The ‘Third Circle’: The Incarnation of Holy Week and the Triduum in our Bodies

In PrayTellBlog this past week there have been powerful reflections on aspects of our liturgical high holy days juxtaposed with the horrors of war and the ongoing tragedies of life on earth for many. Thank you to those who have written these reflections over these great and holy weeks for both Western and Eastern Christian communities.

I want to return to a different juxtaposition though, the layers of embodiment returning to our communal liturgies as the pandemic is pushed back to the edges of parish life. We all know that the liturgies of Holy Week (in particular) are a bringing together of “local” popular religiosity and official liturgical texts. Hence the bringing together of the palm procession from Jerusalem with the passion emphasis of Rome and elsewhere, the footwashing with the Cena Domini of Thursday and the altar of repose juxtaposed with the stripping of the altar, the veneration of the cross side-by-side with the solemn intercessions, and the four-rite liturgy of the Easter Vigil. But here I am struck by the ‘third circle’ of rituals as the faithful moved from domestic prayers or observing livestreamed liturgies or other ‘observations’ of our high holy days in pandemic isolation back to ‘in-person’ liturgies.

There has been such a joyful feel to communal embodiment this past week – almost a giddiness – that I tried to step back from time to time to be attentive to what was going on. In the parish community in which I have spent time these past weeks it began with a funeral in late Lent. The presence of the body, in a coffin, elicited many comments – positive comments – about how the physical reality of the coffin made such a difference. The deceased, a liturgist, was still teaching us, and one lesson was a reminder of the preference for the body at the funeral – in an inexpensive coffin destined for the crematorium after the funeral – but here covered with a glorious pall. An incarnate God and God’s incarnate followers – in life and in death – changed the foci of the funeral, inviting the touching of the coffin on the way to receive communion, making death (and by extension life) ‘real’.

But this ‘third circle’ of ritual movement and use of ritual things continued through this past week. The gathering outside for the liturgy of palms – simply standing in more natural group arrangements rather than isolated in rows of pews – a freedom to move. Singing and walking together, processing around outside and inside the building, and the parallel gathering and processing around the Easter fire and into the church on Saturday. The return of “Anglican origami” as parishioners shaped their palm fronds into crosses after Palm Sunday liturgies, an invitation to walk around the whole church after Sunday liturgies to see and smell the beautiful flowers, the stations of the cross with its essential movement from station to station, an Easter egg hunt with children darting and dancing between the adults gathered for food and drink and conversation, the presentation of oils from the chrism mass into the midst of the bodies who will be anointed, communal darkness, the scent of incense and candle wax and the awareness of bodies present but not seen.

Perhaps most striking was the spontaneous foot-stomping that began with the singing of the Easter troparion at the vigil (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”) which changed what one parishioner described as an intellectual text into visceral shock, and certainly elicited shock when it happened again on Easter morning to a crowd less in touch with the essentials of embodied liturgy. To the dismay of the person trying to run the livestreaming, the “trampling down” made the camera shake in ways which must have been mystifying to those not physically present.

The official texts and structure of the liturgies, joined by ancient (and some new) communal devotional practices, joined by innumerable other rituals and movements – relearned and re-celebrated after so much isolation – gives a ‘deep structure’ to ritual participation in ways so obviously welcomed after the necessity of virtual prayer (ritual online as well as online ritual). As John Baldovin noted a number of years earlier, it’s difficult to partially participate in a procession – either one processes or one does not. (The Urban Character of Christian Worship, 1987)

What will we retain? What secondary (and tertiary) practices will we let drop? What have we learned about worshiping God with our whole heart and mind and strength as we gather again – together – as the body of Christ? And perhaps, most importantly, how will these circles of embodied worship send us forth to “love and serve the Lord” in a world of so much need?

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