Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tonsure and why it matters.

I remember a few years back, telling my Dad that as part of my training I had been "tonsured". He laughed and said "your kidding, they still do that?". His response shows just how deeply things have changed in our religious landscape! Actually tonsure is part of many different religious traditions. Buddhist as well as Christian. You might even say the military has it's own form of tonsure. Just ask a US Marine. And before I forget, the Bishop only took off a snippet of my hair!

The Celtic Church was their unique in its understanding of tonsure, and were somewhat out of the mainstream. Tonsure refers to the shaving of part or all of the hair on the head. According to F. L. Cross's The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1957), tonsure became popular in the 4th and 5th centuries and when it was linked with admission to the clerical state. According to Cross,  three kinds of tonsure were practiced. The Western Church left a fringe of hair round the head, and symbolized the crown of thorns. This style is shown above and made famous by Friar Tuck. The Eastern Church shaved the entire head. The Celtic Church shaved in front of a line running from ear to ear. I recall from my Celtic studies that the Celts intentionally took a different position and reasoned this was a more authentic form of tonsure because it depicted servanthood, and was linked with slavery, albeit slaves of Christ. By contrast, the Roman tonsure was linked with the aristocracy.

Such a discussion reveals two very different kinds of Christianities. One linked with empire, the artistocracy, and magnificent cathedrals and choirs. The other, a more democratic, popular brand of Christianity marked by servanthood and community instead of buildings. Even though these contrasting ways of seeing things are 1400 years old, in my estimation they are also ways or viewing our common era. No doubt I am biased towards the Celtic understanding of what it means to follow Christ in today's world, and what it means to be a "church". We live during a time where service to others, and servanthood in Christ is a message which can both challenge and transform our predominantly pagan culture. This is why tonsure really matters. It's a symbol of service and commitment both to God and the community of Christ, the church. It represents an alternative kind of lifestyle, a lifestyle which is not built around oneself, and trying to get ahead in this world. On the contrary, the Christian faith in its most beautiful from, is represented in loving service to others, especially the most needy.

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