Saturday, August 13, 2005

A Grocer's Sunday Morning

A centerpiece of Dom Gregory Dix’s Shape of the Liturgy is his concerted multi-faceted attempt to reconstruct the liturgy, the actions, the prayers, the theological meaning, and the whole experience of the Eucharist before the legalization of the faith under Constantine. One passage is famous (or if it isn’t famous it ought to be famous, and I’m going to do my share to make it famous), for its “updating” of this ante-Nicene Eucharist into modern conditions. In it, Dix not only paints a fascinating picture (our British readers may be able to enlighten me on the arcane significance, if any of Brondesbury, Maida Vale, etc., if any) but illustrates graphically a number of important themes that he explores in his book:

1) The importance of action and the relatively unimportance of spoken elaboration of what the action meant. Certainly all thought it made present once more the sacrifice of the incarnate Christ on the cross and His resurrection and the life of the world to come, but there is not much meditation on the meaning spoken aloud. Nor is there any kneeling or other devotional gesture not directly related to the action at hand.

2) The role of the liturgy and the direct connection of the offertory to the eucharist. It is bread and wine the laity (the “people, in Greek laos, of God”) brings each Sunday that is “eucharistized” into the body and blood of Christ and frequently brought home with them. They, along with the deacons, the elders (“presbyters”), and the bishop/pastor each have some task (that’s the origin of the word liturgy) to do in the common celebration.

3) This passage describes the Eucharist held alone. At this time, the Eucharist was still often held separately from the synaxis or service of the word (which at this time was composed of the greeting, lections separated by the gradual, a sermon, and prayers of the church). This synaxis could be held on Sunday, before the Eucharist, or on other days (Wednesday and Friday were favorites). Another meeting presided over by the bishop might be a Lord’s Supper (that is, a fellowship dinner).

4) The absence of any deliberate austerity in the worship. Contrary to popular belief the early Christian church was not exclusively, or even particularly, plebeian in origin. Even if her bishops were of low origin, they made respectable and comfortable livings and looked and dressed the part. Wherever possible, the meetings were held in wealthy Christians’ houses with the best silver service available.

It is very easy for us to romanticize the life and worship of the primitive christians. What was conventional in the social setting of their day has for us the picturesqueness of the strange and remote; what was straightforward directness in their worship has for us the majesty of antiquity. It is a useful thing occasionally to transpose it all into the conventions of our own day and look at the result.

Suppose you were a grocer in Brondesbury, a tradesman in a small way of business, as so many of the early Roman christians were. Week by week . . . Sunday morning . . . before most people were stirring, you would set out through the silent streets, with something in your pocket . . . a bun or a scone. At the end of your walk you would slip in through the mews at the back of one of the big houses near Hyde Park, owned by a wealthy christian woman. There in her big drawing-room, looking just as it did every day, you would find the ‘church’ assembling -- socially a very mixed gathering indeed. A man would look at you keenly as you went in, the deacon ‘observing those who come in,’ but he knows you and smiles and says something. Inside you mostly know one another well, you exchange greetings and nod and smile; (people who are jointly risking at the least penal servitude for life by what they are doing generally make certain that they know their associates). At the other end of the drawing-room sitting in the best arm-chair is an elderly man, a gentleman by his clothes but nothing out of the ordinary -- the bishop of London. On either side of him is standing another man, perhaps talking quietly to him [-- more deacons]. On chairs in a semicircle facing down the room, looking very obviously like what they are -- a committee -- sit the presbyters. In front of them is a small drawing-room table.

The Eucharist is about to begin. The bishop stands and greets the church. At once there is silence and order, and the church replies. Then each man turns and grasps his neighbor strongly and warmly by both hands. (I am trying to represent the ancient [kiss] by a modern convention [of an embrace, that] implies more affection than does merely ‘shaking hands’ with us.) The two men by the bishop spread a white table-cloth on the table, and then stand in front of it, one holding a silver salver and the other two-handled silver loving-cup. One by one, you all file and put your little scones on the salver and pour a little wine [that you have brought yourself] into the loving cup. Then some of the scones are piled together before the bishop on the cloth, and he adds another for himself, while water is poured into the wine in the cup and it is set before him. In silence he and the presbyters stand with their hands outstretched over the offerings, and then follow the dialogue and the chanted prayer lasting perhaps five minutes or rather less. You all answer ‘Amen’ and there follows a pause as the bishop breaks one of the scones and eats a piece. He stands a moment in prayer and then takes three sips from the cup, while the two men beside him break the other scones into pieces. To each of those around him he gives a small piece and three sips from the cup. Then with the broken bread piled on the salver he comes forward and stands before the table with one of the deacon in a leisure suit standing beside him with the cup. One by one you file up again to receive in your hands ‘The Bread of Heaven in Christ Jesus,’ and pass on take three sups from the cup held by the deacon, ‘In God the Father Almighty and in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the holy church,’ to which you answer ‘Amen’; then you all file back again to where you were standing before. There is a moment’s pause when all have finished, and then most of you go up to the bishop again with a little silver box like a snuff-box into which he places some fragments of the Bread. You stow it in an inside pocket, reflecting perhaps that [one of you acquaintances here] was lynched six months ago for being caught with one of those little boxes upon him. There is another pause while the vessels are cleaned, and then someone says loudly ‘That’s all. Good morning, everybody.’ And in twos and threes you slip out again through the back door or the area door and go back home -- twenty minutes after you came in. This is all there is to it, externally. It would be absolutely meaningless to an outsider, and quite unimpressive.

But perhaps it did not all end quite so easily. You might very well never walk back up Maida Vale again. Perhaps the bishop stopped to speak to someone on the front-door as he went out, and was recognized by a casual passer-by who set up a great shout of ‘Christian! Christian!’ And before anyone quite realized what was happening a small jostling crowd had collected from nowhere and someone had thrown a brick through one of the windows; doors and windows were opening all down the street and there was a hubbub of jeers and yells, till a policeman arrived majestically, demanding ‘Wot’s all this ’ere?’ ‘It’s those ----- christians again!’ shouts someone, and the policeman gets out his notebook and looks severely at the bishop standing with the two deacons just behind him at the foot of the steps. ‘Wot’s all this about?’ And then in response to the accusing shouts of the elbowing crowd there come the deadly challenge from the policeman, ‘Is that right that you’re a christian?’ And the bishop admits he is a christian. ‘There’s another of them,’ says someone, pointing at one of the deacons. ‘There’s a whole gang of them in there.’ The deacons briefly admit their faith, and the policeman looks doubtfully at the house. It’s said they always come quietly, but one never knows. He blows his whistle, more police arrive, the house is entered, and soon afterwards twenty-two people, including the bishop and his deacons and the little grocer from Brondesbury, are marched to the station.

The proceedings are by summary jurisdiction, as in the case of a raid on a night-club with us. They are all charged together ‘with being christians,’ i.e. members of an unlawful association. Each is asked in turn whether he pleads guilty or not guilty. If he answers ‘guilty,’ his case is virtually decided. The magistrate is perfectly well aware of the christian rule of never denying their religion. Someone’s courage fails at the critical moment and he falters ‘Not guilty.’ Then there is a simple further test to be applied. At the side of the court-room is hung a picture of the king. 'Just go and kneel in front of that picture and say “Lord have mercy upon me,” will you?' says the magistrate. (The offering of the conventional pinch of incense or few drops of wine before the statue of the deified emperor, which was the routine test for christianity, involved no more religious conviction than such a ceremony as I have invented here.) Some of the accused go through the prescribed test with white faces and faltering lips. One goes up to the picture to do so and his conscience suddenly gets the better of his fear; he knocks the picture off the wall in a revulsion of nervous anger. He is hustled back to the dock and the picture is hung up again. The magistrate, a reasonable man, again asks each of those who have pleaded guilty whether they will even now go through the little ceremony. They all refuse. There is no more to be done, no possible doubt as to the law on the matter: non licet esse christianos; ‘christians may not exist.’ The legal penalty is death, and there is no grounds for appeal. As a rule there is no delay . . . So in our modern analogy fifteen christians were hanged that afternoon at Wandsworth. Or on other occasions the policy of the administration might have caused private instructions to be issued to the magistrates that the law against christianity is not to be too strictly enforced for the present; a sentence of ‘cat,’ penal servitude for life and transportation would have been substituted for the death penalty. Whether this was really much more merciful may be doubted . . . [The destinations] were more like Devil’s Island than Botany Bay. Most of the prisoners died within two or three years

(from The Shape of the Liturgy, London, 1946, pp. 142-44).

Originally posted at Here We Stand