Monday, October 27, 2008

Dignus est agnus: the Feast of Christ the King

Yesterday, our schola sang the Introit for the Feast of Christ the King (yes, it's October, we use an older calendar): "Dignus est agnus...". You might know the English text from the Handel setting: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain...". Here is a source text for the Introit: Revelations 5:12:

...dignus est agnus qui occisus est accipere virtutem et divinitatem et sapientiam et fortitudinem et honorem et gloriam et benedictionem...
("Worthy is the lamb who was slain to accept power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing..."). I was daydreaming during the long sermon and noticed a bit of word-painting in the Gregorian melody. Words referring to earthly power, such as "virtutem," tend to be lower in pitch (and with a Fa tonal center), whereas words referring to spiritual characteristics such as divinity or wisdom have a higher tonal center (either So with the hard hexachord, or La).

At that time, the priest then started addressing the Gospel reading in his sermon, which was from Pilate's interrogation of Jesus in John 18. It's worth repeating part of the interrogation here (John 18:33-38 NAB):

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?" Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants (would) be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here." So Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them, "I find no guilt in him.
Jesus never gives a straight answer to Pilate's question, "Are you a king?" The most interesting response to me is, "You say I am a king." To me, this suggests that Pilate didn't understand what Jesus meant by "My kingdom does not belong to this world..." Pilate understands "king" in particular as the potential leader of a revolt against Roman rule in Palestine, but more generally as a secular ruler: someone who deals in worldly power. Jesus understands "king" entirely differently: "You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." His dominion is voluntarily accepted by his subjects: "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

The word painting in the Gregorian introit melody hints at the story of Revelations, which is the Son of God assuming his authority over the world. He accepts both power over the "lower" earth, and the divinity which is rightfully his from the beginning. I've suggested to Gregorian scholae that they keep in mind the Throne Room March in Star Wars while singing this introit. Both pieces have a heroic minor mode, and both tell the story of victory and authority over evil obtained through suffering and sacrifice. The hero comes before the throne to receive the power and grace that was his by birth, which he relinquished for a greater cause and now receives once again with even greater honor. In that sense, one can read Jesus' saying, "You say I am a king," as a willing relinquishment of his rightful title. He could have claimed it and the honor and power that were his due, but he chose to lay it down instead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Act and Intention

Last week, we were idly watching a television program called "Ghost Adventures." In each episode, a crew of three is locked inside a place purported to be haunted, and they attempt to document visual and auditory supernatural phenomena. In the program we watched, the three visited a nightclub widely considered the residence of demons, and taunted them in order to evoke a manifestation (with apparent success). (The episode wisely included some footage of an Old Catholic exorcist bishop in Kentucky chastising the show's host for his foolhardiness, and explaining that the real threat posed by demons is not physical but spiritual.)

What I'm writing about is not whether or not taunting demons is a bad idea (you can judge for yourself!), but something that the host briefly said during the crew's "lockdown" in the haunted basement. They were in a room purported to have housed satanic rituals. The host lit some candles, and arranged them in a circle, asking a crew member to sit there and watch for possible phenomena. However, the host was careful to state as he placed the candles that the circle was randomly arranged and was not meant as "a satanic ritual or anything like that."

The host's phrase irritated me at first, because the practice of casting a circle occurs commonly in many forms of ritual magic and has nothing necessarily to do with "devil worship." (Presumably the connection has to do with figures like Aleister Crowley, along with the usual misunderstandings about non-Christian religious practices.) However, the Gospel reading this Sunday (23th Sunday after Pentecost) put the host's saying in perspective. The reading was Matthew 9:18-26, in particular the cure of the woman suffering hemorrhages. I was reminded of Mark's account of the same episode:

There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. Yet she was not helped but only grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak. She said, "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." Immediately her flow of blood dried up. She felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction. Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who has touched my clothes?" But his disciples said to him, "You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask, 'Who touched me?'" And he looked around to see who had done it. The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction."

I like Mark's version better both because it's more touching (you hear more of the woman's story) and because it's more "raw" than Matthew's account. Mark tells an interesting detail about Jesus' reaction to the woman's touch: he asks, "Who touched me?", even though he is in the middle of a crowd pressing on him from all sides. Imagine asking "who touched me?" in the middle of Times Square at rush hour! However, in a crowd, the act of touching is generally intentionless, or rather a byproduct of unrelated intention: I want to get close enough to have a good look at this Jesus guy, or I'm trying to push through this annoying crowd to buy some groceries from the market, or I'm just caught in the middle and trying to figure out what's going on. In contrast, the suffering woman touches Jesus with fully deliberate intent: "If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured." Jesus in turn responds not to the act of touching, but to the intentional act, the act combined with deliberate intent.

This helped me understand why the host of "Ghost Adventures" might have said what he did. He was in a room where he thought satanic rituals might have been held (a "ritually and supernaturally charged space"), and doing something that he considered charged with spiritual significance (putting candles in a circle around someone). Therefore, he thought it necessary to announce his intent: the arrangement was "random" and "not a satanic ritual." The phenomenon resembles something that a Catholic priest once mentioned regarding the Consecration: at times, it would be necessary to consecrate bread and wine not on the physical altar in front of him, so he would consecrate with the intention to include a particular physical space. He didn't use these terms, but one could say that Eucharistic consecration normally includes an "implicit intention" (i.e., "the bread and wine on the altar in front of me"), but may also include an "explicit intention" which covers unusual circumstances. (Say the priest has to say Mass in a bread factory on a table made of stacked-up full wine bottles: the priest might want to make an explicit intention only to consecrate the elements meant for the sacrifice, and not the surrounding bread or wine.)

Jesus' sensitivity to human intention meant that he could tell the difference between accidental touch and meaningful touch. What's most interesting, however, is that Jesus doesn't even seem to know who touched him, until the woman identifies herself. It's as if her faith alone effects the cure: "Daughter, your faith has saved you." This shows the power of intention in the supernatural world. One could say that the only effects there are willed effects: there is no accident.