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Pass Decani on the Gospel Side: and other adventures in spiritual choreography

There is a tradition or two when it comes to naming directions or positions of things in a church. Most of the time, front, back, left and right make sense if we keep the point of view of standing in the nave facing the main altar, but the church has developed its own directional glossary.

Liturgical compass

Traditionally, churches have been oriented with the altar at the east. There are some major churches of which this is not true (the high altar of the Vatican Basilica is at the west end), and some modern ones which have abandoned this convention. There are also a fair few that are not quite on an east-west axis.

Whatever the actual compass reading, we can call the altar end of the church ‘liturgical east’ and name the other cardinal directions from it. This is particularly helpful if a church has one or more secondary altars that are not oriented parallel with the main altar. Most of the ceremonial is carried out as if the altar were to the east.

Sometimes it is important to know where actual east is. At a time when most Catholic masses were said with the priest’s back to the congregation (ad orientem, ‘to the east’), the Vatican and other Roman churches with high altars at the actual west celebrated mass with the priest facing the congregation across the altar (versus populum, ‘opposite the people’) so that the priest could celebrate facing actual east. Now that most masses are celebrated versus populum, the Vatican arrangement appears less unusual.

Major architectural features are often known by their compass position: west window, south door, north transept. These tend to be used when the actual compass directions and the liturgical ones more or less align. If one knows the high altar is to the east, everything else is easy to locate.

Choir: decani and cantoris

In terms of choir singing and placement, the Latin terms decani and cantoris are used, often abbreviated to dec. and can.

Decani means ‘of the dean’ (decānī is the genitive singular of decānus) and refers to the liturgical south (congregational right) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s dean would normally be seated.

Cantoris means ‘of the cantor’ (cantōris is the genitive singular of cantor) and refers to the liturgical north (congregational left) side of the choir, where a cathedral’s precentor (‘foremost cantor’) would normally be seated.

Decani and cantoris are used even in churches that do not have deans or precentors, owing to the importance of cathedrals in sustaining choral music.

In Salisbury Cathedral, the dean and precentor are seated in the first return stall on their respective sides. These are the first, east-facing, stalls to each side on entering the quire from the crossing. As Sarum was the liturgical norm of pre-Reformation England and Wales, this arrangement was followed in cathedrals of the Old Foundation, which have deans and precentors as their senior clergy, and has become the standard elsewhere.

In the monastic cathedrals, where the senior cleric under the bishop was the prior, he often sat on the liturgical north (congregational left). Thus, some cathedrals of the New Foundation (those that were monasteries) seat the dean in the former prior’s stall, opposite to where the Sarum dean is placed, and decani and cantoris are reversed (this is true of Benedictine Durham and Augustinian Carlisle, and a couple of other places).

These terms are especially used in Anglican chant where the music is sung antiphonally, passed back and forth between the two sides of a choir. In antiphonal singing, decani generally sings first, answered by cantoris. In typical singing of the psalm at choral evensong to Anglican chant, the entire chant is sung in full (both decani and cantoris together in harmony) over what is usually the first two verse (in double chant). Then decani sings alone in harmony, and then cantoris sings alone in harmony, and so on, with Gloria Patri (‘Glory be to the Father …’) sung in full at the end. Some choirs will alternate the starting side, often every week.

Gospel and epistle sides

The other set of directional terms are ‘gospel’ and ‘epistle side’. The simple definition is that the epistle side is the liturgical south (congregational right, decani) and the gospel side is liturgical north (congregational left, cantoris).

There are all sorts of explanations for this. The simplest is that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place of honour, and, if we face God in prayer, that is our left. Thus, Jesus’ Good News, his Gospel, is preached from that side. Mediaeval churches often have the lectern built on the epistle side and the pulpit on the gospel side. This is so that the gospel could be proclaimed from the righthand side of the Father.

To reflect this, the priest at low mass would move the missal, from which all lessons are read, from the epistle side of the altar, after reading the epistle, to the gospel side, for reading the gospel.

Post-Vatican II liturgical thought has focused on a unified proclamation of the Word at the heart of the mass. Practically, this is often expressed by use of a central ambo (either fixed or movable) from which all lessons (including usually the responsorial psalm) are proclaimed. However, Pope Francis has begun using both an epistle-side and a gospel-side post in his outdoor masses, with the readings made at the epistle-side lectern and the gospel from the gospel side.

Terms such as epistle and gospel side are often used to describe positions in the sanctuary. For example, the paschal candle is placed on the gospel side of the sanctuary and the sedilia (or ministerial chairs) are on the epistle side.

These terms are also used to refer to the order of lighting and extinguishing altar candles. Candles on the epistle side are first lit, then those on the gospel side. In each case, if there are multiple candles on each side, those closest to the centre, to the cross, are lit first, moving outwards on that side before moving to the other. The extinguishing of candles is done in reverse order: gospel side, out to in, then epistle side, out to in. When the paschal candle stands in the sanctuary, it is at the gospel side and is lit before any altar candles and is the last extinguished. The story is that this is supposed to represent the spread of the light of the gospel moving from the Mediterranean south to the dark, barbaric north, and so southern candles are lit first. The story was probably invented spiritually to explain why a certain practice is followed. It is more likely to have come about because the right is the side of honour.

Right as the side of honour, but which right?

Traditionally, the right (dexter) is the side of honour, having higher importance than the left (sinister). Sorry, lefthanders.

This explains why the congregational right is where the dean is seated and the decani half of the choir sings first. It also explains why the candles are lit first on the congregational right of the altar and why the sedilia is also placed on that side.

The other right is the congregational left. It is the righthand side from the point of view of Christ on the altar cross, or of God in Trinity whom we address in prayer and praise. This is why the gospel is proclaimed from this righthand side and the paschal candle put there.

Thus, stripping aside all pious explanations, it seems that, throughout liturgical history, important things and people were placed on the right. However, seeing as both sides can be seen as right, some things follow the one convention and some the other.

A recorded instance of this flipping of viewpoint can be seen in the 1488 publication of a ceremonial by Augustine Patrizi, bishop of Pienza, near Siena. Whereas formerly the altar’s left and right side had been named from the congregational viewpoint (and that of the priest celebrating ad orientem), this new ceremonial insisted that the left and right hands of the outstretched corpus of the altar cross should determine directions, leading to their complete reversal. This was then accepted by Pope Pius V (excommunicator of Elizabeth I), entering the first standardised set of rubrics of the first ‘Tridentine’ missal of 1570.

The bishop’s throne (cathedra) is most traditionally set in the apse behind the high altar of the cathedral, facing west. The inconvenience of the position and the filling of apses with chapels and shrines led to a removal of the cathedra to the quire, where in many cases there was already a secondary throne. There it is usually placed on the south side, decani, as is the choir cathedra of Greek bishops, facing north. An alternative, often followed in more modern cathedrals, is to place the throne on the north side, the gospel side, of the sanctuary, facing south. In Anglican parish churches, a chair is often kept for the bishop when they visit. When in use, it is usually placed on the centre line of the church facing west. When not in use, it is traditionally placed on the gospel-side wall of the sanctuary facing south.

In English parish churches, I have seen the incumbent’s stall placed on either of the two rights, decani or the gospel side. In many places there are identical stalls on each side, the other being for the parish clerk, Reader or curate. It may be that the designated sides have swapped over time.

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Was Saint Peter a Buddhist monk?

Dunhuang Caves

Dunhuang Caves

I apologize for the click bait headline: no, he was not! I was, however, revisiting some fascinating work done by the syriacist Hidemi Takahashi on proper names in the Christian documents and inscriptions of Tang dynasty China (here, here and here). Three Chinese characters in one document seem to refer to Jesus’ disciple Simon Peter as ‘Solid-Peak Monk’.

Christianity first came to China during or just before the Tang era. The first Christians in China were most likely traders who came overland along the famous Silk Road to the Tang capital city of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an). They were adherents of the Church of the East, who prayed in Syriac but mostly spoke Iranian and Turkic languages.

In the great hoard of manuscripts discovered at the Dunhuang caves complex are those belonging to this first Chinese church. One of these is the eighth-century Zūnjīng (尊經 ‘The Book of Honour’), which is a rather grand name for what is essentially two lists of names. The first list in Zūnjīng is of biblical characters and saints, while the second is list of Christian books, including some other documents found at Dunhuang. It seems that the purpose of Zūnjīng was to provide a crib sheet for those translating Christian texts into Chinese to show which characters should be used for certain names.

The entry for ‘Solid-Peak Monk’ appears in Zūnjīng‘s list of names. The entry simply reads Cénwěn Sēng (岑穩僧 literally ‘solid peak monk’). From other uses, it is clear that the name Cénwěn should be understood as ‘Simon’. In the Middle Chinese pronunciation of the Tang era, it would likely have been pronounced /d͡ʒiɪm ʔuənX/ or /tʂɦəm ʔun’/ (different sources reconstruct it differently). The Japanese reading of the characters as shimu’on (しむおん) upholds this kind of pronunciation, and Japanese readings often give a good insight into the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Seeing as the liturgical language of the first Chinese Christians was Syriac, this fits with the Syriac for ‘Simon’, which is Shem‘ōn (ܫܡܥܘܢ, exactly following the Hebrew Shim‘ôn שמעון, ‘he has heard’). If the Simon in question is the Simon Peter whose nickname means ‘rock’ (from the Greek Petros Πέτρος, given by Jesus in the punning dialogue of Matthew 16.13–20), then the literal meaning of the characters 岑穩 as ‘solid peak’ also makes sense. All of this is rather linguistically satisfying.

The name ‘Peter’ sounds like just that, a name, to most us, and we forget that it is a rocky nickname. The New Testament gives us an alternative version of the name, often written Cephas in English Bibles. This represents Kēphas (Κηφᾶς) in the Greek text. This is the Aramaic word for ‘rock’: Kêfâ (כיפא ܟܐܦܐ). He gets a final sigma in Greek to make it sound more manly, as an alpha ending is womanly (Jesus’ name got its final ‘s’ for the same gendered reason). As Syriac is a variety of Aramaic, Simon Peter is more usually called Shem‘ōn Kēfā (ܫܡܥܘܢ ܟܐܦܐ). It would be natural for Christians who prayed in Syriac to have carried Peter’s name to China not as the Greek Petros, but the Syriac Kēfā, but that is not what the scribe of Zūnjīng gave us.

The Chinese sēng () is used for Buddhist monks. Thus we literally have ‘Simon the Buddhist monk’. The Chinese word comes from the Buddhist Pali term saṅgha (सङ्घ), referring to a Buddhist monastery, which is sēngjiā (僧伽) in Chinese. For want of a better term in Chinese, Christian monks are regularly given the title sēng in Tang era texts too, so our Simon does not have to be a Buddhist monk.

The key to the puzzle rests in learning the extinct Sogdian language, which was well represented among traders from the West in Chang’an. Sogdian was an Iranian language spoken in Samarkand and throughout a region covering today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It became a Silk Road lingua franca. In Sogdian, the word for ‘rock’ is sang, and this seems to be the origin of the Chinese sēng being used to translate the Petros/Kēfā part of Simon Peter’s name. Thus, Sogdian-speaking merchants and their clergy brought Christianity to China, naming Jesus’ disciple Shem‘ōn Sang, with that literal rocky translation of Kēfā. The scribe of Zūnjīng decided to choose Chinese characters that represented this Sogdian name phonetically. Yet the phonetic transcription is only half the story. The good scribe chose characters that had a meaning that was in harmony with who Simon Peter was.  Oddly, the rockiness of ‘Peter’ was transferred to the characters that phonetically represent ‘Simon’, as ‘solid peak’. Twice oddly, a Chinese character for a Buddhist monk that is phonetically derived from the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit was used to represent the Sogdian word for ‘rock’. I imagine our good scribe thought the character suitable for a holy man, a saint.

P.S. In modern Mandarin Chinese, Simon Peter is Xīmén Bǐde (西门·彼得). The Catholic Church in China uses either Bǎiduōlù (伯多禄) or Bǎiduó (伯铎) for ‘Peter’, and the Orthodox Church uses Péitèrè (裴特若). ‘Simon’ is also often written as Xīméng (西蒙) All are rather phonetic and based on European languages. It is a pity the link with the Syriac/Sogdian of the first to bring Christianity to China has been lost.

P.P.S. Simon Peter was obviously not a monk. Christian monasticism did not really get going until St Anthony in the third century. The fact that Peter was married can be ascertained by the reference to his sick mother-in-law in the gospels (Matthew 8.14, Mark 1.30, Luke 4.38).

P.P.P.S. Speaking of the Sogdian word for ‘rock’, the Sogdian Rock was a fortress in Sogdiana that was besieged by Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Arrian’s Anabasis tells us that the defenders thought the Rock to be impregnable but Alexander employed rock climbers to scale it with flax ropes and tent pegs. Alexander’s prize was to marry the princess Roxana. The Greeks thought her to be the second most lovely woman in all of Asia, which must have given her the hump. She was a Bactrian princess.


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Spit, more spit and streaking

EphphathaIn the last article, I discussed the strange swearword ‘raca’ that turned up, or got edited out of, last Sunday’s Gospel from Matthew. In this morning’s Mass, the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary gave us Mark 8.22-26 for our Gospel. There’s not really much of a link between the two, apart from the spit.

Today’s Gospel is the pericope of Jesushealing of a blind man by putting his spit in his eyes. The healing takes two goes — first, the man sees people but they look like trees walking around. Characteristically for Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells him not to tell. The spit, the walking trees and the messianic secret all add up to make a rather odd incident.

The oddness of this incident is one of the pieces of evidence that Mark’s is the earliest gospel. The three synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — share a lot of passages in common, some even verbatim, and often order this material in a similar way. Mark, being the shortest gospel, has parallel texts of almost every passage in either or both Matthew and Luke, so it seems that Matthew and Luke are based on Mark. Markan priority — the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was written first — is strengthened by the few scraps of Mark that do not appear in the other two. One of them is the spit-and-trees pericope above.

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Meals with Jesus V: Home cooking at Bethany

This article is the fifth in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This fifth is on the pericope of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, John 12·1–11.

The Anointing by Stephen St. Claire

The Anointing by Stephen St. Claire.

There’s no place like home, and this place offers security, love and comfort in the midst of spiraling tensions in Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps we all got too comfortable, and when the love and friendship overflowed in an attempt to push those fears aside, they came right back in with fears and hates expressed by one thought to be a friend.

This house in Bethany — the House of the Lord’s Grace — is the place of Jesus’ greatest victory, raising Lazarus from the dead. Here the Pharisees would only point and whisper, not confront and condemn.

It had been a long journey, with little comfort, so reclining on cushions around a table laden with food, surrounded by friends, was a joy. We were looking forward to celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, but there were fears of what it might bring.

We smelt it first, as Mary came in with the box after dinner. We didn’t know that scent, but it was Matthew Levi or Judas Iscariot who, in hushed tones, told us of this precious Indian plant. We shifted on our cushions, cleared our throats and examined the patterned cloth that covered the dining table. We couldn’t watch this embarrassing display, and Jesus’ accepting of it. We wished someone would say something.

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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani

Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani? by Ann Kim. Oil Stick on canvas, 1998, 50″ x 70″.

Yesterday, being Palm Sunday, we read the Passion Gospel. Even though we should have been reading Luke’s Passion because we are in Year C of lectionary, we ended up with the shorter version of Matthew‘s Passion for some reason. Afterwards there were a few questions about the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’. So, I thought I should write some words about this phrase, which appears in both Matthew and Mark:

Mark 15.34:

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

καὶ τῇ ἐνάτη ὥρᾳ ἐβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ· ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι; ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνεθόμενον· ὁ θεός μου ὁ θεός μου, εἰς τί ἐγκατέλιπές με;

Matthew 27.46:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

περὶ δὲ τὴν ἐνάτην ὥραν ἀνεβόησεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς φωνῇ μεγάλῃ λέγων· ηλι ηλι λεμα σαβαχθανι; τοῦτ’ ἔστιν· θεέ μου θεέ μου, ἱνατί με ἐγκατέλιπες;

The main difference between the two versions, apart from Greek grammatical differences are the spellings of the call on God: Mark’s ελωι and Matthew’s ηλι.

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Meals with Jesus IV: Tea with Tarts and Traitors

This article is the fourth in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This fourth is on the pericope of the Calling of Levi, Luke 5·27–39.

Eating with the tax collectorHe had given us this look that cut off our complaints and told us to go with him to see. What would our families say if they saw us? We hoped no one we knew would see us.

We knew we were not great and holy men, but he must have called us because we are the ordinary, downtrodden Jews. Just like King David, he would raise us from obscurity to splendour. We have great respect for the priests, don’t get us wrong, but they are a bit too lah-di-dah for us. They keep on their Temple schedule without speaking out about the injustices we face under Roman occupation. We always had suspicions that they were in league with our oppressors, and here we find this Levite collecting funds for the Romans and lining his own purse in the process.

We were sure he would do something to rebuke the sinful Levite traitor. We were straining to see and hear as he strode up to the booth. But what he said was familiar, it was those words that filled us with dreadful challenge on the beaches of Galilee, that told us we were his chosen men — “Follow me!”

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Meals with Jesus III: Living on the Edge

This article is the third in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This third is on the pericope of the Gleaning in the Wheat Fields, Luke 6·1–5.

Ruth gleaning

Ruth gleaning.

It’d be wrong to think that it was a whirlwind of dinner invitations that sustained these thirteen vagabonds over their years of wandering hither and thither. Sometimes you must eat what the Lord provides and be thankful for what you can get. Sabbath prayers were over, and the thirteen were on the road again, and their sustenance was the wheat growing at the edge of the fields — plucked, rubbed between the palms of the hands and eaten raw.

The Pharisees saw them, and saw they had committed the serious sin of letting the world of work, politics, poverty and foreign occupation into the sacred time of the sabbath. “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

Blinded by the need to protect the sabbath from all worldly intrusion, they forgot that it should be a day for the satisfaction of good and right. For the hungry vagabonds on the road, the leftover ears of grain, left in observance to the commandments, was an answer to the sabbath prayers — no more fishers of the seas, but gleaners of what could be found, and reliant of God’s good provision each day.

“Give us today our daily bread” — each day just enough for the day, like the manna in the desert.

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