Singing and Dancing through Great Lent
by fatherstephen (Orth.)
I grew up in a rural American Protestant culture. In many ways there was a level of piety that was beneficial. God’s name, particularly the name of Christ, was held in great reverence. Stores closed on Sundays – and if many people used the afternoon for recreation – most used the morning to attend Church. The knowledge of Scripture, though somewhat superficial, was still widespread. The first psalms I memorized were in public school. But the culture had its limitations. Drinking alcohol was strongly discouraged though widespread in an almost criminal atmosphere reminiscent of the days of prohibition. Everybody smoked tobacco, even if we were told it was wrong. Dancing was not common – some held it to be sinful. I never learned to dance. Musical experience was limited. There was the choir at Church (boring and bad). I took piano lessons and was quite unusual for doing this (girls took piano, not boys). Later I was introduced to band instruments, though I don’t recall any adults in my childhood who played musical instruments.
It may sound frivolous to some, but I think it is profoundly disturbing that there have been forms of modern culture that do not sing and dance. I have never read of a single example of a folk culture (pre-modern by definition) in which singing and dancing were absent. Their absence is a sure sign that an ideology foreign and essentially hostile to basic human instincts has settled in.
The rise of “Rock-n-Roll” in the 1950’s ran counter to this rural ideology. Inveighing against the evils of the “devil’s music” was quite common. There was, of course, a great deal of racism and fear in this reaction. But it was, in many ways, simply the rejection of a false ideology. People will eventually sing and dance. It is essential to human life.
I think about these things as I make the journey through Great Lent. For the same culture that did not sing and dance did not make the sign of the Cross. It rarely bent its knees (it was quite common to sit while singing hymns in Church). It did not fast. It produced almost no art or beauty. Utility was its hallmark. The life of Great Lent comes from Classical Christian culture. That culture remembers and preserves what it is to be truly and fully human, created in the image of God. Lent is a journey that, rightly practiced, slowly restores our true humanity. A good Lent should sing and dance.
The song of Lent often has the sound of “bright sorrow.” It remembers our journey into bondage and grieves it. It remembers our deliverance from sin and death at Pascha and stretches toward that great prize. But the song must still be sung.
The dance of Lent may sound like a strange way to describe devotional actions, but making prostrations, bowing, allowing the body itself to enter into the ritual of humility is a necessary movement. We are not disembodied souls who are instructed only to “think” of God. Such diminished devotion becomes less than human in its efforts to divorce itself from physicality.
From the earliest times Christians have been instructed to stand in prayer, facing the East with eyes and hands uplifted, and to do this three times a day (or more). From this posture the dance proceeds with bows and prostrations as we humble ourselves before God and beg for His help. The fathers said that the body should be an “icon” of the soul, mirroring outwardly what the soul is doing inwardly. The latter is almost impossible without the former.
Perhaps the pre-eminent song of Lent in the Eastern Church speaks of music:
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it.
For there they that had taken us captive asked of us the words of a song;
and they that had carried us away asked a hymn, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How should we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cleave to my throat, if I do not remember thee;
if I do not prefer Jerusalem as the chief of my joy...
The songs of Zion represent more than religious tunes: they are equally the songs of our God-shaped-humanity. For God Himself sings! We are so created, however, that a song will arise and our bodies will dance. The culture of my childhood had turned its back on important parts of human nature and shamed music and dance in a most inhuman manner. But if we will not sing the Lord’s song, then another song will be sung. The descendants of those who would not sing now sing in praise of violence, promiscuity and empty, aching desire. They dance in a manner that mocks their past (and the new songs and the new dance are now to be found in their churches). The proper desires of our nature will not be denied (though they are easily perverted).
And so God calls us back home during this holy season - instructing us in the songs of Zion and the great dance of all creation.
"Come let us worship!" the psalm says, but the translation is faulty. "Come let us bend the knee!" would be more correct.
You have turned my mourning into dancing! You have put off my sackcloth... (Psalm 30:11).
Sing the song! Dance the dance!
fatherstephen | March 8, 2014 at
DOM PROSPER GUERANGER ON LAETARE SUNDAY(Now the Extraordinary Use)
This Sunday, called, from the first word of the Introit, Laetare Sunday, is one of the most solemn of the year. The Church interrupts her Lenten mournfulness ; the chants of the Mass speak of nothing but joy and consolation ; the organ, which has been silent during the preceding three Sundays, now gives forth its melodious voice ; the deacon resumes his dalmatic, and the subdeacon his tunic ; and instead of purple, rose-coloured vestments are allowed to be used. These same rites were practiced in Advent, on the third Sunday, called Gaudete. The Church's motive for introducing this expression of joy into to-day's liturgy is to encourage her children to persevere fervently to the end of this holy season. The real mid-Lent was last Thursday, as we have already observed ; but the Church, fearing lest the joy might lead to some infringement on the spirit of penance, has deferred her own notice of it to this Sunday, when she not only permits, but even bids, her children to rejoice !... (The blessing of the golden rose is one of the ceremonies peculiar to the fourth Sunday of Lent, which is called on this account Rose Sunday...).
We now come to the explanation of another name given to the fourth Sunday of Lent, which was suggested by the Gospel of the day. We find this Sunday called in several ancient documents, the Sunday of the five loaves. The miracle alluded to in this title not only forms an essential portion of the Church's instructions during Lent, but it is also an additional element of to-day's joy. We forget for an instant the coming Passion of the Son of God, to give our attention to the greatest of the benefits He has bestowed on us ; for under the figure of these loaves multiplied by the power of Jesus, our faith sees that Bread which came down from heaven, and giveth life to the world. 'The Pasch,' says our Evangelist, 'was near at hand'; and, in a few days, our Lord will say to us: 'With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you.' Before leaving this world to go to His Father, Jesus desires to feed the multitude that follows Him ; and in order to this, He displays His omnipotence. Well may we admire that creative power, which feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, and in such wise that even after all have partaken of the feast as much as they would, there remain fragments enough to fill twelve baskets. Such a miracle is, indeed, an evident proof of Jesus' mission ; but He intends it as a preparation for something far more wonderful ; He intends it as a figure and a pledge of what He is soon to do, not merely once or twice, but every day, even to the end of time ; not only for five thousand men, but for the countless multitude of believers. Think of the millions, who this very year, are to partake of the banquet of the Pasch ; and yet, He whom we have seen born in Bethlehem (the house of bread) is to be the nourishment of all these guests ; neither will the divine Bread fail. We are to feast as did our fathers before us ; and the generations that are to follow us, shall be invited as we now are, to come and taste how sweet is the Lord. But observe, it is in a desert place, as we learn from St. Matthew, that Jesus feeds these men, who represent us Christians. They have quitted the bustle and noise of cities in order to follow Him. So anxious are they to hear His words, that they fear neither hunger nor fatigue ; and their courage is rewarded. A like recompense will crown our labours, our fasting and abstinence, which are now more than half over. Let us, then, rejoice, and spend this day with the light-heartedness of pilgrims who are near the end of their journey. The happy moment is advancing, when our soul, united and filled with her God, will look back with pleasure on the fatigues of the body, which, together with our heart's compunction, have merited for her a place at the divine banquet. The primitive Church proposed this miracle of the multiplication of the loaves as a symbol of the Eucharist, the Bread that never fails. We find it frequently represented in the paintings of the catacombs and on the bas-reliefs of the ancient Christian tombs. The fishes, too, that were given together with the loaves, are represented on these venerable monuments of our faith ; for the early Christians considered the fish to be the symbol of Christ, because the word 'fish' in Greek is made up of five letters, which are the initials of these words : Jesus Christ, Son (of) God, Saviour.
DOM PROSPER GUERANGER
on Laetare Sunday (old Mass)
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MY COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF THE NEW MASS
THE STORY OF THE MAN BORN BLIND
The message of the Gospel is enlightenment, the challenging story of a man born blind who journeys through physical blindness, through his Jewish belief, to belief in Jesus the Light of the World.
In the Old Testament the young Samuel journeys along another path to experience God’s presence.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."3:1-10
"Samuel did not know the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him". Samuel grows to enlightenment, to experience God’s presence in a new way.
The man was blind from birth. St Augustine suggests: "The blind man is the human race." The invitation is to journey with him, to accept Jesus as “the light of the world”.
Blind Alley As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world”. When he had said this he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” which means sent. Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
He went, he washed and he sees. Amazement and joy greet his healing but physical healing is just the first step on his way to enlightenment.
There was talk among the neighbours.
The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
The man born blind is an object of conversation. In the babble of voices he kept saying “I am the man”. Imagine the shocked silence as they turn and listen to his story!
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."
Making mud and placing it on the blind man’s eyes was work and broke the Sabbath. Jesus is adjudged a sinner. Questioned by the Pharisees, as though he is on trial, he courageously declares Jesus is a prophet.
His parents are questioned.
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. His parents said, "He is of age; ask him."
The Jews do not believe that he was born blind. Their disbelief is an invitation to declare: “I was never blind.” A lie, a simple declaration that he had never been blind would have resolved the Jews own confusion and freed him and his parents from intimidation.
His parents are afraid. If they show signs of belief in Jesus they are in danger of being expelled from the synagogue, ostracised from their community. They abandon their son.
The second interrogation. The man born blind finds himself alone.
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying you are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?"
Now there is open intimidation – he is invited to denounce Jesus. He refuses. A beggar all his life, dependent on charity, he astounds us by his dignity and persistent defense of Jesus.
An astonishing thing happens, the interrogated becomes the interrogator. Scornfully he asks: “Do you also want to become his disciples?” They expel him.
Abandoned by his parents, terrorized by the Jews, he keeps faith with Jesus. “He was prepared for faith by his courage and gratitude.”
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.
The Gospel does not tell us how he felt after being expelled. Alone, abandoned, he remains true to his inner conviction. Earlier Jesus had said that if someone is faithful, God will hear. He believed Jesus was from God.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out. He searched for him. What a meeting! Did he recognize Jesus’ voice as he stopped and spoke to him? Jesus had given him his sight but subsequently caused him real trouble, so much heart searching, pain, separation from his family, expulsion from his community. There is a price to be paid for the gift of faith. Faith grows amidst trials.
Finally, Jesus leads him to enlightenment.
"Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe."
He sees the divine in the human Jesus.
The story is rich in symbolism: Light and darkness, sight and blindness, enlightenment, Baptism. In the early Christian communities candidates for Baptism presented their names to the local Christian community and for forty days trained for Baptism. During that time they were joined by the local community, united in prayer and fasting. From at least the third century, candidates were introduced to three great Joannine texts: The Samaritan Woman, John. 4; The Man Born Blind, John. 9; The Raising of Lazarus, John 11. These texts hold a key to discipleship.
Each is a story of healing, each is an answer to the questions: “How do you meet Jesus? how do you respond to him?” Benedict XVI writes: “Being a Christian is the encounter with an event, a person, who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
In the case of the Man Born Blind, the early Christians saw a connection between John 9 and baptism. The healing took place at Siloam – the healing power of water. St Augustine declares: “he was baptized in Christ”. Anointing and the use of saliva which preceded the washing also played a part in his healing and became a part of the baptismal ceremony.
MY COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF THE NEW MASS
After an operation on my eyes, I cannot read without glasses because I am unable to focus. However much I try, the letters on the page are a blur. Sin has caused human beings to lose focus whenever we fix our gaze on God. Whenever we want to recognise his presence or know his will, or to to look at the world from his point of view, we fail and are reduced to imagining what he wants. Worse still, our own egoism and sinfulness often distorts even our genuine insights into God's will. Lent is a time for re-focusing, for re-directing our motives, for purifying our inclinations, of cleaning out the accumulated rubbish that impedes our clarity of vision. This we can only do by cooperating with the Holy Spirit so that Christ will lift the scales from our eyes.
Laetare Sunday is a time for turning aside from our own efforts, our own goals, and for remembering with gratitude and joy the wonderful fact that Christ is with us, ready to heal us by giving us the eyes of faith, eyes to see and ears to hear. We know that our own efforts will lead nowhere; but no need to despair: while we are trying, Christ is actually accomplishing our salvation behind the scenes.