In Defense of the “Twice-Blessed Asparagus”

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There’s a punchline here somewhere. Source.

Recently, a minor storm of controversy has erupted over an unusual proceeding at Worcester Cathedral. For those of us blissfully unaware of the agrarian culture of the British Isles, the local Asparagus Festival celebrating the fine crop of the Vale of Evesham just opened to considerable acclaim. While there are, admittedly, a few suspect elements of the Festival, it does seem to be rather harmless on the whole. The kind of thing that would make a nice weekend in the country.

The rustic peace of the celebration was soon shattered. As The Telegraph reports, organizers of the Festival asked the Dean of the Cathedral if they might have a blessing of the asparagus to kick off the harvest season. And so, at evensong on Sunday, the 23rd of April, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen, a block of the stuff was carried in a procession up the chancel alongside two costumèd festival mascots, St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man. While it was indeed St. George’s Day, we can only imagine that this is the first liturgical appearance of the humanoid Asparagacea. As we read in The Telegraph:

Angela Tidmarsh, co-founder of the festival and tourism officer for Wychavon, said the cathedral’s management had been “really enthusiastic” about the idea. “We had the asparagus blessed by the vicar of Bretforton and then we took it to the cathedral, so it’s twice-blessed asparagus,” she said. 

This really did happen in real life.

The reactions have been fairly predictable. Archbishop Cranmer has led the chorus of detractors, writing in an extremely English timbre,

Would the Church of England permit a man dressed up as a baked bean to process behind a Heinz tin of the things, and sanctify the mummery with a facade of thanksgiving? And why only adoration of asparagus? Where’s the sprout liturgy, or equality for mushrooms? Would the Dean really permit a walking fungus to participate in an act of divine worship?

In a note of (understandable) exasperation, he writes, “This is church, for God’s sake. Really, for His sake, can the Church of England not offer something clean and undefiled in the worship of God?”

While I would not normally wish to disagree with His Grace on issues of the liturgy (except, of course, when it comes to the validity of Anglican Orders), I must dissent from his wholesale condemnation of the procession. Yes, the costumes were silly in the extreme. Both St. George and Gus the Asparagus Man should have been excluded from any kind of religious ritual within the Cathedral. Insofar as His Grace and others assail the ceremony on those grounds, I agree.

Nevertheless, on principle, I think the blessing of the asparagusnay, even its double blessing!is a good thing. Along with Rod Dreher, I say, “Still, I am in my heart of hearts an Asparagus-Blesser; here I stand, I can do nothing other.”

There is good Biblical precedent for precisely this kind of rite. In the twenty sixth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, we read,

And when thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God will give thee to possess, and hast conquered it, and dwellest in it: Thou shalt take the first of all thy fruits, and put them in a basket, and shalt go to the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, that his name may be invocated there: And thou shalt go to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: I profess this day before the Lord thy God, that I am come into the land, for which he swore to our fathers, that he would give it us. And the priest taking the basket at thy hand, shall set it before the altar of the Lord thy God…And therefore now I offer the firstfruits of the land which the Lord hath given me. And thou shalt leave them in the sight of the Lord thy God, adoring the Lord thy God.

As a matter of Biblical principle, the good people of the Vale of Evesham ought to be allowed to bring their own first fruits to the Cathedral, the seat of their bishop, and receive the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, similar practices are not unknown in the Church Universal. Byzantine Catholics and Eastern Orthodox bring forth their first-fruits on Transfiguration Day to be blessed. Indeed, Orthodox priests have been caught blessing all manner of strange articles. And within Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer (1928) allows for the following pious sentence to be recited at the beginning of Morning Prayer on occasions of thanksgiving:

Honour the LORD with thy substance, and with the first-fruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. Prov. iii. 9,10.

It is unclear whether the same can be said of the Ordinariate, which inherited so much of the 1928 Prayer Book’s “patrimony.” Within the Roman Ritual, we find all kinds of blessings – including some for herbs and seeds, though these are tied to specific, Marian days in the Church kalendar. One could write an intriguing sophiological meditation on this liturgical feature – but I digress. I will merely say that, all in all, it makes perfect theological sense to offer the crop to God. The cosmic character of the liturgy, the way it gathers in all the world in the offertory, was an insight suggested by the C of E’s own Dom Gregory Dix and brought to fruition in the work of theologians like, inter alia, Alexander Schmemann, Joseph Ratzinger, and William T. Cavanaugh, though of course it is a much older idea. While this procession did not occur at the offertory of a Mass, its placement during evensong suggests the deeper implications of the Eucharistic liturgy.

There are, as I can tell, only a few concerns worth considering here:

1) Those ridiculous costumed figures in the procession – or even in the Cathedral to begin with. I wouldn’t want either at a liturgical function.

2) The blessing wasn’t tied to any liturgical date, such as the blessing of Roses on the Feast of St. Rita or the blessing of animals on the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot.

3) It’s not clear that the blessing should have taken place at Choral Evensong, within the nave of the Cathedral, during a procession. Most of the similar traditions don’t seem to involve that kind of performative element within the temple.

Point 1 stands. The photo above speaks for itself.

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The least Gus the Asparagus Man could have done is make sure he was properly vested in cassock and surplice, which Rev. Gilbert has attempted with only partial success in this shot from “An Easter Carol.” Source.

However, I do think Points 2 and 3 can be open to discretion. Priests bless things all the time when they are asked, and while there are some regulations governing that act (such as those surrounding the imposition of the Brown Scapular), most priests bless freely and willingly. Nor am I convinced it’s a problem that the good folk of Worcestershire wanted to incorporate the Church into their festival. Indeed, they went so far as to have their prize vegetable blessed twice! After all, ought not the Church stand as an institution blessing the communal life of the people, correcting their morals, teaching them the Way of Life, and communicating sanctifying grace to them in the sacraments? While it is certainly an open question as to whether the Church of England does this effectively (or even has the power to do so), the principle remains one that the English have always cherished in their own, peculiar way. There is an earthiness to English communal spirituality. One cannot imagine the same scene happening in Ireland or France or even Spain (though possibly in Italy, as English Christianity since the 19th century has approximated Italian spirituality in various unexpected ways; as Dreher notes, the Church of Siena blesses the horses before the Palio, and within the temple!). I confess, my immediate reaction to the blessing of the asparagus was laughter. The whole thing struck me as, well, so very Chestertonian. G.K. even devoted a 1914 essay to the plant.

Of course, I ought to come clean about one of my own biases. Asparagus is my favorite vegetable. Steamed, grilled, or baked, I find it a surpassing delight. I suppose that the Good Lord, who so lovingly and approvingly gave it to us on the third day of creation, agrees with me. Whether He shares my amusement at the procession of the blessed asparagus is another matter, and one I don’t presume to find out any time soon.

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G.K. Chesterton: 100% would eat asparagus that has been blessed twice. Source.

Some Occasional Thoughts on the Holy Minimalists and the Light of Tabor

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Icon of the Transfiguration, by the hand of the great 15th century iconographer of Moscow, Theophanes the Greek.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them,”Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

These words from St. Matthew were the Gospel reading at Mass last night. Yesterday was the second weekend of Lent, and the Church directs our eyes, alongside those of the holy apostles, to the face of Our Lord in His Transfiguration. And in the Eastern Churches, today is St. Gregory Palamas Sunday. Palamas is most famous for his articulation of the Essence-Energies distinction as part of a broader polemic against the Byzantine Scholastic attacks on Hesychasm carried out by Barlaam of Seminara. One of Palamas’ key Scriptural examples of God’s energies is the “uncreated light” of Christ’s glory in the Transfiguration. St. Gregory is celebrated to this day by the Eastern Orthodox and by Eastern Catholics on their Lenten calendars; yet in the post-Scholastic West, he still holds no place on the calendar. I must wonder whether or not the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent were chosen at the revision of the Lectionary in part as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox, though my knowledge of 20th century liturgical innovations is shallow at best. Regardless, those who, to adapt a phrase of Pope St. John Paul II, “breathe with both lungs” of the Church can recognize the Providential coincidence of these two celebrations.

The Light of Tabor is, in a Palamite reading, the eternal Glory of God made manifest in, with, and through Christ’s created humanity. The Transfiguration is therefore an archetypal moment for every mysticnot just the Hesychasts whom St. Gregory was defending. In view of all this, while I listened to the priest reading the Gospel this evening, a song came to mind: “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” by Arvo Pärt. The lyrics are taken from a poem by Robert Burns. Here’s the chorus:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

A few weeks ago, when I first listened to the song, it immediately struck me as a potent metaphor for the contemplative life. Is not the contemplative’s heart set in the “high lands” of the spirit, like St. John of the Cross’s Mount Carmel? And has the Divine not been associated with wild deer throughout history, from the panting hart of Psalm 42 to the vision of St. Hubert to the White Stag of Narnia? The Apostles, like the mystics, like the chanting voice in Pärt’s song, are “led…up a high mountain by themselves.” There, they find Christ’s true glory, the energy of His divinity totally interpenetrating all they can perceive of him. The created rises into the divine, and the uncreated bends towards the creaturely; the two meet in the transfigured Christ. The dual presence of the heavenly Elijah and the Sheol-bound Moses demonstrates the moment of radiant communion between God and His creation, manifested perfectly in Christ, the Word made flesh.

Pärt’s song describes the experience of the mystic, not because Burns’ words actually refer to contemplation, but because of the way he takes up the verse and stretches it against an agonizingly poignant organ composition. He sets secular words to sacred music. Thus he accomplishes in miniature the assumption of the creaturely by the divine that comes before our vision in the Transfiguration. Art at its finest is called to participate in this lesser Transfiguration, and Pärt is a consummate master of what Tolkien might call “sub-creation.”

But Pärt is not alone in this; one of his colleagues, John Tavener, arguably a finer and more mystically-oriented composer, also transfigured profane writings into sacred pieces of music. I can think of no better example of this than his brief and delightful motet, “The Lamb.” Tavener took the lyrics from William Blake’s poem of the same name. In full, it reads:

Little lamb, who made thee
 Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
 Little lamb, who made thee?
 Dost thou know who made thee?

 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;
 Little lamb, I’ll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
 Little lamb, God bless thee!
 Little lamb, God bless thee!

Here too, we might glimpse the transfigured Lamb of God between the lines of Blake’s verse. The lamb’s “clothing of delight/Softest clothing, woolly, bright” seems to echo the robe rendered “white as light” on Mt. Tabor. Blake speaks of “the vales” when Scripture instead would bring us up to the peaks. And the question that ends the first verse is fundamentally the same as that which must have run through the minds of the bewildered apostles; who is this man? The answer, of course, comes from the voice in the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” And Tavener’s eerily beautiful choral setting imbues the lyrics with a dimension hitherto unimagined. Many of his works remind one of candlelight on ritual gold, or the smell of incense flying forth with the rhythm of thurible bells, or the echo that thins out asymptotically under the glittering mosaic of a high dome. “The Lamb” is all of this, presented compactly. It stands as one of his finest works, and one of his most spiritually rich.

I recently wrote about the Holy Minimalists in a piece on the music of The Young Pope. They’ve been on my mind. But I didn’t connect their artistic project to the Transfiguration until tonight. We Christians are to become “little Christs,” imitating Jesus in all things by adoption and deification. Sometimes, that takes the form of contemplation. The apostles model that path for us in their behavior on Mt. Tabor. But at other times, and in other ways, we are called to live the life of Christ more directly. The Transfiguration provides a mystical glimpse of what happensand indeed, what will happenwhen the uncreated Light of God assumes, permeates, and glorifies the creation. Of course, the energies of God are not found in the artifices of men; but artists can practice their own, creaturely form of transfiguration. The pieces of music I have discussed are shot through with an awareness of the divine presence, and the words that began as profane poetry become something altogether different, something sacred, something nearly liturgical.

At the beginning of Lent, T.S. Eliot tells us to “Redeem/The time.” On this, the Second Sunday of the penitential season, Christ reveals in Himself how we might do soa transfiguration that Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have achieved, in some small way, through their own creative work.