Friday, March 30, 2007

Worship Notes: Good Friday Service

From the early days of her worship, the Church utilized the Passion story either sung or recited from scripture. These passages formed an important element of their Holy Week observances.

In the fourth century, a Spanish nun named Egeria took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the foremost elements in her travel journal was the liturgy and worship observed in Jerusalem. “Her account of the services held during Holy Week includes the earliest surviving reference to the chanting of the Passion story.” Sometime at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo made a reference to this same tradition, and by the middle of the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great codified the use of the Passion narrative during Holy Week. According to his directives, the Passion story from St. Matthew’s gospel should be chanted in the services for Palm Sunday and Wednesday of Holy Week and the Passion narrative from St. John’s gospel should be utilized on Good Friday.

Subsequent changes over the next five hundred years included the addition of the Passion according to St. Luke on Wednesday and the St. Mark Passion story on Tuesday of Holy Week. The height of musical settings of the Passion occurred during the 18th century with Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion.

Our service at Parish Pres next week continues the great tradition of the Church. We will gather on Good Friday in order to contemplate the death of Christ, mourn for our sins, and seek forgiveness in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. The service includes the reading of the Passion story from the book of John as well as congregational hymns, responses, choral music, and communion.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

John Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic”

I am always challenged by Ruskin’s moral analysis of art, architecture, and craftsmanship. It is no wonder that he exerted such a profound influence on all the arts.

Ruskin likens the redundant task of factory workers to a slavery of the soul in which they are forced to execute the same job over and over, and “in which the execution or power of the inferior workman is entirely subjected to the intellect of the higher.” The practical side effect of this is that men are reduced to cogs and unable to develop as true human beings. In contrast, Ruskin writes:

But in the medieval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. But it not only recognizes its value; it confesses its imperfection, in only bestowing dignity upon the acknowledgment of unworthiness. That admission of lost power and fallen nature, which the Greek or Ninevite felt to be intensely painful, and, as far as might be, altogether refused, the Christian makes daily and hourly, contemplating the fact of it without fear, as tending, in the end, to God’s greater glory. Therefore, to every spirit which Christianity summons to her service, her exhortation is: Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame…

And therefore, while in all things we see or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults.

He later writes:

You are put to a stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise in perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energies of their spirit must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last—a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned: save only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood

I have read multiple books by George MacDonald—Lilith, Phantastes, Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, On the Back of the North Wind, and many of the shorter works for children. However, when I picked up Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood, I quickly realized that all of my reading of MacDonald had either been fantasy or children’s fiction. Here I was confronted with a profound story concerning the depths of life that run beneath the surface of quiet neighborhoods.

The protagonist and narrator of the story is a parish minister who has just assumed the pastorate in his first church. He wastes no time in throwing himself into the life of his parishioners—both poor and rich. The conversations that he has, the lessons he teaches and subsequently learns, and the compassion he displays convey the gospel time and again. One of my favorite passages occurs as he has suffered a personal setback and struggles with feelings of depression and doubt. He writes that he seeks consolation from the New Testament but discovers that he did not want to read the Epistles—he desires to read the gospels to see Jesus and to know then one of whom the epistles were written. He writes:

Know that man, Christ Jesus! Ah! Lord, I would go through fire and water to sit the last at Thy table in Thy Kingdom; but dare I say now I know Thee!—But Thou art the Gospel, for Thou art the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and I have found Thee in the Gospel. For I found, as I read, that Thy very presence in my thoughts, not as the theologians show Thee, but as Thou showedst Thyself to them who report Thee to us, smoothed the troubled waters of my spirit, so that even while the storm lasted, I was able to walk upon them to go to Thee.

At another point he visits a dying parishioner and in the course of conversation says to her:

“You won’t die. Your body will die, and be laid away out of sight; but you will be awake, alive, more alive than you are now, a great deal.”

And here let me interrupt the conversation to remark upon the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls. The consequence is, that they think of their souls as of something which is not themselves. For what a man has cannot be himself. Hence, when they are told that their souls go to heaven, they think of their selves as lying in the grave. They ought to be taught that they have bodies; and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on. Then they will not think, as old Mrs. Tomkins did, that they will be laid in the grave…we talk as if we possessed souls, instead of being souls.

What a wonderful and profound book that makes me appreciate the many matters of life and death and living in my own quiet neighborhood.

Johannesen Printing and Publishing has a very nice hand-bound edition available of this and all other titles by George MacDonald (

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!

Johann Sebastian Bach was a musical genius, an intellectual giant, and a gracious man. Bach’s achievement in the area of music is one of the greatest tour de forces in the history of the world - on par with, or surpassing, that of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Dante, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Milton, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. Bach was that great and significant. Even more compelling is the fact that he consciously and deliberately wrote all of his music from a Christian perspective and for the Glory of God.

Bach was able to function on a multiplicity of levels: a conservator of past styles and musical elements and an innovator of new forms and styles; a craftsman who brought his art to the highest imaginable summit while creating timeless works of beauty; an artisan who perfected his art with almost scientific precision while remaining lively and accessible to average listeners; a communicator who clearly conveyed a message while simultaneously embedding layers of symbolism - musical and extra-musical - that requires studious inquiry to uncover.

Sebastian Bach remains an agent of the power of cultural change through his clear presentation of the gospel in his work, his commitment to biblical excellence, and his reformational approach to cultural change. In all these areas he provides a corrective and example of how to fulfill the calling of an artist from a biblical perspective and how to engage the world.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Worship Notes 16 March 2007

Mothering Sunday or Laetare

The fourth Sunday of Lent is known as Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or Laetare Sunday. The opening words of the service on this day were traditionally “O be joyful, Jerusalem” (Laetare Jerusalem). In addition, the Gospel reading for this Sunday was the story of the miracle of the five loaves and fishes—the refreshment given to the people following Jesus. As such, this day also consists of a relaxation of Lenten fasts.

Since at least the 16th century, English churches celebrated the refreshment aspect of the fourth Sunday of Lent as Mothering Sunday—our equivalent to Mother’s Day. The celebration consisted of giving workers a day off to visit their “mother church” where their family and mother lived and worshiped. This was known as going “a mothering.” The occasion for family reunions inspired certain traditions to honor one’s mother such as flowers, eggs, or cakes.

Simnel cakes became the favored cake for Mothering Sunday. A simnel cake is a fruit cake (sultanas, currants, cherries, orange and lemon peel) covered with a flat layer of marzipan decorated with eleven marzipan balls—representing the twelve disciples minus Judas.

“I’ll to thee a Simnell bring ‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give to me”
—Robert Herrick, 1648

Friday, March 9, 2007

Art for Lent

For the season of Lent at Parish Pres, we are using different selections of etchings on the cover of the bulletin all by Albrecht Dürer—the great artist of the Reformation.

Dürer was born in 1471 in Nuremburg. The son of a goldsmith, at the age of thirteen, Dürer apprenticed with his father, and by the age of fifteen, he entered another apprenticeship with a local painter and wood cut artisan. By his early twenties, Dürer earned his living as book illustrator, and after a visit to Venice, he returned to Nuremburg and established his own workshop. By the turn of the century, Dürer enjoyed widespread acclaim and commissions for paintings as well as great demand for his printed works. In 1511 he published two versions of the passion story—the Large Passion and the Small Passion because of the size paper used in the printing process. His artistic interest was vast, and he excelled in many different forms and subject matter from self-portraits, to nature and animal studies, to biblical themes.

Dürer was a follower of the Reformation. When he heard that Martin Luther had been arrested, he exclaimed, “Oh, God, is Luther dead? Who henceforth is to expound to us the holy Gospel with such clarity!” One of his greatest paintings, The Four Apostles, is considered by many to be a symbolic representation of the Reformation and its principal proponents. Dürer spent the last years of his life publishing his theoretical writings on art, and he died on April 6, 1528—just before his fifty-seventh birthday.

During the season of Lent, each week features a different illustration from the Passion story. So as we progressively move through Lent, we are also progressively moving through the episodes of Holy Week.

For the first Sunday of Lent, the depiction of Christ washing the feet of Peter reminds us of the humility of Christ—the theme for the sermon that morning. Last week the etching of the Last Supper was a reminder of the nature of true worship in Spirit and in Truth. This week, the Agony in the Garden focuses on Christ’s prayer for believers and the miracle of the incarnation in that God was made flesh in order to fulfill the Law and be the propitiation for our sins. Subsequent images will move us through the rest of Holy Week culminating in the crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Lenten Traditions: Pretzels

The pretzel is a traditional Lenten bread that dates back to the early 4th century. Christians in the Roman Empire maintained a strict fast during Lent that excluded from their diet milk, butter, cheese, eggs, cream, and meat. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory confirmed this when he wrote to Augustine of Canterbury regarding dietary rules in Lent: “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs.” In order to preserve strength throughout the day, people would eat one meal in the evening or in the middle of the afternoon with smaller snacks throughout the day. The pretzel fulfilled the need for a simple food that met abstinence and fasting concerns.

By making breads of water, four, and salt, early Christians were reminded of the penitential nature of Lent and fasting. By shaping the bread in the form of crossed arms, they were also reminded of prayer. The Latin word for “little arms” is bracellae. Eventually invading German tribes corrupted the Latin to “brezel” or “prezel.”

From medieval times, the people of Germany, Austria, and Poland introduced pretzels annually on Ash Wednesday. In addition to giving out pretzels to the poor during Lent, other traditions include hanging pretzels from palm branches on Palm Sunday. Despite the fact that pretzels are now readily available throughout the year, there are still places in Europe that only serve pretzels from Ash Wednesday to Easter in keeping with the former symbolism.

A fifth century manuscript contains the earliest picture and description of the pretzel.