15 November 2008

This Year's Reflection on the Rubrics

For the past 10-15 years, I’ve had the annual habit of carefully reading through the rubrics for the ordinary of the Mass. Well, it’s that time of year again, and so I’ve been reading through Fr John Mangels' well written manual "How to Celebrate Low Mass."

When I was a Lutheran and read the rubrics, without much thought or attention I would skip over or edit those rubrics which I determined did not apply to the Lutheran liturgy. Among other things, that means I skipped nearly everything having to do with the canon of the Mass, and all the “ostentatious” rubrics about tones of voice, types of bows, etc. Of course, I would do the same with the liturgy itself. If I lifted some particular feast or text from the Roman or Anglican Missal, I would edit these to fit what I determined was the “Lutheran ethos.” (Honestly, I also did the same when reading the church fathers, aloud or privately.) It was only after I determined that I was not smart enough to correct or edit the church’s liturgy and tradition that I truly began to become Orthodox. The same applies to the rubrics. I’m simply not smart enough to know what to omit or change; and, frankly, the more I follow the rubrics as received within the Western tradition, the more I see not only the practical but also theological wisdom which they contain.

That is what previous reflections on the rubrics have led me to. This year’s reading of the rubrics, however, has reminded me of one of the key principles in liturgy; namely, that since the tradition (i.e., the liturgy) is a living tradition, it is not learned from a book. Rather, the book merely reminds one of what one has seen or witnessed from other celebrants.

But what if, like me, one did not grow up witnessing the traditional Mass? All the bows, tones of voice, movements of the hands, etc seem so foreign and like so much unnecessary (and, at times, overly showy) “folderol.” They certainly don’t seem to fit our modern mindset. So one is tempted to jettison them.

Yet my three year old has taught me something else. All he knows liturgically is the Mass that he’s seen me celebrate. So, from time to time when he’s in the mood to “play church,” I’ll catch him speaking nonsense while conscientiously mimicking all the bows and gestures. He’s begun to learn the tradition—and simply by watching! I envy him that. At the same time, his mimickings are urging me to be ever much more careful in how I celebrate the Mass. For, like it or not, I’m passing on the tradition to him in a way that I never received; and I’d hate for him to have to relearn something because I was careless in my teaching when I was at the altar. Worse yet, I’m not sure I could stand the judgment in his tone when, later, he would either say, “Why didn’t you follow the tradition” or “If you can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?

You see, that’s where “cafeteria Christianity” begins. Not in the philosophy of religion; that is, not when one is taught or determines that certain dogmas or morals don’t apply. Rather, the notion to adopt “cafeteria Christianity” (“which we used to call heresy”—Peter Kreeft) begins when three year olds mimic the priest celebrating Mass, and then later learn that the priest had the hubris to edit the traditional bows or gestures or tones of voice. And then these three year olds, when older, begin to ask themselves “Why didn’t the priest follow the tradition” and “If he can omit that gesture, why can’t we also omit this or that teaching”?


William Weedon said...

Fr. John,

What does this say about the state of the mass prior to the time those gestures became standardized? Did it make the mass defective in anyway? And if not then, why so now? I'd be curious of your thoughts.


orrologion said...

I guess this would depend on whether one viewed only those things that Christ Himself, prior to His Ascension and recorded in Scripture specifically commanded to be done are 'real' and 'binding', or, whether He and the Holy Spirit were guiding the Church beyond that day. The same test can be put to specific commands of the Apostles that made it into Scripture.

Also, must everything be legislated, or does past practice have a place? That is, is the Orthodox Christian faith only the dogmas of the ECs, or is the faith more than that? Is the farm made up of the fence, of the fence and the land it encloses?

Another question would be whether the faith was defective when saints and Fathers spoke/wrote less clearly on the Trinity than did Nicea, et al? How are those doctrines and formulae different after Nicea et al than they were prior to them?

William Weedon said...


Yet another question that arises is where the Fathers ever indicate that the gestures as such are to be so regarded. Not looking for a "fence" just for some ancient witnesses to such an understanding - I'd even take some medieval witnesses. Is there room in the approach Fr. John described for the wise words of St. Irenaeus about disagreement in fasting not destroying unity in faith? I'd still like to hear Fr. John's thoughts on this, for I'm certain it is something he has given thought to.

Oh, and rejoicing with you in the rebirth in Christ of your little one, Christopher. Beautiful picture of you three.

Fr. Timothy D. May, SSP said...

If there were standardized gestures found in some branches of either the Catholic or Orthodox Church dating back to the earliest centuries, certainly deconstructionism would also be just as uncomfortable with such standardization(?) If the adiaphora principle stands complete (that is, apart from double standards) then there is no sense lost in maintaining a living tradition as described in this reflection.

Christianity has not evolved to something better if the means of passing on the meaning of faith are whittled away to nothing. The observation is made and echoed that past practice has a place. Are we made less free by having the opportunity to learn such gestures or not being allowed to know that they even exist?

The reflection is refreshing and provides a glimpse of freedom across generations, specifically the freedom to teach and learn the faith and do so by not limiting oneself to "here and now" and "futuristic" categories or counting gestures.

David Jay Webber said...

Fr. John,

Since you are using a "re-Orthodoxed" western rite, and not the eastern rite that has perpetually been used in the Orthodox Church, don't you need to make a distinction between the ceremonies and gestures that would have always been there if the Liturgy had remained wed to Orthodoxy, and ceremonies and gestures that may have been brought in through the Liturgy's thousand-year marriage to Romanism? In other words, can you assume that all the ceremonies and gestures of the western rite as it now exists are Orthodox, and teach the Orthodox faith? Might not some of them be heterodox? And if this possibility is admitted in principle, what criteria do you use in identifying those possible Romanist accretions and in sifting them out?

Fr John W Fenton said...

To all - please forgive me for not responding sooner to your inquiries on this post. It's been a hectic past 10 days.

Pr Weedon - that certain gestures are now kept does not indict the time when they were not in common use, any more than the use of the Agnus Dei (for example) is an indictment of those days when it was not sung in the Western Mass (or the Byzantine churches which have never sung it as part of the Divine Liturgy).

Concerning the fathers and gestures, I would begin by pointing to St Basil's comments on unwritten tradition which (as you know) are favorably repeated by Martin Chemnitz. But since you know these arguments, perhaps I've misunderstood what you've written.

Pr Webber - I'm not sure what you mean by "re-Orthodoxed" or "perpetually in use." But based on previous conversations, let me hazard a guess.

It is as much a common fallacy that the Western Rite is the revival of a long dormant rite as it is to suggest that the Western Rite churches are "reverse uniatism." In fact, "Western Rite" itself is a misnomer. For it is not merely a rite, but the whole of western Catholic tradition that is lived in these parishes. The liturgical gestures are a small part of this living tradition.

Therefore, let me suggest that it is better to see the Western Rite parishes as (a) separated parishes that have come into the church (as is the case with many, historically) and (b) not the revival but the authentic continuation of the tradition which was never, as tradition, rejected.

I think it is worth remembering that 1054 is a rather arbitrary date for the Great Schism; and that one could argue (as I have on several occasions) that the Great Schism is, in point of fact, a 1000 process that reaches its final breaking point with Vatican I--which, not coincidentally, is when petitions begin to be made for Western Orthodox parishes to be received into the Orthodox Church.

Finally, to your greater point - the argument that liturgy, as bearer of dogma, is as culpable as dogmatic phrases or systems may seem persuasive. And the point that this argument makes ought not be lightly dismissed. At the same time (running the risk of a "light dismissal"), the argument also contains a bifurcation of liturgy and dogma which the church has never admitted. For this reason, the historic lists of causes for the Great Schism have never (until Vatican II) included liturgical traditions. Furthermore, the assumption that the Byzantine liturgy is somehow frozen in an untouched pristineness is, as you know, historically inaccurate.

Pray for me.