For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Monday, 16 February 2015

Learning the Alleluia

It was through a young deacon of the Coptic Church that I first understood what liturgical tradition meant. I met him around ten years ago, and was fascinated by his account of Coptic Christianity.

The Coptic language is taught only in the Coptic schools in Egypt: it is a descendent of Demotic (the form of Egyptian script that was written centuries before Christ) with a fair mixture of Alexandrian κοινή Greek. Demotic itself is a late version of the ancient hieratic Egyptian of the Pharaohs; and thus the Copts are a precious lingistic link with the Pyramids and their hierogyphs. Remember Chesterton's observation that only Christian men preserve the ancient beauties of paganism?

The Coptic deacon told me about learning the Easter Alleluia, for their Vigil, that lasts from an hour before midnight until dawn. The Alleluia lasts for twenty-four minutes. He and another deacon were instructed by an older deacon. They both swore a solemn vow before instruction (1) never to write down the music for "performance" or even transmission outside the liturgy, (2) never to change a single note or even a melismatic variation, and (3) to pass it to another deacon exactly as they were taught it. He thus was able to claim - plausibly enough, I think - that when he intoned the Easter Alleluia, the ears of the fourth century would have nodded in agreement, with every cadence and modulation of his voice.

The sheer romance of this woke me up to whole idea of tradition in the liturgy; but there was another thing that struck me in his reminiscence of home, a home to which he would most likely return when his dental training was finished. It was a place where one expected trouble, persecution, and where martyrdom was not a remote idea. It was a different air than the air that I breathed in Britain, and it gave to his quiet faith a powerful and virile attraction. It was obvious that he did not feel that Catherine of Alexandria was a distant martyr figure. To him, martyrdom and suffering for one's faith were as natural and "wired in" one might say, as our - fading - complacency. I have no idea what has happened to him since.

I hate to see the sight of people lined up for killing even in a photograph - such as the newspaper photographs of the recent Coptic martyrdoms. I am convinced, deep down, that to willingly look on a killing, for mere curiosity and the titillation of horror, is even more wicked when one watches on television than if one was there in the flesh. I cannot quite believe that our reality TV culture extends to watching people being incinerated live. I would ask people who screen and watch this kind of thing if they want to be part of the show: perhaps they should go out to Syria, Iraq or the latest country our sissy-fool politicians have liberated from tyranny, and pose for selfies with the likes of Jihadi John pointing his gun at their head to achieve the ultimate narcissistic thrill of reality TV, just before their demise.

But - base voyeurism aside - there is a good reason to know that Christians are being martyred, because - as the term suggests - a martyr is a flaming and triumphant witness to Christ. The wielder of the sword brings about the victory of the Cross and the crucified. The final words of Psalm 110 (Vulgate 109) have struck me of late in this connection, as having a strange irony. Christ will "judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies, and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries". A strange judgment indeed when it is Christ's body that is smitten, and one without sense if we did not know of the resurrection by the life-giving Spirit, and his coming reign when the smitten heads of these new Saints will be uplifted in power over all nations: "He shall drink of the brook in the way, therefore shall he lift up his head".

I suppose the question for us in the West is whether we will all be damned, too bloated and fearful to be anything other than ashamed of Christ in our diabolic luxury, wittering on endlessly in Synods and conferences, refusing to take the Gospel of repentance and faith to a truth-starved world: while others kneel and die.

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