Friday, March 18, 2011

Cyril of Jerusalem, or What is the Priest Doing???

Today, of course, is the Feast Day of Cyril of Jerusalem. He has the annually ignominious fate to fall on March 18th. Let's be honest: St. Patrick gets all the glory this week. Shamrocks and Guinness and all things Irish are so much more fun (at least for a day).

And if that isn't enough insult to injury, the next day is St. Joseph, which is a major feast. Everybody know Joseph, even if he largely falls in the shadows of Mary. (Saying a Hail Joseph would just seem silly to many.)

Cyril just doesn't capture the imagination like Patrick or Joseph do. He just sort of lies there every year on the calendar like a piece of warm bologna in the center of a elementary school sandwich. Let's face it, no one ever cheered for bologna when PB/J or fine deli meat can be had.

You can read biographies of Cyril elsewhere. I found this cartoon online gives the highlights:

Basically, Cyril is a testimony to the old saying, "No good deed ever goes unpunished."

And yet Cyril has a massive impact on liturgical staples of the church that most people take for granted, particularly the forms used in Holy Week: Palms on Palm Sunday, Stations of the Cross, etc. Cyril had a hand in defining all of those. We know this largely for two reasons: First, the famous diary of Egeria, the vacationing nun became in many ways the standard that Western churches followed when setting up Holy Week observances. (Egeria visited the Holy Land for Holy Week during the time Cyril was Bishop of Jerusalem, and her diary was preserved for centuries as documentation of how Holy Week was done in the Holy Land.)

Secondly, we know that Cyril was quite interested in Liturgy. Many of his writings explaining the liturgy still exist and form a basis and explanation for many of the liturgical forms we use in the Eucharist to this day. His writings were particularly influential at various times when the Church in the modern age felt great yearnings to reform the liturgy to an earlier period closer to the Apostles. The Protestant reformers and the Liturgical Movement in the 1970s both took a great deal from Cyril.

One example that you often (but not always) see in Anglican churches is right before the Eucharistic Prayer. The Priest will go over and have water poured on his hands from an ornate cruet of water by the server or deacon. The water is poured over the hands into an ornate bowl. This is called a Lavabo Bowl.

As you can see from the Wikipedia article, Lavabo bowls become much more ornate over time. The ceremonial washing of hands before an official functional, particularly of the Consecration of Communion Elements, goes back to Old Testament purity laws in Leviticus for the priests offering sacrifice. Muslims, of course, are supposed to wash their hands before prayer in a Mosque. Even Pontius Pilate in the Passion Narrative ceremonially washes his hands, in that instance to symbolically show the people he is washing his hands of the entire Jesus affair. This was a typical feature of Roman Civil magistrates and court ceremony. When Christianity suddenly became the official religion of Rome and began to take over the Roman governmental ceremonies and official religious liturgies, this Roman civic tradition was retained because of this and because it harkened back as a symbolic tie to Christianity's roots in Judaism.

For priests like myself from the Anglo-catholic wing of the church, we turn to the altar while we are drying our hands, we bow to the Cross or Reserve sacrament behind the altar, and we appear to speak a few sentences to ourselves. (Many priests have either stopped doing this part of Sarum Rite ritual or else have eliminated the Lavabo bowl completely.)

The few sentences I speak as I finish washing my hands are actually a prayer. There are a few different ones you can use, but the one I was taught was the Lavabo prayer of Cyril of Jerusalem, which is really a paraphrase of Psalm 26:6. "I will wash my hands in innocency, and so may I compass thy holy altar." (In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, the entire Psalm is chanted antiphonally by the Priest and Deacon while washing their hands at the credence table.)

Cyril of Jerusalem explains this element of the liturgy in this way:

"Ye have seen then the Deacon who gives to the Priest water to wash, and to the Presbyters who stand round God's altar. He gave it not at all because of bodily defilement; it is not that; for we did not enter the Church at first with defiled bodies. But the washing of hands is a symbol that ye ought to be pure from all sinful and unlawful deeds; for since the hands are a symbol of action, by washing them, it is evident, we represent the purity and blamelessness of our conduct. Didst thou not hear the blessed David opening this very mystery, and saying, I will wash my hands in innocency, and so will compass Thine Altar, O Lord? The washing therefore of hands is a symbol of immunity from sin." 
-Lecture XXIII. (On the Mysteries. V.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Edwin Hamilton Gifford, trans., Philip Schaff, ed.

I recommend reading the entire Lecture XXIII, as he posits meaning to many of the things we take for granted in the Canon of the Mass, e.g., Sursum Corda, the Lord's Prayer, and the Sanctus. Many of the reasons the Anglican reformers didn't chuck the entire Catholic mass liturgical form was because they could point to Cyril of Jerusalem to claim that those crucial elements were not medieval (and corrupted) Roman Catholic additions  to worship, but something from at least the Post-Apostolic age.

Let us give thanks, therefore that we God does call bishops to teach about the Sacraments, for as it says in the Collect for today:

"Strengthen, O Lord, the bishops of your Church in their special calling to be teachers and ministers of the Sacraments, so that they, like your servant Cyril of Jerusalem, may effectively instruct your people in Christian faith and practice; and that we, taught by them, may enter more fully into celebration of the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever."
St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
Pray for Us!

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