Monday, October 17, 2011

Fr. George Rutler on the Shorter Form of the Modern Lectionary

In his recent column, Fr. George Rutler -- who will need little introduction to most of our readership -- makes the following observation about the "shorter form" of the modern Roman lectionary:

October 16, 2011
by Fr. George W. Rutler


Authors find it difficult to be objective about their writing and tend to react to edits like a parent whose baby is not adored by a third party. Few tensions are as taut and bitter as that between a writer and his editor. Mark Twain said “I am not the editor of a newspaper and shall always try to do right and be good so that God will not make me one.” There are calmer writers who would quietly agree with Adlai Stevenson’s definition of an editor: “One who separates the wheat from the chaff and keeps the chaff.” For all his monumental flaws, Pontius Pilate did one good thing when he refused to let the mob edit the sign he had posted over Christ on the Cross. “Quod scripsi, scripsi.” “What I have written, I have written.” What he wrote was: “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews.”

In 1818, an English physician named Thomas Bowdler unwisely decided to operate on Shakespeare by removing the unseemly parts of the plays to produce “The Family Shakespeare” suitable, as they say in Hollywood, for “General Audiences.” Ophelia accidentally drowns instead of committing suicide, and Lady Macbeth does not use cuss words. The eponym “bowdlerize” is not generally received today as a compliment.

If editors are not sent from God, they sometimes do a godly work, like sports coaches and dieticians, even if their advice is as unwelcome as it is prudent. But that prudence has its limits when it involves cherry-picking the Author of all things. Thomas Jefferson did a fine job with the Declaration of Independence, whose draft copy was only lightly edited (he should have heeded Adams’ advice not to call the King a tyrant), but he was out of his realm when he bowdlerized the New Testament, leaving out the bits he thought unacceptable to eighteenth-century men who had learned about gravity and oxygen. In this he was like twenty-first-century legislators who would delete the adverb “not” as an inconvenient interpolation in some of the Ten Commandments.

I have noticed that when the present Lectionary occasionally proposes a “Shorter Form” for one of the Gospel readings, the lines edited are something Our Lord said that comfortable people would rather He had not said. The “Shorter From” of the Parable of the Wedding Garment remarkably leaves out the wedding garment. It is like dropping the last chapter of an Agatha Christie novel. I cannot imagine how any congregation would be so rushed that it could not find time for the thirty seconds it takes to read that warning about coming to the nuptial feast of the Eucharist unclothed in baptismal virtue, without sins confessed. If that is not suitable for the general audience, there is something wrong with the general audience.