Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hunchback Sunday

If there were one expression in general church-use for which we had no love, it would be the phoney verb "to process." (Procede, people. Procede.) But if there were a second such expression, it would surely be "Low Sunday."

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church helpfully suggests that the day now formally known as Dominica in Octava Paschae seu Dom. II Paschae gains its common English monicker "in contrast to the 'high' feast of Easter Sunday itself." We suppose this is the natural derivation, but we can't be sure.

Many pastors of our acquaintance interpret the words as a reference to attendance at worship, which too often declines precipitously from one week to the next. And many more speak, often in muted tones, of their own subjective experience between one Sunday and the next -- of the emotional and physical deflation that follows the marathon Triduum and the exuberant trumpet-blast of Easter morning. It is hardly surprising that so many of us should experience a mild depression or, in Fr. A.'s own customary case, a sudden cold.

One also hears suggestions that that "Low" is a corruption of Laudes, from the sequence Laudes salvatori voce. If so, the English is corrupt indeed, although this etymology would make the thing less disagreeable.

But still: Low Sunday? No. First, because it is Sunday, and every Sunday is the day of the Resurrection. Every Sunday is Easter. And second, because this particular Sunday is no anti-climax. It is the next step in a splendid and too-frequently overlooked marathon, the great Fifty Days of Easter.

Easter Sunday itself is many things. Yes, it is the central feast of the Christian faith, the celebration of the mystery which gives meaning to all of history both before and since. But, let's be honest, it is also the day that ladies show off their new hats. It is the day that children are customarily hepped up on sugar, and indoctrinated into the strange zoology of an egg-bearing rabbit.

But the Second Sunday of Easter? No more hats. No more eggs or jelly beans. No lamb roasting in the oven for family dinner. Anybody who makes it to church is free to concentrate completely upon the unfolding of the Resurrection story, which in in our lectionary now turns to poor no-longer-doubting Thomas, the patron saint of the post-Enlightenment age. This is a great moment for preaching, and teaching; for reflection upon baptism, upon mission, and upon the dialectic between faith and unbelief which is so important to the modern world.

Before the modern revisions, the proper Latin name for this day was Dominica in albis [deponendis], meaning roughly "the Sunday when white baptismal robes [are set aside]." This is okay, in the sense that it connects the celebration of Easter to the sacrament of baptism. But it is a little weak, insofar as it suggests that, Bright Week now concluded, we are to set aside those baptismal robes and return to desacralized existence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But, fortunately, the tradition offers us another and superior nickname for next Sunday: Quasi modo geniti, from the first words of the Introit: "Like newborn babes, desire the true milk of the Word." This, completing a week of mystagogical preaching to the newly baptized (well, in theory), is a reminder to all Christians of who we truly are: newborn babes, longing for sustenance.

Of course, there are some difficulties. One is Victor Hugo and his hunchback. Another is the absence from most churches, and even most service books, both of introits and of their Latin names. But these can be overcome, if one is both determined and a little tricky. And why not, in the service of so great a cause as not calling any Sunday Low?

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