Incantations and purple prose? No thanks

Laurus alexii signingI realize, of course, that Eastern Orthodox Christians can be very picky and precise when it comes to matters of doctrine and liturgy. I mean, there's a reason that we are called the Orthodox. So with that in mind, let's turn to the Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary for some input on a very edgy religious word:


Main Entry: in*can*ta*tion ... Function: noun Etymology: Middle English incantacioun, from Middle French incantation, from Late Latin incantation-, incantatio, from Latin incantare to enchant ... Date: 14th century

: a use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as a part of a ritual of magic; also : a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect

I bring this up because of an Associated Press report by Jessica M. Pasko that ran the other day in Newsday, and I am sure lots of other places. It concerned the funeral rites for a little known, but very important figure, in the modern history of Eastern Orthodoxy in Europe and North America -- the 80-year-old Metropolitan Laurus, head of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.

The story gets lots of details right, when it comes to explaining the role that Metropolitan Laurus played in healing the tragic rift between the Soviet-era Russian church and a strong splinter church in the West. Here are a few of the background paragraphs:

A rift in the Russian Orthodox Church came after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an offshoot set up abroad, cut off all ties in 1927 after Moscow Patriarch Sergiy declared loyalty to the Communist government. Reunification talks began after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Laurus and Moscow Patriarch Alexy II signed a reunification pact in May 2007 (photo) at a televised ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin and a throng of worshippers in Moscow's vast Christ the Savior Cathedral.

This is not the section of the report that raised red flags for several Orthodox readers who dropped me notes seeking commentary here at GetReligion. Here's the section that raised eyebrows:

Dozens of priests and bishops packed the candlelit front room of the cathedral at the Holy Trinity Monastery for the divine liturgy and funeral service, dressed in ornate purple vestments to symbolize mourning.

Members of clergy read from sacred texts and recited numerous incantations in a nearly four-hour traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony conducted mainly in old church Slavonic, the Eastern Orthodox Church's liturgical language that incorporates singing, chanting and call-and-response. The lavish ceremony on the holy day of Good Friday was held around an open casket in the center of the incense-filled room.

There are several problems there. The most obvious is that, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox, Easter was more than a month away at the time of this funeral Divine Liturgy (upper case, like the Catholic term "Mass"). Pascha this year falls on April 27, which means that Good Friday will be on April 25.

Also, the clergy were dressed in purple because that is the color of Lent. If the patriarch had died during "Bright Week" following Pascha, they would have been dressed in celebratory white and gold. The season determines the liturgical color of the vestments. Also, old church Slavonic is one of the many languages used by Orthodox Christians around the world and it is the rite, not the language, that blends singing, chanting, hymns, preaching and the reading of lots and lots of scripture.

Then there is the matter of that loaded word -- "incantations." Did the reporter mean "invocations"? How about a nice simple term like "prayers"? I guess one could say that a liturgy is a form of ritual speech intended to produce a "particular effect," but this is still a mighty strange, and rather tone deaf, word to use in this context.

Don't you think? Has anyone seen a correction from the Associated Press, on the "Good Friday" reference at the very least?

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