Friday, May 11, 2018

Antiphony in Christian Liturgy: Echoes of the Very Rhythms of Heaven

The Concert of Angels, 1534-36 Ferrari, Gaudenzio Singing Book
In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful.

The phrase worship experience missed the point. Worship, in the ancient tradition, was not thought of as an experience at all; it was an act. Or, if there was an experience, that part of it was a mere corollary to the main point. At St. Andrew’s the people had come together to make the act of worship. They had come to do something, not to get something. They had not come to a meeting. 

Several things testified to this. For a start, no one spoke of the church “auditorium,” as though it were a place one went to hear something. It was not an auditorium. Meetings did not occur here; an act occurred here. Furthermore, the vicar hardly ever addressed the congregation directly during the act of worship. 

Most of the time he could be seen kneeling at a small prie-dieu to one side of the chancel (the section of the church at the front, narrower than the nave and up some steps, that lies between the nave and the altar), facing across the front of the church, sideways to the congregation. He did not greet us, and he did not smile at us. No attempt was made to create a feeling of familiarity or welcome. And yet it was a vastly warm and friendly church. There was nothing cold or stiff there at all. These people were evangelicals.

Clearly, whatever it was that was happening did not depend in the smallest degree on atmosphere nor on the minister’s establishing any sort of contact with the congregation. The notion of group dynamics would have seemed grotesque, irrelevant, and embarrassing. We in the congregation were not auditors, nor spectators, nor recipients. 

We had come to this place to offer something to God, namely, the sacrifice of praise. I came to realize that there was more than a mere difference in phraseology between this and what I had always thought of as worship. There was a difference in vision. 

The vicar would begin with a scriptural bidding, directing our attention to the Most High. So far all was smooth sailing for me. I was familiar with this approach. But then he would say, “The Lord be with you,” and we would respond, “And with thy spirit.” 

What was this rote formula? I wondered. It was an exchange that occurred again and again during the service. It seemed quaint at best and possibly gratuitous; the Lord is already with both of our spirits. Why this vocal wish for the obvious? 

What I did not know was that this was a formula that reaches back certainly to the beginnings of Christian worship and possibly further. It builds into the very structure of the act of worship itself the glorious antiphons of charity that ring back and forth in heaven and all across the cosmos, among all the creatures of God. 

It is charity, greeting the other and wishing that other one well. In its antiphonal (“responsive”) character it echoes the very rhythms of heaven. Deep calls to deep. Day answers to night. Mountain calls to valley. One angel calls to another. Love greets love. The place of God’s dwelling rings with these joyful antiphons of charity. Hell hates this. It can only hiss, Out of my way, fool. But heaven says, The Lord be with you. This is what was said to us in the Incarnation. This is what the Divine Love always says. 

In the act of worship we on earth begin to learn the script of heaven. The phraseology has very little to do with how we may be feeling at the moment. It does not spring from us spontaneously. We must learn to say it. It is unnatural for us, the way learning a polite greeting is unnatural for a child. But to the objection that we should leave the child to express himself in his own way we would all point out the obvious, that that sort of naturalness and spontaneity is a poor, poor thing and that the discipline of learning something else is both an enrichment and a liberation. 

Antiphony deepens the shallow pool of our personal resources and sets us free from the prison of our own meager capacity to respond adequately in a given situation. Rather than mumbling fitfully, we learn to say the formula, “How do you do?” or “The Lord be with you,” and having learned it, we have stepped from solipsism into community. We have begun to take our appointed places among other selves.

excerpts from Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, Ignatius, 1984 by Thomas Howard. (*Mr. Thomas is a brother of Elizabeth Elliot.)