Saturday, September 8, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Ritual Object

We move on to a perhaps surprising topic for some: the use of Scripture as a ritual object in the liturgy. Here we are concerned with the physical object rather than the particular words within it.

For some, Scripture is so primarily and only a text, that it ceases to be a thing, an actual written thing. Some react to the reverence shown the book of the Gospels (especially by the Orthodox who enthrone it) as tantamount to idolatry. (These are, of course, the same Christians who reject statues and bowing to altars, and such.)

Now what is odd here is that our monotheistic fellows in other Abrahamic religions, with far more stringent rules about the veneration of material objects, do not shirk when it comes to their sacred texts. We know of Torah scrolls, made with painstaking care by specially trained scribes, kept in special chests, and treated with much reverence. Muslims always place the Koran on the highest shelf and treat it with special respect in a variety of ways.

So how does Christian liturgy treat the Bible as a ritual object, and what can we learn from this?

Size and Dignity of Book

Bibles are famously large. In the modern age we have perhaps missed this, with inexpensive printing on very thin paper, but any look (still) at a so-called "pulpit Bible" will show that making a Bible on good weight paper at a large size for public reading means making a very large book indeed.

Rubrics commonly direct that biblical readings be made from dignified volumes. Moreover, as a general rule, readings come from complete bibles or from lectionaries, and should not come from random sheets taped here and there. By using as a ritual object a complete text (or a complete lectionary) one knows that this is an excerpt, and perhaps more importantly, that the reading comes from somewhere, indeed, comes from something which existed prior to this reading!

Signs of Reverence

In the Middle Ages, the very best illumination was reserved for the text of the Scriptures. This was not a kind of sumptuary legislation, as if decoration of other books would be wrong, but it was an indication of importance: with limited time and money, start on the most important book.

Particularly books of the Gospels are decorated splendidly, and given special honor in liturgy: they are carried in processions, and serve as signs of Christ's presence, the idea being that they carry the words of Jesus. Indeed, the Western liturgical tradition objects to the use of a processional cross in the gospel procession precisely for this reason: it is the book itself which is the marker in that procession. (For a like reason, processional crosses should not be used when the paschal candle is in the procession, but the candle should come first.)

Many churches arrange to have candles mark the reading of Scripture; either the Gospel alone, or all the readings. Special reading desks, reserved for this purpose are commonly seen; one very popular style in the United States is to have a grand eagle-shaped lectern to hold the text.

Ordination Rites

Of particular importance is the use of the Bible in the ordination rites. In the western liturgy, this is generally the only time the Bible is given prominence outside of its use as a source of text for proclamation.

In the historic western pattern for the ordination of a bishop, the period of silent prayer before the laying on of hands features deacons holding the open book of the gospels over the head of the kneeling candidate. In contemporary Anglican rites, the Bible is given to all candidates for ordination (of whatever order). In neither case is the text being used to read from: it is instead being used as a pure symbol.

(This does not mean the written words are far from mind: in the historical episcopal ordination rite, the book of the gospels is the one from which a reading has just been proclaimed a bit earlier; in the Anglican rites the handing of the Bible is accompanied by a formula which often relates to the text, if only obliquely.)

Non-liturgical Uses

Notice the image of the fundamentalist preacher holding his bible as he speaks. Do we not see here as well the use of the Bible as a ritual object? He may turn through it, read it, but we also see its use as an object. The English cliche of the "Bible-thumper" shows this as well.

Also to consider, with some interest, is the general tendency of Christians not to show particular reverence to the text of the Scriptures outside the liturgy. One used to see a "family bible" placed in a position of honor in some households, and there are those who imitate Muslim practices by wrapping the text in cloth and storing it specially.

Some conclusions

What do these scattered observations tell us about the use and interpretation of Scripture? I list them first, if only to remind us that the use of Scripture includes these uses even if they do not involve reading.

But beyond that, these uses express the community's love for the Scripture, and highlight it as important. When these uses are not in place (allowing for liturgical expression to vary from place to place, of course), when there is really nothing special done for the physical objects, we can properly wonder if we are seeing a community which does not value the words as much either.

For this reason, liturgical leaders should take seriously the injunctions to read from dignified books, and should relish opportunities to show such signs of honor as fit in a particular liturgical context.

We also see, in the ordination rites, that the Scriptures are particularly associated with ordained ministry. By no means as if I were saying that lay people need not be concerned, but rather, that ordained ministry is being associated particularly with the text. As a source of inspiration, as a guide, as a mark of authority: in all these ways, the community indicates a relation of intimacy and importance between scriptural text and ordination.

This is, perhaps, the most important reason for expecting ordinands to have serious training in the Scriptures. Whatever value that training may have in preaching and other tasks aside, there is independently a value placed upon the leader knowing the text. And here, for the first time in this series, do we see a role emerging for private study and its importance: in the use of the book of the Scriptures at ordination, we see an expectation that such private study will occur.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index