Of the three bodies, the traditional body takes priority when analyzing the sacramentality of Christian existence as shaped through liturgical worship. While the modern tendency might be to consider a given tradition’s embodied worship in terms of sacred locations and edifices, for Christian ritual it is time that is of the essence (Schmemann 1973: 47–66). Still, while a temporal framework fundamentally governs Christian ritual tradition, understanding the church body at worship also requires steady attention to the physical and sociocultural dimensions of the tradition in practice. In what follows, description and analysis of basic components of how communities broadly celebrate Sunday shall introduce multiple symbolic elements common to liturgical worship. Additional embodied characteristics will unfold in discussion of further calendrical and occasional rituals.
4.1 Sunday: basic unit of time
From early Christian origins, Sunday is the orienting symbol for the church’s liturgical worship. This tradition coincides with the theology of the paschal mystery. The new, unprecedented belief that God had raised the crucified Jesus from the dead emboldened the early believers to take up the prophetic biblical symbol of the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:1) as well as the Jewish apocalyptic notion of the Eighth Day as the first day of the New Creation (2 Enoch) and to transpose and apply them to what God had done in Christ (Lathrop 1993: 36–43). The mid-second-century Roman martyr Justin testifies:
Sunday, indeed, is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and [prime] matter, created the world; and our Savior Jesus Christ arose from the dead on the same day. (First Apology 67; Justin Martyr 1975: 107)
Herein lies the heart of Christian eschatology, namely that the biblical expectation of God’s establishing a new era (the time of God’s reign) has indeed definitively happened, but in a manner humans could not have expected. The risen Christ is the ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Col 1:18), the first and the last (ho protos kai ho eschatos, Rev 1:17), the Lord of creation and history. The baptized, sealed with his Spirit (see 2 Cor 1:22), carry on in their bodies his salvific mission. They participate in the mercy and forgiveness, the justice and peace of God’s reign on earth and bear witness to God’s favour (grace) for all in Christ until he comes again in glory. Sunday is the original, primary feast day – the day that the diffuse members of Christ’s body gather up the work and witness of their lives in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving while receiving at the table of God’s word and sacrament the divine nourishment that sustains them on the journey towards the kingdom’s final coming.
4.1.1 The gathering of the assembly
The Sunday assembly of the faithful manifests the church to one another and to the world. Indeed, the Greek word for church (ekklesia) means ‘a called assembly’. The Jewish first believers in Christ Jesus had adopted the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the Hebrew word for the assembly of God’s people (qahal). The church assembly constitutes the fundamental symbol of the risen Christ. The gathering is itself a sacramental act of worship since believers’ coming together is a tangible encounter with Christ’s active presence: ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’ (Matt 18:20). In their ritual worship, the assembled members of the church brings their service to God on behalf of not only themselves but all peoples, even all creation. In the late first-century book of Revelation, the seer John receives his apocalyptic visions for the church precisely on the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10), thereby revealing how the church’s worship joins with ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea’ in singing the praises of ‘the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb’ (Rev 5:13). Whatever trials earthly believers may be undergoing in their social bodies, their lives are nonetheless joined with those imperceptible person-bodies already gathered at the heavenly ‘marriage supper of the Lamb’ (Rev 19:9).
As a practical matter, one of the most effective ways to physically bond an assembly of people is music and song. Not surprisingly, then, the activity that generally initiates Christian services of worship across a wide range of ecclesial-cultural traditions and locations is vocalized music, whether instrumentally accompanied or not. Leaving aside consideration of the textual content of hymnody or song, the effect of music on individual and assembled bodies is fundamentally a result of a physiological process combining breath with the production and sensing of vibrations as sound. Biomedical research (Wilson and Weeks 1991a; 1991b) suggests that the interaction between auditory vibrations in the eardrum and parasympathetic nerves throughout the body results in the control and regulation of numerous major organs of the body. Concurrence on the cellular level between the ear and the rest of the body is proving crucial for understanding how the brain both becomes stimulated and regulates bodily behaviour, with the vestibular system being crucial to erect bodily posture. A person’s body and mind process both self-produced and outside vibrations as sounds, such that even a deaf person can experience and produce music due to processes at the cellular level in their bones, skin, and organs. In what sound researchers call musical entrainment, the entire body engages in the activity of listening and self-listening. The body’s breath and heartbeat synchronize with the pace, rhythm, and pulse of the vibrations in the music while the ear ‘translates’ these pulsations to the brain, thus affecting one’s consciousness (Goldman 1992: 14–15).
Applying this sketch of the biophysiological research, then, to the custom of opening worship services with music: the performance of song ‘charges’ participants’ bodies and minds, heightening awareness and orienting person-bodies both horizontally and vertically (that is, in relation to selves, others, and God; Wilson and Weeks 1991a: 17). The typical posture is standing, which traditional commentaries on Christian worship explain sociologically as symbolizing respectful attentiveness. The theological symbolism of the posture includes paschal joy (the risen body), dignity as members in Christ, and eschatological watchfulness for Christ’s return. Engagement as a traditional body is only possible due to the participation of all. The collective processes of movement, posture, sound production, and reception contribute to the individual person-body’s ‘heightened’ mental and spiritual sense of being in the presence of God. The corporate musical engagement likewise serves the traditional conception of the assembly as mutual members of the body of Christ. The rhythm, melody, tones, and overtones of the music generate a certain bodily synchrony among the participants through a shared range of entrainment of breath, heartbeat, and movement. Exemplary of the corporate integration of music, breath, and body in worship are the practices of swaying and dance common in African and African diaspora churches (Costen 2007: 19, 36, 41–42, 59). For these reasons, once an assembly is of a sizeable number, music is the key to unifying the participants. Participation is therefore not only a matter of divine service and self-edification, but also of mutual service to fellow participants. It serves to renew the strength of Christ’s body – the members of the church with and for one another.
This is but one angle on the worshipping body, a natural perspective. Music, sound, and silence function throughout, yet do so variably for each person-body, with sociocultural dimensions inevitably coming into play. Of vital importance over the past few decades has been the burgeoning pastoral awareness of, engagement with, and scholarship concerning ecclesial members with a wide range of differing abilities of mind and body. For example, practical theologian Armand Léon van Ommen and colleagues have published studies integrating neuroscientific, educational, and music theories with qualitative congregational research among autistic members. Their findings highlight how music (performance and reception, volume levels and silence) variably impacts the thoughts and feelings of autistic ‘selves’ (that is, person-bodies) in different ways than they do non-autistic people (van Ommen and Strong 2022: 336–356; van Ommen and Unwin 2022: 267–288). Greater recognition of how music functions in the spirituality of autistic individuals is yielding not only appreciation for but also promotion of the ways in which those members can and do enhance the communal body at worship.
This positive recognition of autistic members in community is representative of the broader field of disability studies in ecclesiology, worship, and liberative justice for which sociologist-theologian Nancy Eisland’s work in the first half of the 1990s proved seminal (Eisland 1994; see also Eisland and Saliers 1998). Pastoral experience with fellow disabled Christians led Eisland to a transformative awareness of the body of the risen Christ as a disabled body (in hands, feet, and torso). The eucharistic celebration of word and sacrament comprises for all the assembled an encounter with the disabled God in Christ. Participation in the conceptional and nonverbal symbolism of the liturgical action fosters an imagination of wholeness (differentially conceived and communally shared) and inspires ongoing work for embodied social justice. Eisland’s grounding of her liberative theology in the Eucharist accordingly points to two further major elements of Sunday worship common across liturgical traditions: the service of the Word and the service of the table.
4.1.2 The service of the Word
Following upon the music-driven gathering ritual that initiates a Sunday service is the service of the Word. The church assembly, under the leadership of its ministers, disposes itself to the word of God through an ordered pattern of proclamation and response. The word of God that the church proclaims in its liturgy is – for reasons both human and divine – something far greater than words on the pages of a book. Humanly speaking, the various types of literature comprising the Christian Bible have the potential to shape imaginations, instill hope or fear, convey knowledge and wisdom, and inform intellects and consciences in the ways that all good stories, poetry, and prose do. Furthermore, the contexts in which texts are encountered affect their impact, such that solitary reading or silent study comprises a different experience than public performance or group recitation. Reading or hearing a text is always an event for those involved, for it draws people into an encounter with symbols – words evoking images and ideas – that interact with, create, reinforce, or transform a world of meaning for those engaged. The sharing of words, whether written or oral, comprises a crucial medium for relationships between persons.
Biblical faith reveals the encounter between God and people as coming about precisely through the creative, symbolic medium of words. Indeed, the Hebrew experience of being in relationship with the Lord God was such that the concept of ‘word’ itself became a primary symbol for how the totally other, immaterial divinity reaches out to humans, creating and sustaining them. The Jewish scriptures portray God’s mighty deeds and God’s word as one and the same encapsulated in the word dabar – an energizing word, a dynamic driving force, a creative power directed towards fulfilling its promise (Hilkert 1998: 61). While ancient Judaism used many metaphors to express God’s interaction with people (angel, hand, arm, finger, wisdom, etc.), the prophetic literature favoured language such as ‘the word of the Lord’ and ‘God’s spirit’ (the Hebrew word ruach literally meaning breath). This genre found these speech-related expressions to be particularly apt for describing the way in which God is ineffably different from all creation, yet is intimately engaged in the lives of creatures, especially the affairs of humans and the courses of their histories.
The synchrony of word and breath (spirit) together propelling speech served a key role in the first believers’ articulation of what God had revealed and accomplished in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Drawing on the metaphors of the Hebrew prophets and wisdom literature, the gospels reveal him as the Word made flesh (incarnate) through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ brief public mission was in the genre of the classical Jewish prophets. Uniquely possessed by the Spirit (as revealed at his baptism in the Jordan River), Jesus’ words and other symbolic actions were those of God – in his very speaking and doing, God’s will was enacted. Jesus’ ultimate self-gift in obedience to God’s will and love for humanity came in the seeming disaster of his death and the marvel of his resurrection, the paschal mystery that gave his disciples a radically new perspective on all they had experienced with him.
From that climactic point, the only Jesus to be encountered was the Risen Lord, the full revelation of his identity shedding light back on all he had said and done. Those words and deeds, henceforth remembered and shared by the gathered community, reveal the nature of God’s love and will for humanity (i.e. the reign of God). If followers of Jesus desire to know him – that is, to encounter his person and share in his presence – then they must continuously hear anew the accounts of his deeds and relationships with crowds and individuals, and the contents of his parables, proverbs, and other sayings. Biblical scholars widely agree that every gospel narrative was written to reflect the entire scope of the word of God in the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures. The gospels express this through descriptions of Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets (see Matt 5:17; Luke 24:27) and being the very word of God come to dwell with humans, full of grace and truth (see John 1:14). Jesus’ self-offering in death and vindication in the Spirit reveal his entire life to be the ultimate communion of God with humanity, humanity with God.
The primary point to be taken from this summary of the content and nature of biblical revelation is that – as the word of God – it is an original event of God that communicates in a particular time and place through and amidst particular person-bodies. The church assembled in worship proclaims and responds to the biblical body of tradition that consistently reveals that God’s creative and redemptive will is for both the individual and the whole – a social body of shared commitment and mutual care. Being in the company of others cannot but affect how individuals discern the word of God. Here too, burgeoning awareness of the full range of person-bodies is proving important. While some members may have limitations of mind and body that minimize engagement with the cognitive content of the service, gesture, touch, and silence offer equally valuable means of participation in both the service of the Word and the entire liturgy (Spurrier 2019). In any case, engaging the biblical word of God as an assembled body enacts the event-character of revelation.
While sound, in the sense of adequate voice projection – or sight, in the case of printed or projected text for the deaf and those who find visual materials more accessible – may most readily appear as pertinent to the effective embodiment of the proclamation of the Word, silence and breath prove equally crucial. In a metaphorical sense, the entire service of the Word needs periodic brief silences in order to breathe. Put another way, bodily silence is needed for a person to form their intention and attentiveness. Likewise, silence provides the opportunity, following a reading’s proclamation, to reflect upon or even ‘hear’ a word from the Spirit. Just as silence – especially in the stillness as a breath’s inhale transitions into its exhale – is essential to musical performance, so is it to the proclamation of the biblical text. As it does in music, silence offers pauses that frame and pace the reading, moments of intentional stillness elicited from deep engagement of its content. Indeed, careful, studied preparation of the text affords the possibility of the reader finding an original, even unexpected intonation, pace, or arresting silence arising in the moment of proclamation itself. These characteristics of the ritually performed Word contribute to the service becoming an impactful experience in body, mind, and spirit – in theological terms, an event of revelation.
In addition to the bodily dimensions of sound and silence, the event-character of the service of the Word is likewise built up (albeit variably among church traditions) through the other senses of sight, smell, and touch. One notable tradition concerning bodily posture across Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, as well as many Protestant services of the Word, is for all who are able to stand for the proclamation of the gospel reading. Standing for the gospel is a sign of singular respect for Christ as the full revelation of the divine Word. Generally, churches position the proclamation of the biblical readings and the homily (liturgical sermon) in the elevated part of the sanctuary that, except in Orthodox churches, includes a stationary pulpit. For the proclamation of the gospel, Anglican and Orthodox traditions include a procession of the ministers with the gospel book held high (symbolizing its authority) and flanked by lighted candles into the middle of the assembly (symbolizing Christ’s mission among the people). Contemporary Roman Catholic ritual may include a similar procession of the gospel book from the altar table on which it was placed at the start of the liturgy to the pulpit, symbolizing the unity of Word and sacrament, the one Christ present and active in both.
In all these traditions, the gospel procession is a visual announcement accompanied by a chanted acclamation of honour and praise with the vibrational synchrony and harmonic sound of the music, as ever, unifying the people as one body. Touch likewise comes into play across the range of Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions. As the gospel reading is introduced, the proclaiming minister (a priest or deacon) as well as many members of the congregation make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, lips, and chests. Similarly, upon completing the reading, the minister kisses the open book. As for the sense of smell (as well as sight), in Orthodox services fragrant incense is wafted towards the book, an ancient gesture of veneration likewise practised in more solemn services of the Word in Catholic and Anglican churches.
Christian churches have always existed amidst wider societies such that their decisions regarding types of music, styles of ministerial vestments, the design and use of liturgical objects, and the arrangement of the worship space have always been influenced by their sociohistorical contexts – the interaction of the cultural body and traditional body. Contemporary worldwide Christianity has seen increased confrontation with churches’ colonialist histories and the related imposition of Euro-uniformity on local ethnic bodies. This has required new degrees of enculturation, at times radical (in the true sense of the term), in all aspects of a given church’s liturgy: its symbols, music, and gestures, as well as its narrative, and textual content.
Although many people in our modern context might, at first thought, consider words and texts to be related only to mind (and perhaps spirit), this brief examination of the Sunday service of the Word challenges that notion. It discloses how an assembled people’s tradition for proclaiming and responding to passages of scripture – through reading, music, preaching, silence, and movement – engages persons in particular physical ways, producing or reinforcing them as members of that social body called church. For numerous church communities in the lineage of the Protestant Reformation, the service of the Word usually or even always comprises the entire Sunday ritual. On the other hand, for Orthodox, Catholic, many Anglican, and some Lutheran churches, the Sunday liturgy always continues with the service of the table.
4.1.3 The service of the table
A human commonality across cultures and epochs is the sharing of gifts as a symbolic means of bonding persons as social bodies. The gift of food and drink in the form of a shared meal (or, in some cultures, a ceremonially shared beverage) is one of the most impactful expressions of this tradition. The act of eating and drinking from one table or bowl has a bodily impact on the participants to which symbolic meaning is added through the recitation of shared stories, prayers, songs, and traditional gestures. Such is true for Christianity from its very origins, as Luke portrays the common life undertaken by the several thousand converts baptized at Pentecost: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers […] they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God’ (Acts 2:42, 46). Over the first generations of the early church, as the size of communities grew, the gathering place for the Sunday celebration would be the large social-dining space of a wealthier member. This meal gathering was typical for a social group in the late antique Mediterranean world, whether the Graeco-Roman symposium or the Jewish weekly sabbath or annual Passover supper. The Jews celebrated such meals as a form of sacrifice called a peace offering whereby they bonded anew with God and with one another. The synoptic gospels recount how, on the eve of his execution, Jesus shared the Passover supper with his disciples. By adding to the traditional table blessing with bread and wine his identification of them as his body and blood, Jesus established the meal symbolism of a new divine-human covenant through him (Matt 26:17–29; Mark 14:12–25; Luke 22:7–20). These accounts became the foundational story and ritual rudiments for the Sunday, Lord’s Day meal.
Justin Martyr (d. 165) provides the earliest detailed description of the Sunday ritual: (1) the people assembling ‘in one place’, (2) the readings from the apostles and prophets, (3) the presiding minister’s homiletic discourse on them, (4) the standing and offering up of prayers, (5) the kiss of peace, (6) the bringing forth of bread and wine over which the president offers prayers and thanks, (7) the subsequent sharing in them by all, (8) the people’s financial and material gifts for distribution to any in need (widows, orphans, the sick, migrants, prisoners). Justin explains how the church calls the offered bread and wine eucharistía (thanksgiving), the sharing of which is restricted to the baptized:
Not as ordinary bread or as ordinary drink do we partake of them; but just as, through the word of God, our Savior Jesus Christ became Incarnate and took upon Himself flesh and blood for our salvation, so we have been taught, the food which has been made the Eucharist by the prayer of His word, and which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is both the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (First Apology 66; Justin Martyr 1975: 105–106)
He then summarizes the gospel narratives’ descriptions of Jesus’ words and actions over the bread and wine, highlighting them as the ritual remembrance (anamnesis) of Christ. To this day, Justin’s account remains foundational for the basic sequence and theological understanding of the entire Sunday service, most notably the Eucharist and the concurrent gift-giving for the material needs of the poor.
Justin’s account portrays the physical, cultural, and traditional dimensions of the Christian body at Sunday worship, all of which form the affective desires, growth in virtues, and ethical obligations of each person-body. Notable for the ensuing tradition is his detailed highlighting of the eucharistic elements as both transformed into Christ’s body and blood but also sacramentally and ethically transformational of those who partake of them. One further early church source – the fourth-century catechetical homilies attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) – dramatically demonstrates the holistic, sacramental, and ethical power of the bodily partaking of the Eucharist:
After this you hear the Cantor inviting you in sacred song to participate in the holy mysteries. His words are: Taste, and see that the Lord is good. […] So when you come forward, do not come with arm extended or fingers parted. Make your left hand a throne for the right, since your right hand is about to welcome a King. Cup your palm and receive in it Christ’s body, saying in response Amen. Then carefully bless your eyes with a touch of the holy body, and consume it, being careful to drop not a particle of it. […] After partaking of Christ’s body, go to receive the chalice of his blood. […] While your lips are still moist with his blood, touch it with your hands and bless your eyes, forehead, and other organs of sense. (1994)
By the late fourth century, the sociopolitical acceptance and growth of Christianity required that the Sunday liturgy be shifted from the more intimate setting of house or banquet room to basilicas, the large structure that was standard for public assemblies. The chanting of Psalm 34 (‘Taste and see’) during the congregation’s procession to the front sanctuary area for the Eucharist is not only thematically relevant (tasting and seeing) but also, as discussed above, it offers an experience of corporate bonding due to the sound vibrations of the music effecting a degree of unity among the person-bodies amidst the cavernous space.
Belief that the divine power is present in the bread and wine finds ritual performance through acts of veneration. These acts form an embodied tradition that is practised in various manners (bowing, kneeling, crossing oneself, kissing one’s fingers) across churches and throughout the centuries. Cyril’s gestures of veneration (making a throne of one’s hands and then touching the bread and wine to parts of the body) are particularly elaborate and theologically rich. People in the late antique Mediterranean world understood the performance of human agency to originate not merely from the mind and spirit, but rather from the three zones of bodily organs: heart-eyes for emotion-infused thought, mouth-ears for self-expressive speech, and hands-feet for purposeful action (Malina 2001: 68–71, 120–123). The communicant’s gestures, then, serve both to venerate the sacred elements and to sanctify the ethical life, virtuous words, and God-glorifying deeds of the person-body.
Nonetheless, the traditional body at Holy Communion is not an autonomous individual person-body (per the modern bias), but also essentially a social body, the body of the church comprised of its members. Other symbols that remain traditional in the eucharistic rite enable active expression of the unity in love (charity) that the community is called to have as one in the Spirit, one in Christ. The recitation or chanting of the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) occurs during the eucharistic rite precisely because of its petition, ‘forgive us our trespasses (sins), as we forgive those who have trespassed (sinned) against us’. Unity among the members of Christ’s body is likewise expressed in the kiss of peace (embraces exchanged among the assembled). Both symbols contribute to the momentum towards Holy Communion as a shared reception of grace (divine favour and power). Thus did Augustine (d. 430) and, following him, Aquinas (d. 1274) teach that the full reality and ultimate purpose of the Eucharist is greater charity among the body of Christ, the church. This liturgy, constantly repeated, exemplifies the principle that it is the entire practical life of faith that is the worship of God.
4.2 Calendrical time: fasting and feasting, drama and devotion
4.2.1 The day
From the start, Sunday has anchored time for Christians due to its being the day on which the gospels recount the crucified Christ was raised from the dead. It is important to note that the gospels introduce the event as occurring on the first day of the week according to the Jewish calendar. As it developed, Christian daily prayer likewise drew influence from the psalms, songs, readings, and prayers commonly practised by Jews in the morning, afternoon, and evening. However, whereas many Jews practised fast days on Tuesday and Thursday in preparation for the Sabbath’s start at Friday sundown, early Christians shifted their ‘station’ days to Wednesday and Friday, with the Lord’s Day commencing at sundown on Saturday. Wednesday and Friday were given over to fasting up to the ninth hour (3pm), a tradition that continued for centuries. Prayer on those days gradually expanded from an individual to a communal practice, eventually including eucharistic celebration in some regions.
4.2.2 The week
Fasting was the most notable embodied practice observed on the two stational days and thus within the rhythm of the week. Physically, fasting entails restricting one’s bodily consumption of food and drink (and possibly other activities as well), thereby affecting the faster’s metabolism, their energy level, and, consequently, their awareness and thought. A practice found widely across cultures, fasting entails self-denial, effort, and sacrifice in relation to some greater good. In many cultural (religious) bodies fasting is performed with the intention of deepening or restoring people’s relationship with the divine. From its origins to the present, the Christian tradition has considered fasting to have a Christological orientation. The practice represents an edifying devotion to Jesus for what he freely endured, unto death, in love for God and humanity, ‘his own […] to the end’ (John 13:1). As Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann often emphasized, the physical deprivation and yearning entailed in fasting enhances the anticipation for and enjoyment of the ensuing feasting, whether it be the weekly Sunday Eucharist or the special feast days that gradually came to comprise the liturgical year (Schmemann 1973: 51–55).
4.2.3 The year
By the late second century, an annual Resurrection celebration began to spread. In 325, the council of Nicaea established Easter Sunday’s annual occurrence in relation to the cosmic springtime lunar timing of the traditional Jewish Passover (pesach) – the festival during which Jesus died and arose. The Friday fast before Easter Sunday came to be observed through Saturday as well, then the preparatory period expanded to encompass the prior Sunday, constituting a solemn Holy Week. Lent gradually developed as a forty-day season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving in penitential preparation for the Easter feast, while Eastertide itself had lengthened much earlier to be fifty days, ending on Pentecost Sunday. Christianity adapted Pentecost (the Jewish festival celebrating the Sinai covenant) to have a new meaning based on Luke’s account of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s disciples during Pentecost (Acts 2:1–41). Fourth-century bishops exhorted observance of the entire Easter season as an octave of (eight) Sundays or a ‘week of weeks’ (forty-nine days plus one). Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) – who theologized Pentecost as a remembrance (anamnesis) of the resurrection awaiting all the baptized in the promised new creation – prohibited fasting and kneeling throughout the season since those bodily practices were inappropriate for Sunday and, thus, to the annual weekslong Sunday.
Over the centuries, embodiment in worship throughout the entire ninety-day Easter Cycle has come to involve not only deprivation (Lenten fasting) and indulgence (Easter feasting), but also a range of traditional practices integrating the physical, social, and cultural dimensions of Christian sacramentality. In central and western Europe, by the High Middle Ages the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter had become all but exclusive rituals of the clergy and so the laity took increasing roles in processions and dramatic performances. Processions became the form of ritual activity that provided lay people with a role in the corporate liturgical drama of Holy Week, offering the opportunity to join behind the clergy within church rites and also in popular street processions. In every region, the Mass for Palm Sunday included a procession with clergy and laity often carrying blessed palms and flowers from an outlying chapel to the central church or cathedral. Central European families would carry the palms in musical procession through their farms, sticking branches in fields and barns for protection from storm and pestilence.
From the evening of Maundy Thursday into Friday morning, Southwest Europeans would dress in black and visit temporary shrines of the reserved Blessed Sacrament in seven churches or chapels, praying the rosary along their way. This tradition continues today there and in places around the globe where Portuguese and Spanish peoples settled. On the Iberian Peninsula, there developed Good Friday street processions in which men wearing hooded cowls and carrying candles depicted the events of the passion – a tradition that evolved into role-playing all the dramatis personae (main characters) in the gospel accounts. These costumed performances have continued in ever-evolving enculturated ways across the globe in lands once colonized by the Portuguese and Spanish. For example, such places as the Philippines and the U.S. Southwest have evolved Good Friday practices whereby men devotionally torture their bodies in mimetic union with the suffering Christ (Bautista 2019; Mellott 2009: 41–66). In medieval Germanic countries, a different type of devotional dramatization took the form of staged Passion and Easter plays with numerous costumed male and female actors. To this day, the people of Oberammergau, Germany produce an elaborate passion play every ten years.
Description of regional and ethnic Easter food and meal traditions across global Christianity would exceed the scope of this article, as would acknowledgement of the integration of all the bodily senses in the proliferation of enculturated traditions of food, drink, clothing, site location, decoration, and much more that exist around the world (Morrill 2006: 112–134). Likewise, space limitations prohibit description of similar processional, dramatic, and culinary traditions throughout the year, such as in the other major seasonal cycle of Advent-Christmas-Epiphany. The present review of the Easter cycle may serve as a guide to such types of historical and contemporary practices for further study.
4.3 Times in the life-cycle: person-bodies, ecclesial bodies
The regular cycles of day, week, and year shape the life of the church in the world, its ongoing history towards the eschatological coming of Christ, and its final transformation into ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev 21:1; see also 2 Pet 3:13). Still, the church is comprised of individual person-bodies, each with their own life-cycle and variable abilities. This necessitates the use of Christian symbols and rituals for marking transitions related to maturation, to status within the church and society, and to the health of body and soul. These occasional rites benefit both the individual and the social-traditional body of the ecclesial community. Just as the symbolism in the rituals of the church calendar engages the full range of physical senses to enable individual participation and communal cohesion, life-cycle rites feature symbolic materials and gestures that are traditional yet conditioned by sociocultural contexts. The purpose of these rites is to allow individuals to participate more deeply in the paschal mystery – to interpret their lives as companionship with Christ Jesus (with his life and his death) through the life-creating and restoring power of his Spirit.
The New Testament portrays baptism by water and the Holy Spirit as initiating the believer’s new life, and the Eucharist as offering the ongoing sustenance of that life (Acts 8:36–39; 10:44–48; 1 Cor 11:23–26). These the church identified early on as mysteries and eventually (in the Latin-speaking lands of North Africa and Europe) as sacraments. Rituals for the healing of mind, body, and soul developed quickly, while healing rites of penance and reconciliation for those whose sin had wounded communion with God and the ecclesial body came about more gradually. Rites for ordination to permanent offices of leadership in the church – beginning with bishops (episkopoi) and deacons (diaconoi) – evolved relatively early as well, whereas only much more gradually did the vocation of married life realize a degree of sacramental stature and evolution in ritual (Reynolds 2016). The medieval Latin church (with parallels in the Eastern Orthodox church) settled on identifying a total of seven formal sacraments: (1) baptism, (2) confirmation/chrismation, (3) Eucharist, (4) penance, (5) anointing of the sick, (6) holy orders, and (7) marriage. The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, however, restricted the category of sacrament to those rituals Christ explicitly commanded in scripture: baptism and the Lord’s supper. Here follows a brief treatment of just a few of the most notable types of symbolism engaging the bodily senses that are operative among the seven liturgical sacraments.
Anointing with oil is a gesture of smooth liquid permeating the surface of the body, making it an appropriate marker of the transformation of a person’s life condition or even permanent life status. New Testament texts describe both Jesus and believers as being anointed with the Spirit and/or power (Acts 10:38; 2 Cor 1:21; Heb 1:9; 1 John 2:20). These accounts influenced the development of traditional rites of Christian initiation, including the anointing of catechumens in preparation for water baptism and a post-baptismal anointing with chrism. The anointing with chrism constituted the infusion of the Spirit of Christ upon the neophyte, now a full member of the body of Christ. Using olive oil infused with aromatic spices proper to each stage of initiation, these anointings engaged not only the sense of touch but also of smell. In churches that teach ordination to the priesthood as affecting an ontological change in the person, the ritual includes anointing of the hands, consecrating them to the ministry of the sacraments. In certain churches, such as the Roman Catholic, the ordination of a bishop includes an anointing of the head (Wood 2000: 30, 52, 89, 106). Such an anointing is but one among several symbolic gestures engaged during the ordination rites.
From the start of Christianity, the medicinal function of olive oil made its prayerful application a symbol of healing for the sick. As churches grew in size, bishops regularly consecrated oil for the sick during the Sunday eucharistic liturgy for people to take home and self-apply or even drink. However, by the medieval period the ritual of applying oil to a sick or dying person-body became the exclusive function of the ordained (a priest or bishop). Today, across a broad ecumenical spectrum, a biblically and anthropologically renewed theology and pastoral ministry of anointing the sick offers holistic strengthening for the seriously ill person (Boulton 2007; Morrill 2007a; Schattauer 2007; Smith 2007). Readings and prayers used during these anointings draw heavily from gospel narratives of Jesus’ healing encounters with the sick and outcast. The presence of the church represented by the minister as well as by loved ones and caregivers fosters assurance of Christ’s loving accompaniment of the anointed person in their health crisis or advancing decline due to old age.
The sense of touch functions in various other symbolic gestures among the formal sacraments. As noted earlier, the eucharistic rite’s kiss of peace expresses mutual affection through embrace or handshake. The current liturgy for Maundy Thursday in Catholic and many Protestant churches includes a ceremonial washing of members’ feet done in obedient imitation of Jesus at the Last Supper (John 13:1–17). Mennonite traditions (on principle of strict biblical adherence) perform foot washing during each of the few occasions per year that they celebrate Holy Communion. In addition to the multivalent sensation of water and drying by towel, the ritual entails the washer’s bending and kneeling – a visual symbol of humble, caring service. Another common gesture of touch is the laying on of hands. For rites of penance and the anointing of the sick this serves as a healing gesture, whereas in rites of confirmation and ordination it symbolizes status conferral and empowerment for mission.