Monday, August 25, 2014

Permanence and Change in the Liturgy

It is a fact of history that the liturgy changes over time, it develops. This it usually does slowly, absorbing surrounding influences, in an organic process. Most often, elements are added to the liturgy: it grows, expands, like a plant or animal growing towards maturity. More rarely, it demands pruning, which is typically done carefully and conservatively, out of respect for the quality of the growth that has come before.

Just as a living organism reaches a point of maturity after which it no longer grows but preserves itself and reproduces its species, so too, analogously, we can expect the liturgy to develop more extensively at first, in its infancy, and for its rate of growth to slow down dramatically as it attains perfection of form, fullness of ritual, text, music, and meaning. Thus, the liturgy will develop more in the first 500 years of the history of the Church than in the next 500, and in the first millennium more than in the second. At least before the middle of the twentieth century, it was taken for granted that the rate of liturgical change has slowed down as the inherited forms were of greater coherence and completeness. Change, after a certain point, pertains far more to accidental or incidental features, such as the cut of a chasuble or the design of a candlestick, than to what is done or what is said.

On the other hand, given that man’s nature never changes and Christ’s sacrifice never changes—given that man, for whom the liturgy is intended, and Christ, whose worthy praise and sacrifice the liturgy makes present and shares with us, do not vary—one might wonder what exactly would develop in the liturgy, and why. For one thing, we cannot say there was something inherently flawed about the apostolic liturgies of the early Church, such that they were defective until they received augmentation and amplification over time. Nevertheless, insofar as it is a human activity, the liturgy does not fall ready-made from heaven but is assembled slowly over the centuries by monks, popes, and other saints privileged with an experiential savoring of the beauty of God, a living contact with divine glory under sacramental veils. While not reducible to an artifact or construct, public worship is shaped and regulated by men who are cooperating with a divinely implanted instinct for holiness and goodness of form.

The essence of the liturgy was there from the beginning, as the oak tree in the acorn, but the fullness of its expression, the richness of its meaning and beauty, were meant by God to take many centuries to unfold before the eyes of Christian man, until he could behold the tree in all its glory and majesty, and taste the sweetness of its fruits most abundantly. It was not absolutely necessary that the liturgy develop, but it was supremely fitting that it do so—and the Holy Spirit brooded over this development with bright wings, as He led the Church into the fullness of truth. One is reminded of the words of Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (Jn 14:12).

St. Pius X celebrating Mass
If it makes sense that development both comes from saints and slows down over time, would it not be impossible for the Church ever to legitimately change her liturgy in a radical manner? For to do so would necessarily imply a negative judgment on the “greater works” of which Jesus speaks, a kind of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by implying that it was not in Christ’s name but rather Beelzebub’s that the Catholic Church promulgated her liturgy throughout the centuries (cf. Pius XII, Mediator Dei, nn. 50, 59, 61). Thus, although development is natural and good, a certain kind of development—namely, that of sharp discontinuity—would necessarily be bad, a corruption or deviation rather than the flowering of an organic reality.

An essay I once read argued that man’s existential identity as pilgrim or viator is the reason why the liturgy must change in each generation. The writer, from the Reform of the Reform school, was attempting to explain how there could be room for something as drastically different as the Novus Ordo, while simultaneously upholding the value of keeping the usus antiquior available, as stipulated by Summorum Pontificum. The proposed solution involved asserting that some modern people needed a more modern liturgy, while others didn’t and could do fine with a more ancient one.

But the fact that man is a pilgrim is irrelevant to whether the liturgy, as such, should change. After all, man as man never changes; he is always this kind of being, with certain powers in need of certain objects for their perfection. A liturgy imbued with divine and human strength will permanently suit this pilgrim being. Nor does his Savior change, or the Sacrifice by which his salvation was (and is) accomplished. A different kind of liturgy, were it fashioned, would only suit a different kind of being. To have permission to undertake a radical liturgical alteration, there would have to be not merely a substantial change in man—a thing which happens all the time, whenever conception or death occurs—but also an essential change, the emergence of a new species, together with the arrival of a new Savior and a new Sacrifice. There is, after all, a Christology latent in every act of worship, in any ritual, utterance, or music.

Liturgy, indeed, is a transitory action, but its origin, meaning, and finality are unchanging. It is a temporal event with a permanent nature—in that respect much like man himself, who clearly comes into being and changes throughout his life and yet has the very same immortal soul giving him a singular and everlasting identity. An individual’s spiritual development takes place within and by means of an unchanging liturgy, which acts as a fulcrum for his elevation, a center for his revolutions, a focus for his shifting sight.

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