Open Letter to My Students 21:  “Announcements, Announcements, Announcements” – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

You’ve surely seen those movies of Victorian households where daily life is punctuated by the butler’s announcements of guests. Without the benefit of phones, people regularly made social calls, although never informally, and never before 3:00 in the afternoon, to give the hosts plenty of time to finish their work and dress properly to receive the callers. The point of calling was, in part, simply that you could, a confirmation that your own status was such that the hosts would admit you. Calling cards were left to pile up on a silver calling-tray, as an iconic display of status, yours and theirs. Everyone who dropped by was announced, and if invited for dinner, you were announced twice: once, upon arrival, and then again on your way into the dining room, so that you could be conveniently informed of who was who – and of Who’s Who, in which just being there made you happily included.

These Victorian announcements were an extension of medieval court etiquette. Nobles visited back and forth among one another, but only some of them got to visit the royal court, in which case, they were announced before entering. Without an extraordinarily good reason, rulers did not visit back — hence their several massive palaces, space enough to pursue their royal lives, without having to leave home. When extraordinary reasons did present themselves, rulers arrived at their subjects’ castles, fiefdoms, and cities with an equally extraordinary announcement of who they were – not just another noble, but the king or queen to whom all the nobles owed allegiance.  

Announcing royal visits goes back farther still, at least to 1st-century Rome, with the rise of the all-powerful emperors, from Caesar Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) on. These emperors were increasingly deified (augustus is an added appellation meaning “revered” – frequently used in opposition to humanus). Throughout the empire, there grew up an imperial cult, replete with holiday processions featuring statuary of the emperor-gods being carried into ritual religious spaces. Choirs called “hymnodes” sang hymns of praise that announced the imperial presence.  Our own ritual processions as we march down the aisle for one reason or another (weddings? ordinations? academic convocations?) are descended from the imperial ones. 

By the end of the first century, the Roman empire had seen several exceptional emperor-gods, some of them competent, all of them cruel. In the year 96, a certain John of Patmos (a city in Asia Minor), a Jew who had joined the Jesus movement in a time when religious identity was fluid, lashed out at the imperial world around him by writing a treatise that became the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation. Perfectly familiar with the way emperor-gods were greeted in cities like his own, he envisioned the God of the Bible as the patron deity of another city, Jerusalem. As God appeared, the city elders, playing the role of hymnodes, announced God’s arrival. What they sang (Revelation 4:8) was the angelic praise of Isaiah 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy” – an announcement, originally, of Isaiah’s vision, “the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne, with the train of his robe filling the temple.” 

We now understand the prominence of “Holy, holy, holy” in our Jewish liturgy, the form of which is much indebted to Greco-Roman sensibilities. The very word “liturgy” (from the Greek leitourgia) meant, originally, an office, or duty, discharged for the public good; including the “public work” of sacrificing to curry favor with the gods. The Hebrew equivalent for our Temple cult — avodah – meant the same thing. When prayer replaced sacrifice, the word avodahtravelled with it, and is still the name of the 17th blessing in the Amidah, where we ask God to accept our “public service” – meaning the Amidah we are just concluding, the prayer where we stand, as one would, when in the presence of a monarchWe still bow at the beginning and end, taking three steps back and forth, as if symbolically approaching and then taking leave of God’s throne.

That blessing follows thirteen others, the petitionary prayers, that presuppose the Roman system of patronage, whereby people relied on powerful patrons to grant their wishes. Even patrons had patrons more powerful than themselves, culminating in the highest patron of all, the emperor, who was not just a king of some petty kingdom, but the king of kings. Our divine patron is more powerful still – not just the king of kings, but the king of kings of kings (melekh malkhei ham’lakhim). Patronage was inheritable, in that children of those who had enjoyed access to a patron’s grace could claim the right to continue it. So before the thirteen petitions (in case our Divine patron does not recognize us), we announce who we are: descendants of ancestors who concluded a covenant of patronage with God at the very beginning. There then follows acknowledgement of the patron’s power to grant our requests. Other patrons, even the emperor, are powerful enough even to kill at whim. Our patron can go one better – resurrect the dead.

And then we offer the hymnodic praise that we saw in Isaiah and (more contemporaneously to our liturgy’s early years) in Revelation: “Holy, Holy, holy” — Our God is not just powerful like the emperors, but holy as well.

All of which is interesting, but it is more than that, because the Roman model of a procession carrying statuary of an emperor-god (and of hymnodes announcing their arrival in song) is echoed profoundly in a midrash (Deut. Rab.4:5), which envisions each human being as the statuary of the divine. The midrash begins with a Hebrew word, okoniah (a variant of ikoniah) from the Greek eikonion, “statuary”; more specifically, the statuary of the emperors carried in procession; but by extension, just the procession itself. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: A procession (okoniah) goes before a human being, and what does the procession say? ‘Make way for the image of the holy blessed one,” for what is each and every human being, if not the image of God. And who are in the procession? They are the angels, reenvisioned as hymnodes, the same ones who announced God with “Holy, Holy, Holy” and now announce us as well. 

We are unlikely to have God call upon us directly down here, but we do get calling cards that are worth saving in our memories the way Victorians saved calling cards in their silver tray. Walt Whitman rhapsodized over them: “In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass, I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.” From the midrash, we learn too, that we carriers of God’s image are announced by angels. All those Victorians, those kings and queens, and even the Roman emperors have nothing on us. 

2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 21:  “Announcements, Announcements, Announcements” – “Holy, Holy, Holy”

  1. This wonderful piece suggests you have regained some joy in life. I am glad.

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