Thursday, May 03, 2007

Dr. Thursday on Fire and Light

via Dr. Thusday:
The Paschal Candle, or: What number is the opposite to 666?

We are investigating the great drama, that singular, once-a-year event, that most thrilling and awesome prelude to that Chief Act of all Human Life: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered at the Paschal Vigil.

Last week's scene was an almost perfect recollection of the man-half of Chesterton's The Everlasting Man: early in spring, in the darkness of night, outside the church, the priest (acting for all of us, in the primitive darkness like cavemen) kindles a new fire.

Now, in that fresh light, he comes before a gigantic candle, one of the biggest candles most of us shall ever see. On that candle he scratches certain symbols, marking the origin-point, the junction of all the axes, the zero or golden milestone, from which all our other measures will take place.

But unlike the 6-foot-tall mile-marking pillars of ancient Roma, or our reflective turnpike markers which count downwards to the south or the west, or any of the usual systems of cartesian or polar geometry, this meauring post marks not space, but time.Continue reading.
For it is here, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the culmination of His life, which gives us the system of time we are still using. Pagans, Mohammedans, Communists, French revolutionaries, even desperately frightened computer dullards in the late 1990s - none of these have broken out of the master-clock which first struck that Sunday morning just outside Jerusalem two millennia ago.

And so the daily offering of Mass, and the yearly recollection of the liturgical seasons, have proceeded, and counted out the times and seasons.

But here is the zero, the marking-point. And the priest now proceeds to mark it with mystical and high-technology. Yes, the highest technology, for it is the study (logos) of the art (techne) which links us to God - and what art is higher than that?

We should here note: since this is a solemn and sacramental action, the priest uses words and actions as well as something physical (the candle). The candle itself is has its own ritual meaning: it is
(1) something simple from nature, the wax of bees
(2) something humanly produced (a wick is added and it is molded into a long cylinder
(3) it is a vast collection of small and individual contributions (each bee has its own very small addition)
(4) which becomes something singular by something above nature (one does not find Paschal candles sprouting on bushes, or in the sea, or by mining; the transcendent - human activity - is also required, but would fail without the work of those bees!
And more, for when it is lighted, it becomes capable of doing something normally only possible to intangibles:
(5) the flame can be divided and yet remain itself undiminished! (Compare this to the discussion in Dante's Purgatory relating to theft and the properties of tangibles and intangibles.) Then again, the last time I tried, I found that fire is rather an intangible. Hee hee.

Ahem. I am a bit ahead of myself. Before the candle is lighted, the priest recites the following words, and traces the various parts of the following symbol with each verse.

Christus heri et hodie
Principium et Finis
Alpha et Omega
Ipsius sunt tempora et saecula
Ipsi gloria et imperium
per universa aeternitatis saecula.

vertical beam of cross: Christ yesterday and today,
horizontal beam of cross: the Beginning and the End,
capital Greek Alpha: the Alpha
capital Greek Omega: and the Omega,
first digit of year: His are the times
second digit of year: and the ages,
third digit of year: To Him be glory and empire
fourth digit of year: Throughout all the ages of eternity. Amen.

Then the priest inserts the five grains of incense (1,2,3 in a vertical column, 4 on left, 5 on right), while saying:

1. Through His holy
2. and glorious wounds
3. may Christ our Lord
4. guard
5. and protect us. Amen.

Now, the candle is ready. It is consecrated - marked as belonging to Christ - and so now it is set aflame.

In a mystic sense, this lighted candle symbolizes the Risen Jesus, for the flame indicates the "life" of the candle. Then, the priest chants the Praeconium Paschale - the "Exultet" or Easter Canticle, a rich and detailed prose-poem which summarizes the history of salvation, recalling the felix culpa - the "happy fault" of Adam which gave us this great redeemer!

But let us back up just a little and examine that symbol a little more closely.

The Cross During Lent we have considered some aspects of the cross. The death of Jesus on the cross ("suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried" attested to by every Christian Creed, and nearly every Christian denomination and variety) is that singular marker, unrepeated in time, which shattered the endless cycles of the "Great Year" affirmed by nearly all forms of paganism throughout the world. (For lengthy but precise details on this, including scholarly attributions, see the first six chapters of Jaki's Science and Creation.) I might make a poetic allusion to the mathematics of the plus-sign, or quote the first chapter of GKC's The Ball and the Cross, but there is a better quote, linking well with Jaki's references to the cyclic Great Year:
As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:231]

The Alpha and Omega These symbols (and the accompanying words) are taken directly from the Bible:
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, saith the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
[Revelation (Apocalypse) 1:8]
This is simply the Greek version of what we mean in English when we say "from A to Z". Such a figure of speech is a synecdoche - naming the parts for the whole - "A to Z" means all the letters of the alphabet. In music, "gamut" means from "Gamma" to "ut" which are the old names for the note we call "C". The Greeks in those early years actually said "the Alpha and the W" which is an omega. Here sneaks in a curious and little-known secret code, which is the answer to my title-riddle. Some classical scholars (and even some fraternity members!) know that the Greeks (like the Hebrews) used their letters to stand for numbers. The mystic number for "AntiChrist" was given as 666 (or perhaps 616) by St. John (Rv. 13:18). One guess is that meant Nero. But if 666 is AntiChrist, what is the number of Christ? Clearly, since St. John also told us that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, His number must be "Alpha Omega", which translates to 801.

But let us not struggle with mystic poetry just now. Rather let me talk high-tech just for a moment.
Computer scientists use something called the "star-closure" to represent the set of all strings (of finite length) produced by concatenation of a given finite set of characters. What do I mean? If you have God's Own Scrabble Set, with as many letters as you might need, and decided to make a "list" of all the possible "words", you could jot them down on some "infinite" paper He would also let you use. But it would take a whole lot of "time". So computer scientists, not having access to these divine tools, write it like this:
and there is the whole infinite collection of finite strings, in one tidy little symbol. We use this tool for solving questions like what computers can do, and so on. But it is merely a symbol, standing for something which contains an "infinite number" of "words". It's useful, as far as it goes. (An example: since all computers are finite, all programs, no matter how complex, are able to produce nothing but outputs of the form AB*C. That is called the "pumping lemma" for finite state machines.)
But with Alpha and Omega, we have something lots easier to deal with here, and lots easier to explain. The English-speaking child learns that the letters start with A and go on to Z (some call it zee, some call it zed) and end there. There aren't any others. Likewise the Greek child knows from alpha to omega. That's it, all, and everything. If Christ-the-Word-Made-Flesh is this "gamut" of letters, then He is all and everything too. And so the marks on the candle proclaim the same thought as the words in the Creed: per quem omnia facta sunt - "through Him all things were made". He isn't "each" of all the various words (just as "A*" isn't "this" or "that" or "candy" or "cactus") - Jesus is THE Word.

The digits of the year The old liturgical calendar used the term "Sundays after Pentecost"; the new one calls them "Sundays in Ordinary Time" - which really means "ordinal" as in counting, not the opposite of "special" as in dull, bland or banal. (But then I am just a computer scientist, and all Chestertonians know there is no such thing as a boring subject.) All Sundays in the last 1950-plus years have been Sundays after Pentecost, and we could write their ordinals (fifty-second, two-hundred-and-fifth, seventy-six-thousand, four-hundred and ninety-sixth...) if we wanted to. But that's very tedious. It's lots easier just to track how many years it has been since Jesus was born - and since this candle is the marker-thing which links this present year in its relation to that singular event from which all measures derive - yes, the Golden Milestone in the center of Roma! - well, we need to note on this milestone its appropriate distance, so we don't get lost in some cyclical view that history is going to repeat itself. After all, the Mass is a re-presentation, and a link to the one and only sacrifice of Calvary - but we "do it again" (as GKC says God commands the sun and moon). Indeed, we do it again and again because Jesus told us to do it. (See Lk 22:19; 1Cor11:25) True, the Mass is offered around the clock - yet normally a priest says Mass only once in a day. Here, at the Vigil, in a kind of parallel, we have something unique we do just once in a year - its singularity helps us remember, even after two millennia, that the Event Being Recalled happened only once.

To summarize, then:
Heaven has descended into the world of matter; the supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter, dealing miraculously with the bodies and souls of men. It blesses all the five senses; as the senses of the baby are blessed at a Catholic christening. It blesses even material gifts and keepsakes, as with relics or rosaries. It works through water or oil or bread or wine. Now that sort of mystical materialism may please or displease [someone]. But I cannot for the life of me understand why [someone] does not see that the Incarnation is as much a part of that idea as the Mass; and that the Mass is as much a part of that idea as the Incarnation. A Puritan may think it blasphemous that God should become a wafer. A Moslem thinks it blasphemous that God should become a workman in Galilee. And he is perfectly right, from his point of view; and given his primary principle. ... If it be profane that the miraculous should descend to the plane of matter, then certainly Catholicism is profane; and Protestantism is profane; and Christianity is profane. Of all human creeds or concepts, in that sense, Christianity is the most utterly profane.
[GKC The Thing CW3:258-9]
Even more:
Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. With something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the groves, it could cry again, “We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god.”
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW2:308]
It must be so, in order that the priest might "give you God out of his own hands." [GKC The Ball and the Cross]

Thus, in this beautiful lighted candle, scribed with symbols, blessed with words, giving its light to others and yet in its division never diminished, (cf. the Sequence for Corpus Christi: "sumit unus, sumunt mille; quantum isti, tantum ille") we have an "icon" - an image - of the Risen Jesus, the God-man marked with His five Glorious Wounds, Who has supreme command over all times and seasons. And thus, in the Mass which shortly follows, we see fulfilled those words of Malachi the Prophet:
For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts. [Mal 1:11]
In every place, in every time: Blessed are they that are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Rev 19:9)

1 comment:

  1. 801 is the number of Christ? It is also the area code of Utah.

    Thus the joke: One of the pope's assistants awakens him. "Holy Father, I have good news and bad news."

    "What's the good news?"

    "Our Lord has called on the telephone. He said that he's come back today. He has returned to earth and has come to dwell with His one true Church for all eternity."

    "Praise God! What's the bad news?"

    "He called from Salt Lake City."


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