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Restoring The Sacred Getting Our Liturgical History Right

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By JAMES MONTI

So much of modern and post-modern liturgical thought centers on the premise that for the liturgy to be authentic it must be “neo-primitive” — that it must replicate as closely as possible what the very earliest liturgies were supposedly like, fantasized as liturgies of undogmatic, free-spirited, casual spontaneity, and that the liturgy must also be purged of medieval and Baroque era accretions that allegedly dogmatized, ritualized, and solemnized in a heretofore unprecedented manner the forms of Christian worship.
This fundamentally flawed premise was masterfully critiqued by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2000 book, The Spirit of the Liturgy:
“As I see it, the problem with a large part of modern liturgiology is that it tends to recognize only antiquity as a source, and therefore normative, and to regard everything developed later, in the Middle Ages and through the Council of Trent, as decadent. And so one ends up with dubious reconstructions of the most ancient practice, fluctuating criteria, and never-ending suggestions for reform, which lead ultimately to the disintegration of the liturgy that has evolved in a living way” (Pope Benedict XVI — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2000, p. 82).
There is also the question of what is actually known about the ancient liturgy of the early Church. We simply know too little about the specific details of the pre-fourth century liturgy, the particular readings, chants, and liturgical actions employed, to make broad and sweeping claims as to just how fundamentally different it allegedly was from what came afterward.
But where and how did this artificial construct of driving a wedge between the early liturgical life of the Church and what followed in later centuries originate?
I believe that it is traceable, at least in part, to an invention of the Protestant Reformation, a fabricated view of ecclesiastical history negatively contrasting the medieval Church to the early Church, constructed to justify the unjustifiable, an attempt to lend credibility to a theological movement that had no basis in history.
We see this expressed in an early pamphlet of the English Protestant Reformation, The Hunting and Finding Out of the Romish Fox (1543), which in a tirade against canon law declares:
“But in Christ’s and the Apostles’ time and in the times of the holy martyrs was the most perfect church, therefore then was the perfectest law of the church….But the canon law was not yet made in the Apostles’ time, therefore the canon law was not the law of Christ’s church in the time of the Apostles” (quoted in Leticia Alvarez-Recio, Fighting the Antichrist: A Cultural History of Anti-Catholicism in Tudor England, Brighton, England, Sussex Academic Press, 2011, p. 23 — spelling modernized here).
In short, the Protestant Reformation needed to justify its hermeneutic of rupture with fifteen hundred years of Christianity, so it did so by accusing the Church of a thousand-year rupture with its apostolic beginnings. This Protestant rewrite of Church history was epitomized by the publication of an eight-volume Lutheran work bearing the tedious title, An Ecclesiastical History, giving in clear order a complete idea of the Church of Christ century by century; planned and executed with singular diligence and honesty on the basis of the most ancient and reputable historians, the Fathers and other writers, by some studious and pious men in the City of Magdeburg (1559-1574).
Later known as the Centuries of Magdeburg, and covering the period from the Apostolic Age to the thirteenth century, these books present Church history as a descent into corruption wrought by the papacy and the hierarchy, often making its case with spurious texts and stories such as the myth of a woman pope named Joan. The challenge posed by this massive piece of theological propaganda was ultimately to be met by a humble cleric (later a cardinal) named Cesare Baronius (1538-1607), set to the task of writing his famous Annals of ecclesiastical history (1588-1607) by St. Philip Neri (1515-1595).
Within the Church, the systematic investigation of liturgical history originated in the sixteenth century and intensified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, yielding the identification of many of the earliest surviving liturgical texts. Further progress in this regard was made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, out of which arose the “Liturgical Movement.”
But how was all this new information going to be interpreted? What did the observed differences between the early texts and the medieval and post-medieval liturgical books mean?
In an effort to explain at least some of the differences, a number of twentieth-century liturgists, most notably the Protestant Gregory Dix, focusing on among other things the liturgy of Holy Week, formulated the notion that the celebration of this week as a series of commemorations of the successive events of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection arose largely in the fourth century as an ill-advised dismemberment of what was originally a totally unitive, “eschatological” celebration of the entire Paschal Mystery (i.e., a focus upon Christ in His present glory and at His Second Coming), a change that was dubbed “historicism” because it supposedly represents an excessive emphasis on the historical dimension of the Redemption (Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London: Dacre Press, Adam and Charles Black, 1964, pp. 335-353).
Thus, to take the example of Good Friday, according to the “historicism” critique of the liturgy, this solemnity isn’t about following step by step the “Christ of history,” the Christ of yesterday, and lingering over events that happened nearly two thousand years ago, but rather that it’s all about the victorious Christ of here and now. Yet is the Passion merely an event of the distant past?
Pope St. John Paul II thought and taught otherwise:
“The Holy Week of the Lord’s Passion. Good Friday. Through the liturgical readings these words remind us of Christ, the Son of God, condemned by people: ‘Crucify him!’. . . The liturgy does not only make us recall this condemnation. The liturgy makes it present. Paschal wrote that Christ’s agony will last until the end of the world (cf. B. Paschal, Le Mystere de Jesus). And did not St. Paul encourage us to complete Christ’s suffering in our own flesh? (cf. Col. 1:24). Mother of Jasna Gora! Sorrowful Mother…we must always see you at the foot of the cross. And Holy Week, Good Friday, makes this reality especially present to us” (Pope Saint John Paul II, “Jasna Gora Cycle,” nn. 1-2, general audience, March 27, 1991, L’Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English, April 2, 1991, p. 11).
Writing in regard to the “historicism” theory in its starkest, most unqualified form as formulated by Gregory Dix, the Jesuit liturgical historian Fr. Robert Taft describes it as “an invention of the liturgists, with no foundation in history” (Fr. Robert Taft, SJ, “Historicism Revisited,” Studia Liturgica, volume 14, 1982, p. 98).
Fr. Taft points out that the attempt to draw a neat dividing line between an “eschatological” perception of the Paschal Mystery by the pre-fourth century early Church and an alleged “historicization” of this mystery by later generations is artificial and simplistic insofar as evidence for both perceptions of the Paschal Mystery can be adduced as existing concurrently both before and after the fourth century (ibid., pp. 97-107).

The Center Of Divine Worship

Although what we have said thus far concerns the particular example of the Holy Week liturgy, it most certainly has ramifications for the sacred liturgy across the board, especially with regard to the “Passion dimension” of the Mass, the doctrine that the Mass is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary.
Certain scholars have vilified late medieval devotion to the Passion, charactering it as “one of the most problematic phenomena in the history of Christian spirituality” and claiming it led to “forgetfulness of the resurrection” (Ewert Cousins, “The Humanity and the Passion of Christ,” in Jill Raitt et al., editors, Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, New York, Crossroad, 1987, p. 387).
Yet it is absurd to accuse the Middle Ages, or, for that matter, the Baroque Era that followed it, of forgetting the Resurrection. The skyward thrust of medieval cathedrals filled with the colored sunlight of stained glass and the panoramic visions of Heaven that stretch across the ceilings of Baroque churches all invite the faithful to look forward to the bliss of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Could a culture that had forgotten the Resurrection have produced such splendid depictions of unending joy in the Kingdom of the Risen Christ?
Moreover, the Church’s centuries-old focus upon the Passion of Christ is not a “problem.” As the Venerable Pope Pius XII explained in his 1947 encyclical on the sacred liturgy Mediator Dei:
“Since His bitter sufferings constitute the principal mystery of our redemption, it is only fitting that the Catholic faith should give it the greatest prominence. This mystery is the very center of divine worship since the Mass represents and renews it every day and since all the sacraments are most closely united with the cross” (Mediator Dei, November 20, 1947, n. 164, Vatican website translation — copyright Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
Of course the authentic understanding of liturgical history is that of “organic” development, an expression coined by the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium, chapter 1, n. 23) and most famously elaborated upon by Dom Alcuin Reid in his landmark work, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2005), a model that sees the development of the sacred liturgy across the centuries not as regressive but rather progressive, rooted in, refining and building upon what came before.
There has also been recent scholarship that has markedly challenged the negative caricatures of medieval liturgy that have been accepted uncritically by all too many since the Reformation. With the digitization of countless late medieval liturgical books now freely available, let us hope and pray for a genuine rediscovery of the truly beautiful liturgical heritage that we have inherited from our medieval fathers in the faith.

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