Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Lord's Name in Vain

In anticipation of leading an extended adult ed study of the Gospel of Matthew, I'm reading the new "theological commentary" on the Gospel by Stanley Hauerwas. Now it's clear to everyone who knows me that I am in thrall to this curmudgeonly codger and will defer to his judgments on almost all matters. (And this volume is really enjoyable and helpful!) But there is one path down which I will not follow him, and it drives me crazy to see him tread it.

Throughout the commentary (and I have never noticed this before in his other writing; he must not refer much to Jesus by name), he insists on making the possessive of "Jesus" to be "Jesus's." How can this be? By tradition and rule, the possessive of "Jesus" sounds exactly the same as "Jesus" and appears in print as "Jesus'." On this I thought there was very little dispute; on this I think there should be very little dispute. The Chicago Manual of Style, my arbiter of grammatical and typographical orthodoxy, makes it very clear that while the possessive of other names and objects ending in "s" is formed with "s", it is nevertheless traditional and preferred with the Biblical names "Moses" and "Jesus" to form the possessive with a lone apostrophe (that is, to skip the additional "s").

Now, I violate CMS by making all possessives of words ending in either one or two "s"es with a lone apostroph. (Because I cite it doesn't mean that I follow it rigorously.) But when I stray, I know that I'm doing so -- and usually, I think I serve the value of euphony when I do. I have a problem enunciating sibilants without hissing: It's much easier for me to say and for my auditors to listen to me when I forego additional "s"es as much as possible. But in the case of Jesus and Moses, it is simply wrong not to follow tradition and CMS. When Hauerwas speaks of the temptations of Jesus (notice the circumlocution by which the problem can be avoided), he makes the name of Jesus sound like the hissing of the very serpent with which the devil is identified in Genesis in the original temptation. That seems wrong on so many grounds.

So I say to any of you who (oh, oh: I've fallen into the trap Jenson so hates: the you-hoo construction) preach or teach: Please mend your ways if you follow Hauerwas on this.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Flags in Church

On one of the listservs I read, there has been a discussion of how -- and eventually whether -- flags should be carried in liturgical processions. Now I know that such things occur, although I give thanks that we don't do that at Mount Olive.

I have about a dozen reasons for not displaying the American OR the misnamed "Christian" flag in the Church building -- and I mean anywhere in the Church building. But I accidentally ran across an Orthodox priest's explanation of why he doesn't allow flag-draped coffins to be processed in for funerals, and I think it is subtly rich and profound. He says,

As I once explained to a military honor guard accompanying a flag-draped casket, "At the church door we remove the flag of state and cover the casket with the pall of the Church. You are about to enter a foreign embassy representing Jesus Christ, who is King over all kings and Lord over all lords, at whose Name every knee will one day bow. As you know, no flag of another state is ever displayed inside a foreign embassy." They understood perfectly.

It seems positively Hauerwasian in its ecclesiology: The Church is the Kingdom of God; we brook no pretenders to the throne, and neither do we tolerate the banners or flag of any such pretender. It will be a sign that the Church is regaining some of her sense of dignity and gravitas when saying such a thing -- either in the priest's words or in mine -- requires no elucidation. Better: when such sentiments are greeted with "well, duh."

You may read the entire post here.

Internet Charity

I'm a sucker for easy charity: If I can give something to make a difference without getting terrifically involved, I'm all for it. That's why for years I've been "clicking" to various sites that promote assistance to various parts of God's creation. It began with the Breast Cancer Site. Because there is a lot of breast cancer on my wife's side of the family, we are deeply committed to doing what we can to fund research and prevention programs. Well the Breast Cancer Site is set up to help fund mammograms for women who can't otherwise afford to have them done. And all it takes is a couple of minutes and a few mouse clicks on the internet.

Maybe anyone looking at this blog knows about it, but for the odd person who may not, here's how it works: Go to this site. Click on the rectangle that says "Fund Free Mammograms. Click here daily. It's Free." You'll be taken to a page where you can do so online shopping if you like. But you don't have to shop and you'll have made a contribution to a worthy project. How it works is that sponsors (among them, the merchants and programs with clickable boxes on page 2) pay for each hit to the main site. If you scroll down on page 2, you'll find information about how many mammograms were provided the previous day. (There's also a button that you can click to see recent history of hits and accomplishments.)

The site is wonderful because you spend others' money on a worthy project. But wait, there's more.

On page 2, you'll find similar sites designed to aid different projects -- from free books for kids to food for rescued animals and protection of rain forest lands. You can click of them in turn, following the same procedure and by spending five minutes at your computer, you'll have done a whole lot of good. Do it every day when you boot up, and you'll do a whole lot of a whole lot of good. (I don't always remember to do so, so I've subscribed to an e-mail reminder service so that I remember at least twice or three times a week.)

I've tried to find out whether there is any scam associated with these sites, and I've turned up no information. So I proceed happily on the Gospel's claim that not everything that seems to good to be true is so.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Short Sojourn among the Orthodox

I’ve been trying to say something about my recent trip to an Orthodox church for vespers and liturgy. It’s proven really hard to get a bead on my experience. I’m not sure why that is, but I seem unable to put my finger on what made the whole deal so moving for me.

Here’s a little background. My friend, C-, who has recently been received into the Orthodox Church (OCA), where she joins her husband and children, invited me to worship with her in her new home. And because of my interest in almost all things East, I took her up on the offer. I was invited to sing with the choir – something which for this Lutheran boy who loves to sing made the whole deal much more complete and probably contributed to my sense of fulfillment.

The church building of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church is gorgeous. It’s a small building, seemingly converted to Eastern use from some Western tradition. It is the church that has recently installed an enormous icon of Our Lord across the ceiling – to which you’ll find links below. In addition to that, the iconostasis and great doors are very “porous” – i.e., not solid, so that one can see through them. And gazing across the altar and over the top of the iconostasis is another huge icon of the Theotokos. There are, in addition, numerous other icons on stands, on wall space, and in stained glass. Of course, there are no pews, except along the outside of the worship space, along the walls and a couple of portable short pews which can be set up for the infirm). Here's another link to some pictures of the worship space (posted by the iconographer).

As I have said ad nauseum, I’m used to a pretty high style of liturgical performance – lots of pomp and ceremony, sobriety, a hint of stiff-neckedness and almost pretension. I say that out of affection for that kind of atmosphere. But much of that was absent from Holy Trinity. Oh, the liturgy requires a certain amount of moving around, censing, intoning from various stations, processions. And here it was all carried out with an appropriate sense of sobriety and seriousness.

But one thing that struck me was that there seemed to be a naturalness to people and priest’s participation in the ceremonial. Everything was done with a sense that “this is important” but also that “this is natural, the way things go.” There were kids running around (no pews to corral them); people stood and then sat for a while and then stood again; many people sat on the floor (on lovely and soft Oriental carpets) for the sermon; people crossed themselves at different times, sometimes a simple cross, sometimes with a swoop to the floor (I have to find out about that). It’s not that things were sloppy; that would, I think, be anathema to Orthodox (noisy and busy perhaps, but not sloppy). So when it came time for communing, I felt sad (not irritated, the way I usually feel when I am not “included” in the communion) that I could not join with these people in sharing the Lord’s body and blood. But it also felt remarkably right to receive a blessing and to be allowed to kiss the base of the chalice during the communion – and then to share in the antidoron. (I’m still very Western oriented when it comes to so much of this: I really love the music – I this case, Russian, the kind of choral music I’ve been singing since I was 10. But communing with a spoon, the antidoron, the repetition – hmmm. It’s not in me, yet.)

I guess I came away with a fresh appreciation for how liturgy done unapologetically in the old style (whether it makes modern “sense” or not, whether it runs more than an hour or not) carries a deep and moving sense of propriety, of greatness. I was very aware that what was happening here was holy – i.e., bigger than any of its pieces and connected to the very source of life. Watching young people – children and teens and young adults – grooving on what was happening was impressive.

I told my friend that this was the first time I had felt welcome at an Orthodox service. Part of that was her working me into the choir so that I felt more involved (although Holy Trinity does have the liturgy bound into booklets so that people who don’t know it can follow). Part of it was the Senior Priest’s making an effort to greet me and welcome me. So that felt good.

I also felt more “touched” than I usually do at western masses, including those at my own congregation. Now part of that may be that familiarity breeds contempt, and when one knows something about the ideals of western liturgy, one finds more to criticize in others’ performance thereof. But part of it, too, was that I felt less “in charge” in the Orthodox liturgy: All the while I was singing, which was most of the service (it’s exhausting), I never felt that this is my time to say something to God or to sing my own little solo (even if others are singing along at the same time). I felt less intellectually engaged and more wholistically involved. And I know that that makes little sense.

Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t miss some things. I’m talking with C-, who’s a musician, now about differences East and West on the place of or the understanding of congregational song. At Holy Trinity, many of the people who did not constitute the choir sang right along with the choir, especially on some of the longer pieces. And I recognize that liturgical music is or should be considered congregational song. But I missed, though I now realize that I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I did, the congregation’s breaking into something more modern or Western or something – or a soloist singing something as lovely as a soloist sang at Mount Olive yesterday.

But I think the most global impression I took away from my extensive two services in the East was that I felt a part of something much bigger than what I normally experience in even a high mass in the Western Rite. The sense of awe and wonder and grace seemed easier for this congregation to live in and express than is true in my tradition. I only half-jokingly mention to my friend that one practice that symbolizes the difference between East and West for me was this: Following the dismissal at Holy Trinity, the people lined up to venerate the cross (kissing it, or crossing themselves, or whatever). In the West, we line up to venerate the pastor.

This was an eye and ear opener for me. I’ll have to go back. Maybe then I can both figure out and express what these reactions I have are.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Farewell to The Diva

One of my favorite singers has died, and I invite your prayers for the repose of her soul and the durability of her legacy. Beverly Sills defined "diva-hood." She was a woman of fantastic skill, enormous and gregarious personality (and lately, body), brilliant smile, and open-hearted generosity. She had been a world-renowned opera soprano, an arts administrator, a devoted wife, a mother, and probably the opera world's most successful representative to the ordinary "joes" who, like me, warm to the art through the artists.

I am an opera buff because of "Bubbles" -- so named, not because of her bubbly spirit (which she undeniably had), but because she was born with a large spit bubble on her lips. For years, I resisted opera: I couldn't understand what all the hullabaloo was about. Even though I had studied singing and was deeply appreciative of art songs, for some reason opera evaded me. (Oh, I didn't "hate" it, but I just couldn't make a connection.) But I had a good friend who lived and died opera and so, in respect for him, I one day sat down, with coffee cup nearby (I was prepared), to listen to and to attend to "Lucia de Lammermoor." While the records spun, I followed the libretto. Beverly Sills was Lucia, in what is an utterly famous recording. And I have to tell you, I was swept away. Suddenly it all made sense: fantastic singing, drama, literature (if somewhat -- ! -- melodramatic); it was all there. And from that point on, I was hooked: Next came the "Queens," again with Beverly. And from there I was launched into a life of penury, in part because of the cost of opera recordings.

Along the way, Bubbles, with her champagne-like coloratura soprano, was eclipsed in my taste by the more spinto-voiced singers and roles. Ultimately, Schwarzkopf assumed the throne in my heart. But I could never shake the earliest influence -- much the way, I suppose, that one never forgets his or her first love. The Sills vinyl records are duplicated on my CD racks now -- notice: duplicated, not replaced by. (I still think vinyl gives a warmer and deeper sound than CD, especially in those old recordings that have been transferred to disk.) And when I'm feeling the need for some plain old emotional sentimentality, on goes "Maria Stuarda" or "Lucia" or the album on which Sills sings the Adam variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle." And I am repaired.

I heard the slanders that were offered against Sills, often from people who ought to have known better. I never understood the antipathy that Sutherland and Bonynge displayed toward her, but I always suggested that it was jealousy -- that Bubbles got such rapturous adoration for herself and not just for her voice. (I confess to disliking virtually everything I've heard Sutherland sing and she, unlike Sills, always required one to suspend disbelief to make somewhat real the beauty she was supposed to be portraying. See: I can be as dissing as any old opera queen!) Difference of voice does not translate into better or worse, though it did for many, I guess.

My respect and affection for the Diva were validated when, following her good-sense decision to retire from opera at the top of her career, she went into arts administration. I know there were problems, but the public face she gave Lincoln Center, the City Opera, and, more ironically, the Metropolitan Opera must have been wonderfully helpful to those organization. And certainly, her interviews with artists during intermissions of the broadcasts from Lincoln Center on public TV helped root those experiences in middle-brow culture. For my money, that is a devotion to art and to the well-being of society. Note, too, her involvement with the March of Dimes. (She ranks up there with Jimmy Carter, who continues to work for peace and well-being, when he might have followed the example of many of his predecessors and simply rested and gotten rich.)

When the choir at the throne of God begins their anthems, I am certain, Beverly Sills will one of the grandest Dames to sing a featured aria. May God accept her into his loving embrace, and may our grief be softened by the recollection (in memory and ear) of her contribution to the beauty of the creation and of her hearty, throaty laugh.