Meditating Four Quartets: Little Gidding (II/2) - “I thought morning would never get here,” whispers the poet to himself as he steps out of his house to survey the new devastation brought by the latest wav...
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On the one hand, we have a liturgy which has degenerated so that it has become a show which, with momentary success for the group of liturgical fabricators, strives to render religion interesting in the wake of the frivolities of fashion and seductive moral maxims. On the other hand, there is the conservation of ritual forms whose greatness is always moving but which, when pushed to extremes, manifests an obstinate isolationism and leaves, ultimately, a mark of sadness
Consequently, the trend is the increasingly marked retreat of those who do not look to the liturgy for a spiritual show-master but for the encounter with the living God in whose presence all the "doing" becomes insignificant since only this encounter is able to guarantee us access to the true richness of beingPope Benedict is such a great theologian that it is a very rewarding task to separate his theology of liturgy from his conservative tastes. If I were Bavarian, I too would be conservative. I spent Christmas in Ottobeuron Abbey once, and Chrstmas meant the Misa Brevis by Mozart. The music, and hence the liturgy, was in the very bones of the people who would hum the melodies in anticipation. I have only had a similar experience once since, on January 7th last year when I concelebrated at the Ukrainian Catholic Christmas Divine Liturgy. As each part sung by the people came up, they smiled at each other with delight and sang with gusto. Several of them told me afterwards that they had no books, that it was all known by heart, and that they had sung these parts of the liturgy since they were children. In both cases, the Mass was completely formal and spontaneous at the same time.
This is why it is very important to observe the essential criteria of the Constitution on the Liturgy, ...., including when one celebrates according to the old Missal. The moment when this liturgy truly touches the faithful with its beauty and its richness, then it will be loved, then it will no longer be irreconcilably opposed to the new Liturgy, providing that these criteria are indeed applied as the Council wished., thWhat are these criteria to be observed by both those who celebrate the new Mass and those who celebrate the old. He singles out the following:
The actual Constitution on the Liturgy does not speak at all about celebration facing the altar or facing the people. On the subject of language, it says that Latin should be retained, while giving a greater place to the vernacular "above all in readings, instructions, and in a certain number of prayers and chants" (SL 36:2).
As regards the participation of the laity, the Council first of all insists on a general point, that the liturgy is essentially the concern of the whole Body of Christ, Head and members, and for this reason it pertains to the whole Body of the Church "and that consequently it [the liturgy] is destined to be celebrated in community with the active participation of the faithful". And the text specifies, "In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or lay faithful, when fulfilling his role, should carry out only and wholly that which pertains to him by virtue of the nature of the rite and the liturgical norms" (SL 28). "To promote active participation, acclamations by the people are favoured, responses, the chanting of the psalms, antiphons, canticles, also actions or gestures and bodily postures. One should also observe a period of sacred silence at an appropriate time" (SL 30)While we are looking at the outward form of the Mass, there is one point where, I believe, Cardinal Ratzinger was wrong. He bases his argument on another great theologian-liturgist, Louis Bouyer. It is about the altar. If priest and people are meant to be facing the same way, when the priest faces across the altar in order to face east, as in St Peter's in early Christian Rome, why did not the people face east too, with their back to the altar? If it is said that they did, where is the evidence that they did? A weakness of Cardinal Ratzinger's treatment of the question is that he has no theology of the altar. In the Eastern Byzantine rite, the altar is called the "throne". It is the mercy-seat where God is present because it is the place where the sacrifice of atonement takes place, as in the Holy of Holies in the temple (see my post on "The Altar"). The centre of the church is the altar, as the centre of the temple was the Holy of Holies. We assemble before the altar where the tri-une presence of God is concentrated in the covenanted relationship. In that presence God speaks to us in the Word, just as truly as he spoke to Moses; as we speak to God, sharing in the very intimate prayer of Christ because we are his body. We are taken up into that presence by participating in the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ by means of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and we pass through the veil of the heavenly holy of holies which is the flesh of Christ in communion. The altar, in another set of biblical images, is the Holy Table where Wisdom provides a Banquet for her children, where the Marriage Feast of the Lamb is celebrated, where we share in the paschal meal. Above all, it is the place of the Presence, precisely because it is the altar of sacrifice. It is not, in itself, orientated in any direction: all things and people are orientated towards it. It is what some liturgists call "the liturgical East". When the Orthodox bow three times when entering a church or touch their forehead on the floor during Lent, they are ackowledging the presence of the Tri-une God on the mercy-seat, as in the Temple. The altar is the true centre of attention, more than any icon, even of the Crucified. The crucifix is associated with the altar because it reminds the faithful of the two ways the Church is associated with Christ's passion, by its memory down the ages, and its eucharistic presence in the sacrifice of the Mass. All the evidence suggests that the Priest and people faced each other in St Peter's, but both were directing their attention towards the altar. The altar makes sure that priest and people do not form the closed circle condemned by Cardinal Ratzinger because,on its surface, heaven and earth are joined. This is true in the old and in the new rite. Look at a modern church like Clifton Cathedral, Worth Abbey, Liverpool Cathedral or Leyland parish church. What is the central feature? It is not the priest, nor is it the people: it is the altar. What is the most marked feature a a Neo-Catechumenate church? It is the altar. Because he has no theology of the altar, Cardinal Ratzinger misinterpreted the reason why the altar was "turned round". I have seen priests celebrate Mass as though they are talking all the time to the people, and I have always put it down to liturgical ignorance; but the first time I ever saw it written down by a reputable theologian that the Mass is celebrated versus populum so that priest and people can look at each other was when I read Cardinal Ratzinger's criticism of the practice. I have always taken it to be because it allows the people to see what is on the altar; which is why the crucifix is moved to one side: all can see the chalice and paten. When I concelebrated at the Byzantine Christmas Mass, the priests surrounded the altar, even though the principle celebrant faced East. We were all facing different points of the compass, but we were all facing the altar. In the modern Western Mass the sanctuary is the whole church and all are invited on the other side of the iconstasis.
Liturgical texts as a school of theology
May I now turn to the theological and dogmatic significance of liturgical texts. In my view, liturgical texts are for Orthodox Christians an incontestable doctrinal authority, whose theological irreproachability is second only to Scripture. Liturgical texts are not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. The theological authority of liturgical texts is, in my opinion, even higher than that of the works of the Fathers of the Church, for not everything in the works of the latter is of equal theological value and not everything has been accepted by the fullness of the Church. Liturgical texts, on the other hand, have been accepted by the whole Church as a “rule of faith” (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries. Throughout this time, any erroneous ideas foreign to Orthodoxy that might have crept in either through misunderstanding or oversight were eliminated by Church Tradition itself, leaving only pure and authoritative doctrine clothed by the poetic forms of the Church’s hymns.
This holds true above all for the daily cycle of services prescribed by the Orthodox Typicon, as well as for the weekly and yearly cycle found in the Octoechos, Lenten Triodion, Pentecostarion and Menaia, whose liturgical texts contain interpretations of and reflections on many episodes from the life of Christ and aspects of His teaching. In this sense one can say that liturgical texts are a “Gospel according to the Church”
“New overgrowths were in fact prevented, but the fate of liturgy in the West was now in the hands of a strictly centralized and purely bureaucratic authority. This authority completely lacked historical perspective; it viewed the liturgy solely in terms of ceremonial rubrics, treating it as a kind of problem of proper court etiquette for sacred matters. This resulted in the complete archaizing of the liturgy, which now passed from the stage of living history, became embalmed in the status quo and was ultimately doomed to internal decay. The liturgy had become a rigid, fixed and firmly encrusted system; the more out of touch with genuine piety the more attention was paid to its prescribed forms. We can see this if we remember that none of the saints of the Catholic Reformation drew their spirituality from the liturgy….
“The baroque era adjusted to this situation by super-imposing a kind of para-liturgy on the archeologized actual liturgy. Accompanied by the splendor of orchestral performance, the baroque high Mass became a kind of sacred opera in which the chants of the priest functioned as a kind of periodic recitative. The entire performance seemed to aim at a kind of festive lifting of the heart, enhanced by the beauty of a celebration appealing to the eye and ear. On ordinary days, when such display was not possible, the Mass was frequently covered over with devotions more attractive to the popular mentality. Even Leo XIII recommended that the rosary be recited during Mass in the month of October. In practice this meant that while the priest was busy with his archeologized liturgy, the people were busy with their devotions to Mary. They were united with the priest only by being in the same church with him and by entrusting themselves to the sacred power of the eucharistic sacrifice”
On the other hand, it must be admitted that the celebration of the old liturgy had strayed too far into a private individualism, and that communication between priest and people was insufficient. I have great respect for our forefathers who at Low Mass said the "Prayers during Mass" contained in their prayer books, but certainly one cannot consider that as the ideal of liturgical celebration. Perhaps these reductionist forms of celebration are the real reason that the disappearance of the old liturgical books was of no importance in many countries and caused no sorrow. One was never in contact with the liturgy itself
"I have had the opportunity to be present at both Protestant and Catholic services, which were, with rare exceptions, quite disappointing. Protestant services as a rule are comprised of a series of isolated, incoherent prayerful actions. At first the officiating clergyman (or clergywoman) says a benediction, then everybody opens a hymnal to a certain page and begins to sing. After a pause the clergyman reads a passage from Scripture, then gives a sermon, followed by communal singing, organ playing, etc. The congregation is usually seated, now and then standing in order to sit down again after some time. The services are interspersed with explanations by the clergy, who tell their congregation in which hymnal and on which page a certain hymn is to be found, and whether they should sing it while standing or remaining seated. Such services do not normally last longer than thirty or forty minutes, and in certain parishes even rock music is used, to which the parishioners dance.
"One can add that after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, services in some Catholic churches have become little different from Protestant ones. They often share the same lack of wholeness and the same alternation of incoherent, unrelated prayers and hymns"