Saturday, April 30, 2011

Paschal Thoughts

I'm back! Apologies to people following this blog but life has been very busy for me over the last couple of months and I've been plagued with IT problems too. But I'm back at last and hope to do more regular blogging in future. For now I just want to reflect on some aspects of the  rituals celebrating Easter or Pascha, as most of the non-Anglophone world  know the feast of Christ's Resurrection.

This year I did the full Easter/Pascha Triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night. It's the latter that I want to comment on. If you've never done the Vigil mass in either it's Roman or Anglican (rite) forms then I should explain that it includes a long series of readings from scripture, usually starting with Genesis 1, the account of the seven days of creation. I want to say some more about that but before I do I want to take a sidetrack into some history. After the Vigil Mass I wondered about the history of the rituals and the readings included in it. In particular I was interested in the antiquity of Genesis 1 as a Paschal reading. I didn't have to go far; Wikipedia has a quite comprehensive article on the Easter Vigil, especially as celebrated in the West. What was most fascinating was this:

The original twelve Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil survive in an ancient manuscript belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Armenian Easter Vigil also preserves what is believed to be the original length of the traditional gospel reading of the Easter Vigil, i.e., from the Last Supper account to the end of the Gospel according to Matthew.

In the earliest Jerusalem usage the vigil began with Psalm 117 [118] sung with the response, "This is the day which the Lord has made." Then followed twelve Old Testament readings, all but the last being followed by a prayer with kneeling.

(1) Genesis 1:1--3:24 (the story of creation); (2) Genesis 22:1-18 (the binding of Isaac); (3) Exodus 12:1-24 (the Passover charter narrative); (4) Jonah 1:1--4:11 (the story of Jonah); (5) Exodus 14:24--15:21 (crossing of the Red Sea); (6) Isaiah 60:1-13 (the promise to Jerusalem); (7) Job 38:2-28 (the Lord's answer to Job); (8) 2 Kings 2:1-22 (the assumption of Elijah); (9) Jeremiah 31:31-34 (the new covenant); (10) Joshua 1:1-9 (entry into the Promised Land); (11) Ezekiel 37:1-14 (the valley of dry bones); (12) Daniel 3:1-29 (the story of the three youths).

The twelfth reading leads into the Song of the Three Children

The Song of the Three Children is from Greek Daniel, part of what Protestants term the Apocrypha, but which is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments. But I'm really more interested in Genesis right now. Unfortunately the Wikipedia article doesn't say how old this manuscript and cycle of readings are but I guess ancient means pretty old, way back in the first millennium, likely dating from the days of the Christian Roman Empire, 4th, 5th or 6th centuries. Here, Genesis 1 is combined with the second creation story, that of Adam and Eve, Eden and the Fall. There's a logic there in that Christ's death and resurrection are believed to have undone the effects of the Fall. Christ is also understood as the New Adam (and Mary, his mother, the new Eve). I find it interesting that the modern day Roman rite Easter vigil does not include a place for the Eden narratives. When I say modern I should also point out that while there have been important changes to the Roman Easter Vigil rite on two occasions in the last 70 odd years the actual suite of readings has been the norm for many centuries. Interestingly, from the Wikipedia article it seems that the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) rite has likewise dropped the Eden narratives from its Vesperal liturgy for Holy Saturday, reading only Genesis 1: 1-13, the first three days of creation.

Here are the lists of readings for the Roman and Byzantine rites:

Roman 1. Genesis 1:-2:2; 2. Genesis 22:1-18; 3. Exodus 14:15-15:1; 4. Isaiah 54:4a.5-14; 5. Isaiah 55:1-11; 6. Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; 7. Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28.

Byzantine 1. Genesis 1:1-13; 2. Isaiah 60:1-16; 3. Exodus 12:1-11; 4. Jonah 1:1-4:11; 5. Joshua 5:10-15; 6. Exodus 13:20-15:19; 7. Zephaniah 3:8-15; 8. 1 King 17:8-24; 9. Isaiah 61:10-62:5; 10. Genesis 22:1-18; 11. Isaiah 61:1-9; 12. 2 Kings 4:8-37; 13. Isaiah 63:11-64:5; 14. Jeremiah 31:31-34; 15. Daniel 3:1-68.

The Roman rite has reduced the number of readings, at the same time adding new ones while the Byzantine has simply increased the readings by adding to them.

But what are common to all three lists are the first creation story, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) and the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:24--15:21). The binding of Isaac makes complete sense. Early Christians understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to prefigure the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross. The crossing of the Red Sea is a bit more obscure. Yes, it relates to Passover, from which Christian Pascha/Easter is derived but if Christ is the Lamb surely the earlier passage Exodus 12:1-24, the Charter of Passover (as the Wikipedia article puts it), would be more appropriate, given the central role of the paschal lamb there and the importance of paschal lamb imagery in the Christian context. In the Roman rite Vigil, the prayer following the reading, states that the crossing of the Red Sea  represents the waters of baptism by which the new Israel, the Christian believers, are delivered from sin and death so the text is thus reconfigured by the prayer in a symbolic and ritual way.

But what is most important here is the sea. A number of scholars have observed over the years that the Exodus account of the crossing of the Red Sea contains echoes or might even be a reworking of more ancient Middle eastern mythologies of the battle between a deity and the sea. In the Ugarit Ba'al cycle, the god Ba'al does battle with the Sea god, Yam (Yam means sea in both Hebrew and Ugaritic). Ba'al goes on to do battle with Mot, the god of death. Ba'al then dies and is restored to life. The Jewish scriptures contain many references and allusions to the battle with the sea or the sea-monster (Leviathan/Rahab), in this case the protagonist is YHWH, the LORD, the god of Israel. It's referred to frequently in the Psalms, alluded to in the answer to Job, and of course is the background to the Jonah story too (and in the ancient list of Paschal Vigil readings, Jonah precedes the Exodus account of the Red Sea crossing). We don't know the ritual context of the Ba'al cycle but we do for another major chaoskampf myth of the region, the battle of Marduk with Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth cycle. Marduk creates the world out of the broken body of Tiamat; the Enuma Elish was recited/chanted as part of the Babylonian New Year rituals.

In the ancient world the New Year was associated with the equinox, spring or autumn. The ancient Persian New Year, Now Roz, is still celebrated at the spring equinox. Even in medieval Christendom the civil year began with the feast of the Annunciation in March i.e. the spring equinox. (And likewise Aries is the first sign of the zodiac in western astrology because it's the sign that conjoins the spring equinox). However, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah was celebrated at the autumnal equinox. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement was an important day of the  Jewish New Year cycle. Atonement rituals were important parts of ancient Middle Eastern religions and often were key parts of the New Year rituals. What the New Year rituals signified was the renewal, re-creation of the cosmos. Atonement rituals, as in the Jewish Yom Kippur, could play a key part because they performed the healing of the cosmos as part of the start of a new cycle of the year. Scapegoat rituals, as in the one associated with the Jewish Yom Kippur, were also a frequent aspect of the atonement performances.

Listening to the cadences of Genesis 1 at the Easter Vigil the other night, I could easily imagine it recited or chanted at the New Year rituals of Rosh Hashanah in the ancient Temples at Jerusalem and Ha Gerizim. But what's it doing at Easter/Pascha, a Christian feast derived from the Jewish Pesach/Passover? Well, both Jewish Pesach and the Christian Pascha are associated with, set by the spring equinox. In the Jewish calendar Pesach falls in Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year (the autumnal Rosh Hashanah, New Year, actually falls in Tishrei, the 7th month of the Jewish calendar). In other words Pesach is itself a kind of New Year festival, and the New Year associations are given away by the Exodus account of the crossing of the Red Sea, and indeed the whole narrative of the Exodus, which portrays the LORD doing battle with Pharaoh, culminating with the defeat and destruction of Pharaoh in the sea, recalling those ancient Levantine myths in which the deity does battle with the sea or the sea-monster.

Whether or not Nisan was originally the month of the Jewish New Year is not important. What is important is that the Passover narrative and the rituals of Pesach carry strong resonances of the creation and chaoskampf mythologies of the New Year and Atonement. One could say that while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrate the re-creation, restoration and renewal of the cosmos, Pesach celebrates the re-creation, restoration and renewal of the Israelite community. Unlike Rosh Hashanah, Pesach was one of the three ancient pilgrimage feasts when the people were expected , if possible to journey to the Temple (Jerusalem or Ha Gerizim) to celebrate Pesach there, a bit like the annual Hajj to Mecca in Islam. Pesach was and is celebrated by the community as a whole unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which were celebrated in the Temple by specifically priestly rituals.

But then why has Genesis 1 been maintained as a key text of the Christian Paschal rites especially given that the Eden narratives of Genesis 2-3 have actually been abandoned progressively over time in both East and West? I have been kind of developing a rather audacious line of thought here, in part in response to the work of Margaret Barker. I believe ancient Christianity began as one of many ancient Jewish movements concerned with the Temple. A recurring refrain in biblical and extra-biblical texts is the problem of the Temple and its corruption, usually by falling under the control of a rival group. We find this pattern in Ezekiel, Zechariah, 1 Enoch and a number of Qumran texts, for example. I think Christianity began with the perception that the Temple had been corrupted by the priestly circles who ruled there. Jesus himself took on a High Priestly role, might even have been understood as the heavenly High Priest. Perhaps at Jesus' own instigation, Christians began to take on aspects of Temple ritual and reconfigure them to instantiate the Temple now as the Christian community (similar ideas are found at Qumran too). The Eucharist is developed as the key bloodless sacrifice of the new but restored Temple that is the Christian community, an open community in which humans encounter the divine face to face in their communal rituals without the mediation of the corrupt Temple authorities (I more and more think the book of Revelation is a Christian prophetic reflection upon the first Jewish war and the destruction of the Temple and its replacement by the new Temple of the Christian community in which Jesus, the Logos, is made manifest, returns to the community, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist). These Christian rituals, such as Eucharist and Baptism, are derived from Temple ritual and symbolism reconfigured in a way to make God truly Emmanuel, 'with us', rather than 'hidden' in the priestly confines of the Temple. Jesus was executed at Pesach, instantiating, fulfilling the High Priestly role of shedding his blood to heal and renew the cosmos on the Day of Atonement (in the Temple rite, a goat is of course slaughtered in the High Priest's place). So Christians uncover the old New Year/Atonement meanings of Pesach but reconfigure them by joining, blending them with a reconfigured  Pesach as well. The two equinoctal feasts are merged and reconfigured to shape the development of Christian liturgy/tradition (the core component of Christian tradition is liturgy) in succeeding generations. When Pascha was developed as a specific annual feast in the second and third centuries Christians drew upon traditions and memories of old Temple practices to create  a Paschal gestalt. Christian Pascha explicitly identified itself as a new Pesach, a language used to this very day but the ritual patterns and symbolic frameworks that are deployed for this Christian Pesach are as much, even more?, derived from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than anything to do with Pesach. It was a pattern compelled by the circumstances of Jesus' own death which was charged symbolically with the power of the old rites of Atonement and New Year in which the deity sheds blood/life to renew, recreate, heal and restore the cosmos. And these rites have an ancient provenance. Countless centuries earlier, in the Ugarit myth cycles, Ba'al does battle with Mot/Death and succumbs only to rise anew and restore the cosmos to new life. Likewise in his own ordeal Jesus does battle with Mot/Death to succumb and rise anew restoring the cosmos to new life. The language and imagery runs right through Christian proclamation although the stories of Ba'al's death and rising had been long forgotten (and ancient Ugarit too).

Genesis 1 recounts in a beautiful poetic structure the speaking of cosmos into existence by deity, it is the key text of the old New Year of Temple rite so it makes sense to me that it should lead off the readings of Christian Pascha which celebrates the renewal, restoration, recreation, resurrection of the cosmos through the broken and resurrected body of Jesus, humble Galilean and heavenly High Priest. Reading Genesis 1 in the Vigil Mass on the Paschal Eve links it to traditions and practices that go back thousands of years, into the heart of Temple Judaism and beyond into the world of Canaanite/Levantine myth and ritual from which 'Israel' was born. And not in any supersessionist way of appropriation, but rather in a lineage of creative inheritance and generation.