Wednesday, September 26, 2007

St. Thomas Aquinas on the Signs of the Cross in the Roman Canon

A very excellent book which all the readers here should consider is David Berger's Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy, published by Sapientia Press. Among other interesting details, Berger discusses what St. Thomas had to say about all those Signs of the Cross found in the Traditional Mass.

Berger sets the stage by mentioning that when the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council inquired as to what was meant by the removal of needless repetitions in the liturgy (mentioned in Sacrosanctum Concilium), they were told that this meant the many Signs of the Cross in the Canon. Apparently this was a satisfactory answer. Pope Innocent III--who himself effected a reform of the Curial liturgy in the early 13th c.--had also looked into the possibility of eliminating these Signs of the Cross but stopped short of doing so.

The major objections to the Signs of the Cross in the Canon with which I am familiar have to do with the repetitiveness and also the fact that something that is already consecrated should not be blessed again.

St. Thomas, however, has a much different take on this. Berger quotes him at length. I shall use the same quote but taken from the New Advent version.

"The priest, in celebrating the mass, makes use of the sign of the cross to signify Christ's Passion which was ended upon the cross. Now, Christ's Passion was accomplished in certain stages. First of all there was Christ's betrayal, which was the work of God, of Judas, and of the Jews; and this is signified by the triple sign of the cross at the words, "These gifts, these presents, these holy unspotted sacrifices."

Secondly, there was the selling of Christ. Now he was sold to the Priests, to the Scribes, and to the Pharisees: and to signify this the threefold sign of the cross is repeated, at the words, "blessed, enrolled, ratified." Or again, to signify the price for which He was sold, viz. thirty pence. And a double cross is added at the words--"that it may become to us the Body and the Blood," etc., to signify the person of Judas the seller, and of Christ Who was sold.

Thirdly, there was the foreshadowing of the Passion at the last supper. To denote this, in the third place, two crosses are made, one in consecrating the body, the other in consecrating the blood; each time while saying, "He blessed."

Fourthly, there was Christ's Passion itself. And so in order to represent His five wounds, in the fourth place, there is a fivefold signing of the cross at the words, "a pure Victim, a holy Victim, a spotless Victim, the holy bread of eternal life, and the cup of everlasting salvation."

Fifthly, the outstretching of Christ's body, and the shedding of the blood, and the fruits of the Passion, are signified by the triple signing of the cross at the words, "as many as shall receive the body and blood, may be filled with every blessing," etc.

Sixthly, Christ's threefold prayer upon the cross is represented; one for His persecutors when He said, "Father, forgive them"; the second for deliverance from death, when He cried, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" the third referring to His entrance into glory, when He said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit"; and in order to denote these there is a triple signing with the cross made at the words, "Thou dost sanctify, quicken, bless."

Seventhly, the three hours during which He hung upon the cross, that is, from the sixth to the ninth hour, are represented; in signification of which we make once more a triple sign of the cross at the words, "Through Him, and with Him, and in Him."

Eighthly, the separation of His soul from the body is signified by the two subsequent crosses made over the chalice.

Ninthly, the resurrection on the third day is represented by the three crosses made at the words--"May the peace of the Lord be ever with you."

In short, we may say that the consecration of this sacrament, and the acceptance of this sacrifice, and its fruits, proceed from the virtue of the cross of Christ, and therefore wherever mention is made of these, the priest makes use of the sign of the cross."
(Summa Theologica: III, Question 83, a. 5, ad 3)

What a beautiful explanation of this! How could a council which is said to have relied so heavily upon St. Thomas Aquinas have missed this? Moreover, this quote from Aquinas seems to serve as a caution regarding any liturgical reform that is undertaken. We modern liturgy geeks like to stand aloft from the outlook we've built for ourselves by reading the work of liturgical scholars--who admittedly have done much good for us--and pass judgment on this or that aspect of the liturgy. But too often the test given is "antiquity," and nothing else. "Later accretion" is an insult, and "Medieval accretion" is a swear word in many circles.

As a result of this, I'm afraid much has been taken out of the liturgy that should have been left alone. Perhaps this is because those in charge of such removal did not consider the wider consequences of what they were doing. This is historicism at its worst.

Now the reader is probably expecting a rant against the pale-white, stripped down character of the Novus Ordo rubrics. Not this time. I would like instead to plea with those who think it's a good idea to reform aspects of the Traditional Mass. Stop and think about this. Many of these folks, for instance, are in favor of removing the Last Gospel or the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, or both. But what significance might they have liturgically, theologically, or devotionally? (Ooops, I used the "d" word.) To my mind, these are the questions that should be considered first; historical considerations are secondary, if they should be considerations at all.

We should be careful about the liturgical changes we undertake, because none of us--not even all of us put together--is as smart as tradition. Each generation grasps only part of the picture, and what one generation emphasizes might lie unrealized for centuries at a time, until it's rediscovered again. (This is one reason why liturgical actions which were at first practical and only later enjoyed newfound meaning should not be disregarded. How are we to say that the Holy Spirit was not at work in this all along?) If certain elements are missing from the liturgy, however, it becomes more difficult to rediscover lost aspects of tradition. The liturgy is larger than all of us, and we need to keep this in mind when we're tempted to take a pair of scissors to the Roman Missal.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

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