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The Body and the Liturgy

The summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Early Christian Studies is a tribute to the work of Patricia Cox Miller.  Her book on dreams in Late Antiquity has been particularly useful to my work on dreams in an archaeological context.  The volume is dedicated to a series of articles focusing on the body in Late Antiquity and represents the wide range of topics that draw upon the study of the body as a key paradigm.

The article in the recent volume of the JECS that caught my attention is Derek Krueger’s “The Unbounded Body in the Age of Liturgical Reproduction”.  In it, he explores the idea that in Late Antiquity there were very few checks on the proliferation of the liturgy and its power to reproduce the body of God.  As evidence, he explores passages in John Moschos’ Pratum Spirituale.  In particular, he examines the well-known story of the children who play-act the liturgy and, when they utter the words of consecration accidentally consecrate the host.  Thus unordained and untrained children were able conjure the body of God through the words of the liturgy alone.  Krueger then goes on to site some other passages that, in a general way, reinforce his observations.

Several years ago, in a thoroughly unsuccessful and consequently unpublished article, I argued that the the same proliferation of the liturgy explained the appearance of liturgical phrases in inscriptions across the Eastern Mediterranean.  These texts appeared not just in the context of the church building, but also in domestic space and in public space (particularly fortifications).  While these texts rarely contained the entire text of the anaphora (central to the act of consecration), I argue that they frequently invoke the liturgy specifically and establish a pars pro toto relationship.  The implication here is that (1) literate folks were familiar enough with the words of the liturgy to recognize a liturgical phrase in an inscription.  Krueger’s work substantiates this assumption.  And (2) the liturgy itself was not the exclusive domain of the clergy, but could be appropriated by ordinary folks for their homes (especially in Syria) or by the elite in monumental fortifications.  Thus, there exists some tension between clergy’s position as the “ritual experts” in relation to the liturgy and the proliferation of the liturgy among members of the laity. 

These arguments are persuasive and important, especially for any scholar (like myself) who see the ritual formality of the liturgy as crucial to its role in establishing a clearly defined relationship between the laity, the clergy, and the divine.  I can’t get around the idea that clergy’s authority in Late Antique society was in some way linked to their role in the liturgy.  After all, the most visible mark of the liturgy and clerical presence in a community was the monumentalized expression of liturgical space — the church building.

Categories: Late Antiquity
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