I don’t mind singing in an empty Church

Well, technically, I’m not sure the Church is ever really empty. There’s always that great cloud of witnesses.

But apart from them, the Church is sometimes empty except for Priest and Cantor (me). We rarely have more than the “clergy” (Priest, Deacon, Cantor and maybe another Reader) at the very beginning  of Matins. Occasionally that will happen in a weekday service, too. Usually one or two will arrive soon after the start, though. The inspired doodle above is (from Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts, shall we say, reality-based.

But it doesn’t bother me, at least not in the sense of “why do I bother?” I may regret that many who could be present don’t bother, and miss out (missing out on what is the point of this posting – read on). But many really can’t come, and that’s okay. We’re a small Parish, with lots of young families with children. I’d think there was something seriously wrong if those families dragged their young ones to Matins, which combined with Liturgy routinely runs almost 3 hours. Others commute as much as an hour each way. So I don’t expect them to come.

But by coming and singing, I myself – hard of hearing and heart – steep in the teaching and mind of the Church. Slowly, I’m absorbing it. That counts for quite a lot since I’m serious about my faith but have nearly 5 decades of baggage from other Christian traditions, each misguided about many things, to unload.

One of those pieces of baggage is how to approach scripture. I had already begun to write this when Father Stephen posted on “the hearing of the word.” It illustrates beautifully how the Church approaches scripture:

I am convinced after years of preaching and listening to preaching that the bulk of Scripture has become lost to our ears. We hear it, but fail to “hear” it ….

Much of my conviction on this matter has come in the last 12 years or more and my immersion into the services of the Orthodox Church. These services, long and with ample “hymnography” that is but a poetic commentary on the Scriptures and doctrines that surround any particular feast, are probably the richest surviving engagement with the Word of God to be found in a 21st century Church. Here no Reformation has occurred and reduced all Scripture to a “riff” on Justification by Faith, or a subset of Calvin’s paradigms. Here no Enlightenment has shown with its darkness of doubt and obfuscation.

Instead, there is a constant wonderment at the Scriptures themselves, as if the hymnographer were discovering something for the first time or had found a rare gem to share to any willing to listen – and all in the form of praise and thanksgiving to God.

It is true to say that in Orthodoxy, “Theology sings.” ….

…In our modern context most people have either been shaped by fundamentalist literalism; by modernist historical criticism; or by nearly nothing at all. In each case the Scriptures will not sing – they will not yield up their treasures.

I was struck by a particular case this evening – at the Vigil for  Palm Sunday. The gospel account in question was the Matthean version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem:

“And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.”

Modern historical criticism hears in this only the “foolishness” of Matthew. Matthew has cited the prophecy in Zechariah that “your king is coming to you…mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass,” and has crafted his story in precisely that manner, placing Jesus astride two animals. The same critics will note that in other gospel accounts Christ is only on a “foal of an ass,” i.e., one animal. Historical Critics have a field day with such problems (I was first confronted with this “discrepancy” in my sophomore year of college – it was presented as if the professor had noticed something no one had ever seen before). Modern fundamentalists will rush to defend the integrity of the gospel accounts, “Two different eye-witnesses reported on the same thing and one emphasized one thing and the other emphasized another.”

Both explanations lack imagination and are precisely the sort of blindness that afflicts so much modern reading of Scripture. Listening to the hymnody for the Vigil of Palm Sunday, the hymnographer, without apology for the discrepancy, races to it and declares:

“O gracious Lord, who ridest upon the cherubim, who art praised by the seraphim, now Thou dost ride like David on the foal of an ass, The children sing hymns worthy of God, while the priests and scribes blaspheme against Thee. By riding an untamed colt, Thou hast prefigured the salvation of the Gentiles, those wild beasts, who will be brought from unbelief to faith! Glory to Thee, O merciful Christ. Our King and the Lover of man!”

the ancient hymnographer has come closer to the heart of Scripture than either the modern sceptic or the modern literalist will ever know.

… The writers of the New Testament believed that everything in the Old, when read rightly would yield insight into the Messiah and the mystery of our salvation. But their creative insight (again, I believe it is inspired) is far removed from the flat-footed nonsense that we hear out of modern fundamentalist “prophetic” scholars, whose reading of the Old Testament is almost as poorly constructed as the 19th century false prophecies of the book of Mormon! Neither bear any resemblance to the treatment of prophecy found in the New Testament.

And thus I return to my original point. We have become deaf. We listen with ears either hardened by modernist scepticism, or by a false literalism that has substituted Darbyite nonsense for the Apostolic faith, or reduced Scripture to delicate harmonizations. None of them have the boldness and audacity of the patristic hymnographers who stood in the proper line of succession, proclaiming the faith as it had been taught and received and continuing to expound its mysteries. Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!

So, whether there’s a single soul besides me in church, I’m singing theology. I’m singing poetry. I’m expounding the mysteries of the faith. I’m unraveling the wonders of our salvation before my own unbelieving heart, made dull by 48 years of desparate harmonizations – “flat-footed nonsense.”

[If this sampling from Father Stephen has whetted your appetite, probably the most target-rich zone of audacious expounding of the Old Testament is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, sung in segments during the first week of Lent and then sung in its entirety Thursday of the 5th week. Download and savor.]

And in a sense that I’m slowly and dimly beginning to apprehend, we are doing the reconciling work of God. This gets into a sacramental view of the world, which I am unqualified to address and would surely botch if I tried. Perhaps another day.

Although I’m occasionally bone-weary when I go to sing, it’s always a very great privilege, and I benefit as much as anyone.

One thought on “I don’t mind singing in an empty Church

  1. I must admit, that when I attended St. Alexis, I let myself become distracted by the dearth of worshipers during certain services, and, with much greater force, by my *own* abysmal failure at attending on anything near a regular basis. I let myself be caught up in petty externals, and either never realized or simply forgot that I needed to focus on the root of the problem, on “my own unbelieving heart.”

    Months ago, when I still had a lengthy commute, I listened to a podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko where — and I’m paraphrasing from memory here — he thundered out that we need to shut up and stand in Church and let the Liturgy work on us.

    Even today, when I haven’t been to a church, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, in a very long time, I often roll over and look at the clock around 7am and remember that faithful priest in Lafayette who’s lighting beeswax candles and standing before an iconostasis, no matter how many people have shuffled into church behind him. Those were the only services that I attended with any regularity, and I sometimes find myself, almost wistfully, thinking back on those psalms and prayers.

    A good post to read. Thank you.

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