Monday, January 16, 2012

The Benedictine Arrangement in Homiletic and Pastoral Review

I was very pleased to discover an article by Fr. Stefan Heid posted on the first of this year over at the Homiletic and Pastoral Review website entitled "Cross, Altar and the Right Way of Praying," encouraging the revival of the Roman practice of placing the crucifix on the altar even for versus populum celebrations. Here's just a taste to get you interested:

There will no doubt be some clashes with liturgical committees, when pastors, choosing to follow Roman custom, begin taking their altar crosses out of the closet. In order to forestall precipitous reactions in these debates, we would like to establish the larger context in which the discussion belongs. There are a number of liturgical practices that have disappeared from use over centuries. Without a reflective look at these rituals, however, it could easily happen that even the loveliest of liturgical directives would shrivel into meaningless formalism.

The sacrificial action of the Eucharist takes place on the altar, within a continuous current of prayer: from the prayer over the gifts, through the Eucharistic Prayer, to the Our Father. In this respect, the Eucharistic action is markedly different from the liturgy of the Word that precedes it. The ambo is, strictly speaking, not a place of prayer; the Opening Prayer is better placed at the celebrant’s chair. In the usus antiquior, the priest is always standing at the altar, and almost always praying! The silent prayers are neither private prayers nor mere time-fillers (i.e., horror vacui), but rather to make the altar a place of unceasing prayer.

Once this point has been acknowledged, the implication is that the priest at the altar takes on a different attitude, or mindset, than he has anywhere else. Here he stands, first and foremost, as one who prays. Christianity recognizes this distinctive prayer posture where the priest raises his hands, as well as his eyes. The raising of hands and eyes belongs, inseparably, to the gesture of early Christian prayer, just as Jesus himself practiced in the Jewish tradition. Standing in prayer is also part of this tradition, seen as a fundamental posture for one in prayer; on one’s knees praying, likewise, uses elevated hands and eyes, all dating back to early Christianity. Since the Middle Ages, this prayer posture, with hands and eyes raised, has faded somewhat from practice. Now, it is only the priest raising his hands (and eyes for only a few short moments) because he is reading prayers. He does look up, for instance, in the Roman canon at the time of the consecration while speaking the words: “et elevatis oculis in coelum”. Therefore, Jesus inaugurates the Eucharist “with eyes raised to heaven.”

Even in the ordo novus, the rubric at this point reads: “He (the priest) raises his eyes.” But where exactly is the priest supposed to be looking, at the church ceiling? So when the priest in reciting a prayer is required to look upward, rather than simply staring into space, the obvious focal point is a high-standing cross on the main altar.

Of course, the practice of having a cross on the altar facing the priest is not only needed for a few isolated moments. It has a more general purpose. When the priest stands at the altar in unceasing prayer to God, he will be gazing at God’s Son, through whom his every petition, his every word of praise, is, in fact, offered.

Since God is creator, the world is not chaotic, but a universe divinely fashioned and providentially ordered. There is an “above” and a “below,” or in scriptural terms, upon the heavens his throne is set, earth is his footstool. (Source.)
There are a number of important ideas in play here. First, at a larger level, it strikes me as Fr. Heid has the knack of thinking symbolically, and inhabiting the larger universe of signs that makes authentic liturgy both theologically and intellectually such a joyous experience, something which modern man has largely lost, or, in some instances, exchanged for a dry literalism that sees symbolism as a rather superficial affair of one-to-one correspondences. Secondly, he is interpreting the directives of the liturgy in a larger context, that of their rubrical and historical development--essentially a nutshell version of "mutual enrichment," and a sure medicine against the tendency to reinvent the wheel that even tradition-minded priests may fall into when considering the modern form of the mass in a vacuum.

These are very positive developments, and show, for all our murmurationes about the slow pace of liturgical reform, just how far the spirit of Summorum Pontificium has begun to permeate the way we think about both forms of the Roman liturgy. The whole article is definitely worth your time.

One final digression: Fr. Heid's comments are a good opportunity to bring up the fact that the altar crucifix spoken of in the IGMR is, historically speaking, somewhat different in provenance from the enormous sanctuary crosses that have become the norm in most American churches over the past century. Fr. Heid points out:
Finally, it is further objected that an altar cross creates a doubling of crucifixes, in the case that a cross already hangs above or behind the altar. However, the cross on the altar is for the priest, facing him with its corpus, while the faithful look at their cross above the altar.
The two are functionally different items, and even when a large crucifix was hung over the altar in the context of the Usus Antiquior, a smaller crucifix was permitted for the priest's "private" use as part of the altar's furnishings. While rubrically, it might be dispensed with if indeed the altarpiece was ornamented with a painting or sculpture of the crucifixion, the fact the dispensation was granted at all would appear to indicate that it was more normative to have an altar cross rather than to have a large reredos displaying the crucifixion, and to have both was no redundancy. Even today the current IGMR does not forbid several images of Our Lord in a church, and has considerably softened its stance on the multiplication of other images. (Though, of course, the tatty clutter of 19th century kitsch ought not to simply be substituted for the barren void of twentieth century faddiness. Let us not turn our churches into dioramas entitled The History of Tacky, but rather strike for balance, clarity and noble beauty.) Church-builders and clergy should remember that, while a large altarpiece with the crucifixion is a good and fine thing, it is still something of a historical and geographical novelty. In the end it is the crucifix on the altar which is the most pure expression of traditional liturgical praxis.

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