"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 15, 2012

Nicholas Denysenko on Theophanic Water Blessings

A new book from Ashgate written by Nicholas Denysenko was just published in both a Kindle edition and a hardback: The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition (Ashgate, 2012, 237pp.). The author, a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and director of the very important Huffington Ecumenical Institute, has previously published critically acclaimed articles in (inter alia) Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I asked him for an interview about his new book, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us a bit about your background.

ND: I am a first-generation American, the son of post-World War II immigrants from Ukraine and grandson of an Orthodox priest. While not a stereotypical "PK," I essentially grew up in and around a rectory and took great pleasure in singing with the church choir. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a BS in Business in 1994, I took my first job with St. Mary's Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis as their music director. I received my M.Div. from St. Vladimir's Seminary in 2000, worked as a product manager at Augsburg Fortress Publishers until 2003, graduated from The Catholic University of America with a Ph.D. in liturgical studies and sacramental theology in 2008 (with a short stint as marketing manager at the USCCB from 2007-9), and accepted an appointment as assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where I also direct the Huffington Ecumenical Institute.

AD: What led you to work in the areas of liturgical theology, and in particular on the question of Theophany and water blessing? 

Well, when I turned 18, after a lifetime of praying in my non-native language (Ukrainian), I honestly began the process of "faith seeking understanding." A friend gave me a copy of Alexander Schmemann's book Liturgy and Life
which I eagerly read. I continued to read Schmemann in my quest to understand liturgy, which I had actively engaged as a choir director. One motivation was my own need to teach liturgical music and to demonstrate to singer how music is a servant of the liturgy; the only way to accomplish this was to learn liturgical structures, history, and theology. My interest in the Theophany water blessing began in a seminar on the Holy Spirit I took with my Doktorvater, Dominic Serra, in 2004. My desire was to unpack the mystery of the so-called "double epiclesis" of the "Great are You" prayer, and my entrance into the project became something much more significant and definitive.

AD: Among several outstanding things about your study I found two especially commendable. First is your ecumenical focus in which you don't just confine yourself to the Byzantine tradition but also examine other Eastern traditions as well as Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical treatments of Epiphany and blessings. Is there evidence of Eastern traditions influencing the Western, or vice versa?

ND: There is no doubt that the Anglican water blessing draws upon elements of the Byzantine and perhaps Armenian traditions, which are then synthesized in a beautiful blend of Theophany and Western Epiphany themes of "greeting," an anticipation (as it were) of the second coming. In other words, it's as if the Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan has a powerful eschatological flavor in anticipating his revelation as Lord and God at the end of days. More work needs to be done in this area. A Hungarian scholar is about to publish a critical edition of the blessing of waters in Latin which appears to draw heavily upon Greek euchological sources, so there is some evidence of East influencing West, in both medieval and contemporary sources.

AD: You draw on a wonderful array of people in your work, including some very prominent names in Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox circles, inter alia. Is it possible today (in the shadow of Baumstark as it were) to do liturgical theology using anything other than such a comparative method?

ND: Employing the comparative method is essential for writing liturgical history, and I humbly consider myself to be an adherent of the Baumstark-Mateos-Taft school of comparative liturgy, with special thanks to Mark Morozowich (Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America), who carefully taught me the method. My work is also one of sacramental theology, and here, I employed Monsignor Kevin Irwin's method of Context and Text, an enormously valuable method for gleaning liturgical theology. Liturgical Studies is gradually becoming interdisciplinary, and I think we will see these methods evolve, develop, and grow, especially now, since the liturgical movement and its fruits are increasingly scrutinized and criticized in Catholic and Orthodox circles.

AD: The second thing I greatly cheered was your chapter "Pastoral Considerations." Some liturgical scholars see their task as largely confined to narrating history, which is said to be "instructive but not normative." But you don't confine yourself only to history: you put forward some very interesting practical-pastoral proposals. Tell us what led you to do that.

ND: The task of liturgical history is to inform, and not reform. Two of the best liturgical historians of our time, Taft and Maxwell Johnson, have been quoted accordingly. In the case of the blessing of waters, we are speaking of a living tradition, a real practice in which people participate. In the case of the blessing of waters, history can inform contemporary practice, especially since the Theophany feast occurs right after the New Year, when most people have returned to work (even academics!). This feast is beloved to Eastern Christians: why not maximize and optimize participation? The models I propose are really not attempts to reform, but instead a fine-tuning--pastoral adjustments that are designed to provide people with greater access to the blessings of the feast. My proposals concerning Catholic and Reformed churches draw upon the Roman tradition of adaptation and are offered in the spirit of ecumenical gift-exchange.

AD: The current Ecumenical Patriarch, as I'm sure you're aware, is often called the "green patriarch" for his concern about ecological issues. Do you see the theology of water blessing as connected to current concerns for the environment?

ND: Yes, absolutely. The blessing of waters reveals all of creation as holy, and water, symbolized by the Jordan, is the locus for salvation. All of creation participates in the praise of God as holy, of Christ as Lord, in this feast. Water is God's preferred instrument of salvation, a gift to humanity of restoration to the community of the Trinity. The ecumenical patriarch often referred to the blessing of waters in his many speeches and homilies as a demonstration of Orthodoxy's prioritization of ecological stewardship. I contend in this study that the blessing of waters essentially demands that the Church contribute to the global task of developing a new ethos of water; we have much to contribute from our lived tradition.

AD: Your introduction notes that there is a question, in the Theophany prayers, as to the identity of the one to whom the prayers are addressed. You then note the possibility that perhaps not all prayers are addressed to the Father through Christ, but to Christ directly, and this may pose a challenge to traditional Trinitarian theology from John of Damascus onward and its resolute insistence on "protecting" the "monarchia" of the Father. Say a bit more about this if you would, including some of the ecumenical implications.

ND: The euchology and hymnography of the blessing of waters is distinctly Christological. The texts, together with the ritual action of submerging the cross into the waters, tell the story. The Church invokes her head, Christ, to sanctify the waters by entering them; the Spirit bears witness to this entrance. Comparative liturgy not only confirms, but strengthens this thesis, as the Christological trajectory of the rite is even more prevalent in the Oriental tradition. I contend that the blessing of waters should be consulted as a source in Trinitarian theology, because the rite clearly contradicts the longstanding and fatuous claim that all prayer must be addressed to the Father. My invitation to theologians is to consider the ecclesiological framework of prayer when the Church as the body calls upon the head, Christ, to act. Some might say that this framework only concerns the economy of the Trinity, and that the monarchy of the Father as the source of divinity for the three persons of the Trinity is not threatened by the framework. My hope is that this framework might be useful in an ecumenical context to advance the notion that the filioque clause can no longer be cited as a Church-dividing issue, and that theologians might recognize the dynamics of Trinitarian prayer and activity in the Theophany blessing of waters as a demonstration of fluidity in the divine economy. 

AD: Why is it that Theophany ("Jordan") in the East retains, it seems to me (at least among the East-Slavs, with whom I am most familiar), such a place of popularity in the yearly liturgical cycle? Is there something unique about this blessing that people, even without perhaps articulating the whole theology of the feast, grasp in their piety?

ND: Among many people of the Byzantine tradition, the Theophany feast carries a strong popular parallel to Christmas, with carols, and traditional foods, not to mention a similar liturgical structure. There are many potential reasons for the popularity of the Theophany feast, but if I were asked to focus on one, it's the simple human need for water. Somtimes, in a hyperacademic drive to unveil an original theological idea, we overanalyze texts and contexts and overlook the obvious. On Theophany, the people take the blessed water home and use it throughout the year. The churches are packed on similar occasions when food and drink are blessed: on Transfiguration, we bless fruits, and take them home, and of course on Pascha, pastors have to schedule multiple basket blessings. In the moment, we tend to complain about the apparently trite attitude of the people, who don't recognize receiving the Eucharist as the authentic meaning of feast. But it's erroneous to dismiss the people's recognition that the sacred is welcome in their domiciles. Whatever we bring to Church, whether it's water for the Theophany feast, bread and wine for communion, eggs and other savory foods for Pascha baskets, fruit for Transfiguration, or flowers for Dormition, the act of bringing such items to Church is authentic offering and thanksgiving, a recognition that these domestic foods and elements are holy gifts from God freely given to us for our enjoyment. These traditions so dear to the people also serve as stark reminders that the domestic setting, the family (small or extended), is sacred, and that there is no real separation between the holy space of the Church and that of the home. The time has arrived for pastors to recognize these instances as opportunities to build upon what people themselves already recognize, that God is always with us, everywhere we go, and especially in the gifts of creation He has entrusted to our stewardship. These examples represent strong liturgical episodes (to paraphrase Monsignor Kevin Irwin), and not only should we be thankful for them, but we should also recognize the divine philanthropy they convey to us.    

AD: Sum up for us what you hope the The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany: The Eastern Liturgical Tradition accomplishes.

ND: I hope the book will be informative for broad audiences. There used to be a saying about Eastern Christianity in North America that it's a well-kept secret. Scholarship on the Eastern Church and her traditions has begun the process of demythologizing Eastern Christianity. Today, almost everyone knows about icons, and among theologians, terms such as hesychasm and theosis are well-known. That said, there are many other Eastern secrets that could be unveiled and have the capacity to tell a more comprehensive narrative story that complements what most people already know about Eastern Christianity. My hope is that this book will provide insights into Eastern Christian liturgical theology that demonstrate its diversity within the tradition, its theological fluidity, and its incredibly beautiful Christology, still experienced in a lived tradition.

AD: Finally, tell us what projects you are working on now. 

ND: I'm writing a book on Chrismation for Western Christians. The premise of my book is that within the Byzantine tradition, Chrismation, like its Western sibling (Confirmation), is also a mystery in search of a theology. My book (under contract with Liturgical Press) endeavors to unpack the liturgical theology of Chrismation in dialogue with the Catholic and Reformed traditions, to take a step towards retrieving the theology of Chrismation. I'm also steadily working on an architecture project profiling select Orthodox parishes in America. My project endeavors to recast the theology of architecture as multifaceted, and no longer an instance of form following function. My thesis contends that contemporary architecture conveys the narrative story of ecclesial communities with the local Church's mission now the primary shaper of architectural form.

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