has shifted and sublimated to a self-imposed ascetic martyrdom.  The ascetes of the Egyptian Thebaid were called "athletes for Christ", and as they willingly renounced the world to experience a foretaste of the joys of Heaven, their theology, which informed the Liturgy and all subsequent Byzantine, monastic, and hesychastic theology, came to express the perspective of Heaven, of transfigured reality, of the divinized creation.  One need not accept the angelistic excesses that the language used by the likes of Evagrius Ponticus to see the world in the light transfigured by Taboric Light, to begin one's theology from the viewpoint of the Trinity.

Likewise, the metatheological analogy informing theological expression in the West is what Orthodox critics such as Fr. Stephen Freeman have labeled the "forensic metaphor", an emphasis on the corporeal, juridical or jurisdictional nature of the visible Church, a court judging sinners and an army fighting one's inner vices, taking its language and imagination from Roman law.

It has often been said that the Greek East is more "Platonic", and the Latin West more "Aristotelian".  This is an error, as the West has seen its fair share of Platonists - St. Augustine, St. Boethius, Eriugena, and a strong Neo-Platonic tradition through the scholastic period - and the East emphatically rejects any intrusion of philosophy either Platonic or Aristotelian into its theology, as can be seen by the first book of the Triads of St. Gregory Palamas, for example.  However, the metatheological orientation of the East is more predisposed to the apophatic approach of St. Dionysious the Areopagite - long dismissed by scholars as a 4th-century Syrian disciple of Proclus rather than the disciple of St. Paul that his liturgical and theological place calls him - and St. Gregory Palamas than the West which never reached an apophatic theology, instead only admitting a via negativa as an intellectual exercise but not as an experiential reality.  Likewise, the metatheological orientation of the West predisposed it much better for the scholastic synthesis of philosophy and theology grounded in an Aristotelian world-view which was never able to take root in the East.

The starting-point of the West predisposed it to express theology in a much more rigorous, precise, and formulaic fashion than later Eastern theology, and the starting-point of the East predisposed it to express more strongly the paradox and mystery of Christianity.  As an illustration, let us compare the Preface from the Mass of St. Pius V with the equivalent prayer in the anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

From the Mass of St. Pius V:

Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere:  Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus:  Qui cum unigenito Filio tuo, et Spiritu Sancto, unus es Deus, unus es Dominus, non in unius singularitate personae, sed in unius Trinitate substantiae.  Quod enim de tua Gloria, revelante te, credimus, hoc de Filio tuo, hoc de Spiritu Sancto, sine differentia discretionis sentimus.  Ut in confessione verae sempiternaeque Deitatis, et in personis proprietas, et in essentia unitas, et in majestate adoretur aequalitas.  Quam laudant Angeli atque Archangeli, Cherubim quoque ac Seraphim:  qui non cessant clamare quotidie, un voce dicentes:  Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.  Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.  Hosanna in excelsis.  Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.  Hosanna in excelsis.
It is truly meet and just, right and profitable for our salvation, that we should at all times and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father Almighty, Everlasting God; Who, together with Thine Only-begotten Son, and the Holy Ghost, art one God, one Lord; not in the oneness of a single Person, but in the Trinity of one substance.   For what we believe of Thy Son, the same of the Holy Ghost, without difference or inequality.  So that in confessing the True and Everlasting Godhead, distinction in Persons, unity in Essence, and equality in Majesty may be adored.  Which the Angels and Archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim do praise: who cease not daily to cry out, with one voice saying:  Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts.  Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.  Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is He Who cometh in the Name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.
By contrast, the apophatic approach of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

It is proper and right to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You and worship You in every place of Your dominion:  for You are God, ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing yet ever the same, You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.  You brought us out of nonexistence into being, and when we fell, You raised us up again, and left nothing undone until You led us into Your Heavenly kingdom.  For all this we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for the manifest and hidden benefits bestowed on us.  We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though there stand before You thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft on their wings, Singing, shouting, crying out, and saying:  Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.  Heaven and earth are filled with Your glory; hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.
Now we can demonstrate how the entire Liturgy expresses these two perspectives, as a drama of salvation history and a narrative of the life of Christ.  I will not dwell too much here on the theory of drama itself and its relationship to theology - that shall be saved for a later post - but rather on the correspondences between liturgical action and theological typology.

To begin with, the church building itself is a type of the Church.  In the West the Church recalls to mind the ark of Noah, a symbolism often explictly referenced (for example, the carving of Noah's Ark on the exterior of Holy Family Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York), and the church building is a type of the Church, buffetted by the roaring seas of secularism to cite Cardinal Ratzinger's address shortly before his elevation to the Papacy, as St. Thomas Aquinas explained in his Summa Theologiae ("There is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the ark, which denotes the Church" - ST Tertia Pars, Q. 73 art. 3).  However, in the East the church building is a type of Heaven.  According to St. Symeon of Thessaloniki, “The narthex corresponds to earth, the church to heaven, and the holy sanctuary to what is above heaven.”  (Quoted in Michelson, “The Kinetic Icon and the Work of Mourning:  Prolegomena to the Analysis of a Textual System”, in Lawton, ed., The Red Screen:  Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema (London and New York:  Routledge, 1992))

As a type of Heaven, the Byzantine temple veils the mystery of the Eucharist by nothing other than the communion of saints, the wall of ikons representing both the Body of Christ itself and the "boundary between created and uncreated nature", an appellation given to the Theotokos and by extension all perfectly deified saints by St. Gregory Palamas in his homily 53 ("On the Entry of the Theotokos into the Holy of Holies II", p. 431 in the translation by Christopher Veniamin, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009).  The Eucharistic anaphora is chanted and heard by the whole congregation.  By contrast, in the Roman Mass, which takes place in the Church on Earth, one is viewing the Incarnation in the stable in Bethlehem, and it is greeted with a reverential silence.  The Canon of the Mass is therefore whispered.

The two symbolisms also govern the style of liturgical art.  The canons of iconography require that ikons depict transfigured reality, using inverse perspective, and studiously and self-consciously avoiding realism.  They are venerated, not just used as sentimental aids in devotion.  The Roman Mass takes place from the viewpoint of earth, and realistic, down-to-earth three-dimensional statues are used, and while they are often prayed before and adorned with flowers, one would never prostate oneself before a statue or kiss it.  They are not sacramentals, just aids in prayer.

The actions of movement of the priest during the Divine Liturgy reflect and narrate the life of Christ.  The Liturgy begins at the prothesis, a side-altar representing the Cave of Bethlehem, and often having an ikon of the Nativity before it.  The Eucharistic elements are prepared in a rite called the proskhimedie, although the actions of the priest during this rite recall our Lord's Passion rather than His Nativity; yet the Nativity indeed was nothing but a preparation for His Passion, and foretype thereof.  The Altar is the Cross of Calvary, and the priest only dares approach the altar twice during the Liturgy, the Minor and Great Entrances, when he, as bearer of the Word, ascends the Cross bearing first the Holy Gospel and then the prosphora, the Eucharistic elements.  Then, during the Anaphora, the priest consecrating the Eucharist takes the place of Cross mounted on His Cross, and as the veil of the Temple is rent between Heaven and Earth, the Royal Doors are opened and the mystery of the Trinity beyond Heaven is made visible to the resurrected and deified Church.

There is only one place in the Liturgy where the priest stands behind the altar, and this is during the singing of the Trisagion, the "thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity".  By this posture, the absolute ineffability and transcendence of the Holy Trinity is evoked.

Finally, by understanding this distinction between the genius of the Byzantine rite and the genius of the Latin rite, we can more clearly understand when a liturgical borrowing from one rite to another violates its liturgical integrity and should be thrown out.  The most obvious example is the tendency for the Latinizers to tear down iconostases, destroying the boundary between created and uncreated nature and bringing the priest down to the level of his audience.  A more subtle example would be the practice of "low Mass" in the East.  If the nave represents Heaven, then the congregation must join their prayer with the song of the angels, and sing.  Speaking the words of the Liturgy has no history in the Byzantine Rite, except for Latinized Ukrainian parishes.  Nor does kneeling, a gesture of penitence in the East which is canonically forbidden on Sundays in the Byzantine Rite, as a gesture inappropriate when in the mystical presence of the Resurrection.

In subsequent posts, I hope to explore more fully the relationship between theology and drama per se, and demonstrate the consequences of this analysis by looking at specific examples of theological literature, such as Blessed John Paul II's The Jeweler's Shop.

1 comment:

  1. Here is some feedback Jimmy. This is hard to understand. Why don't you write about things everyone can understand like quantum mechanics? Tongue out of cheek now, I appreciate your respect for the Latin rite. I worry sometimes with the eastern rites though that they are so complicated and long, that they can only be correctly done by monks, which could lead to a lack of personal sanctity in the lay faithful.