The Divine Hours of Lent

We so-called “Liturgical” Christians–read here: Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, some Lutherans, etc.–love our liturgy, thus our category marker. There is, we say, a way that worship has been offered and the eucharist celebrated for all the centuries of Christian practice, and we are loath even to consider departing from it.
The truth, of course, is that we have long since modified, accommodated, and tweaked every part of Christian worship, albeit without really intending to do anything more than simply to adjust, tweak, and adapt. When enough centuries go by, however, and enough adjusting goes on, inevitably some marked differences between the original and its great-great-great-exponentially-great grandchild do occur. But the myth of unchanged and unchanging descent persists; and myths are a good thing. In time, they, rather than the lost originals, become the continuity that binds the several communities into a larger whole. And while I can be quite sanguine about most of this, some of our tweakings really do bother me. One in particular is commanding my attention this Lent.
Within the family of Liturgical Christians, every time the priest reads the Gospel lesson in public worship….and most other times, as well….he or she first makes a kind of fist with the thumb protruding. Then, with that thumb, he or she makes a hasty and very attenuated sign of the cross on first the forehead, then over the lips, and last over the heart. The whole process is a matter of twenty seconds max, and is so generally familiar from Grade B movies and some television shows that even non-Liturgicals (and probably even some non-Christians, for that matter) accept the whole process as arcane, but still just another part of the otherness of us others.
The truth, if one is to be candid about it, is that the entire business really does look like, and play out like, some kind of priestly twitch or holy itch. Certainly such is the perception that most of our children bring with them when, at age twelve, they begin catechesis…or put another way, when they begin the classes of instruction that will prepare them for their Confirmation, an event not unlike a bat or bar mitzvah in Judaism, though less elaborate.
Thus it is that in almost every class of new confirmants, there is the question about what the priests are doing when they scratch their foreheads that way, or their lips, or their chests. And the answer is that the gestures are what is called a body prayer. That is, the priests use the gestures as a way of marking and incorporating physical parts of their bodies into the work of offering up the words of the Gospel in public hearing.
We tell our youngsters–and accurately so–that the priest is praying as he makes the sign of the cross on his forehead; and what he is praying is a most ancient prayer, “God, be in my mind and in my thinking.” When the priest then signs his lips, he is praying within himself the words, “God, be in my lips and in my speaking.” And then, as he traces the cross upon his heart, the priest is praying, “God, be in my heart and in my loving.”
It is a lovely sort of process, a lovely kind of concept, in fact; and our pre-teen children usually respond to it accordingly: That’s nice, now we know, what’s next? The only problem is that what they have just been told, while it is what priests and lectors are doing today, it is not at all what priests and lectors were originally doing. There has been major, major tweaking on this one–tweaking that was far too deliberate and deliberated to even be thought of as tweaking, in fact.
There is an old joke in my business that says that the Reformation took Christianity north, which it most certainly did. That is, the center of organized, energized, and reforming Christianity was moved north from Rome and Italy up to Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. But the wit in the joke is that of word-play, for the Reformation also took Christianity north on the human body.
With the Reformers’ and Confessors’ and Professors’ new faith came the undergirding theory that being a Christian required well-thought-out commitment to a creed or a fully articulated statement of beliefs or an established body of doctrines. The Reformation took Christianity north into our heads, in other words.
In and of itself, thinking deeply about one’s faith is hardly an evil or debilitating thing. In fact, as a practice, it is much to be encouraged. What happened, however, was that the move north was more an evacuation than a move. Christians forgot, in all their intellectualizing, that our Scripture plainly and repeatedly says that it is with both the heart and the mind that one believes and knows and comprehends. With the mind, we comprehend and understand what there is to comprehend and understand; but it is with our hearts that we are to think and ponder that which we have comprehended.
So intentional and universal was that 16th century shift, however, that the original body prayer of the lector or priest was attenuated–tweaked, if you prefer–to accommodate to the shift in Christian emphasis. The prayer as it existed before the Reformers modified it, involved the signing of the cross upon the forehead, beside the eyes, upon the lips, upon the heart, and then, in conclusion, the dropping of the hands, palms up. And the words of that original body-prayer were:
God be in my mind and in my understanding.
God be in my eyes and in my seeing.
God be in my lips and in my speaking.
God be in my heart and in my thinking.
God be in my life and in my leaving.
The difference between what was and what has become is enormous. Purity of vision in what is admitted to the soul’s counsel, yes. Purity of action in the face of our own inevitable mortality, yes. But oh, the difference when the heart in prayer does the understanding.
If there is one single discipline that I shall pursue this Lent…and after this Lent…it is the contemplation of such ancient wisdom and its deliberate re-incorporation into my way of being Christian

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