Monday, January 12, 2015

“New Things and Old…”

The start of a new calendar year seems a good time to meditate on a famous verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Therefore every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a man, the head of a house, who brings forth from his treasure things new and old” (Mt 13:52).

In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, St. Thomas Aquinas unfolds the meaning of nova et vetera with the help of the Fathers:
Who brings forth from his treasure things new and old, the duties of the new law. For the New Law adds new senses over the Old, and Christ explains this ... he is like any other head of a household, who brings forth the divine knowledge given to him, new and old. Not so the Manichees, because they did not bring forth the old. ... According to Augustine, it is explained in this way. … [Y]ou should understand, so that you may know how to explain those things which are written in the Old Law through the New. Hence those things said in the Old are figures of the New Testament. … Or, according to Gregory, the old things refer to all those things which are attributed to sin, and the new to those things which are attributed to the grace of Christ. Hence the new things refer to the reward of eternal life, while the old things refer to the punishment of Hell. Therefore, that man brings forth things new and old who considers not only the reward, but also the punishment of hell.
St. Benedict alludes to Mt 13:52 in chapter 64 of his Rule, one of many chapters that address the abbot’s role in the community:
Let him know that his duty is rather to profit his brethren than to preside over them. He must therefore be learned in the divine law, that he may have a treasure of knowledge from which to bring forth new things and old.
Apropos this passage, Dom Paul Delatte in his great commentary on the Rule observes:
From a treasure already acquired and increased every day by study and prayer, the Abbot must draw, like a good householder, “new things and old” (Mt 13:52, Sg 7:13): doctrine which does not change and application which changes from day to day, the eternal rules and the counsels appropriate to each individual nature. (449)
These examples, to which more could easily be added, show that the typical patristic and scholastic reading of the passage “new things and old” is not as if it were a way of saying “novelties and traditions,” but rather, new and old insights into what God has already taught us, the calling to mind of what belongs to the old covenant and the new covenant, the oldness of sin and its punishment, the newness of grace and its reward. In short, nova et vetera sums up divine revelation. Those scribes are praised who can see anew into the truth Our Lord has taught us as well as bring forward that which has already been seen by others.

All this is background to a rather startling passage in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2011 ed., n. 15):
In this manner the Church, while remaining faithful to her office as teacher of truth, safeguarding “things old,” that is, the deposit of tradition, fulfills at the same time the duty of examining and prudently adopting “things new” (cf. Mt 13:52).
          For part of the new Missal orders the prayers of the Church in a way more open to the needs of our times. Of this kind are above all the Ritual Masses and Masses for Various Needs, in which tradition and new elements are appropriately brought together. Thus, while a great number of expressions, drawn from the Church’s most ancient tradition and familiar through the many editions of the Roman Missal, have remained unchanged, numerous others have been accommodated to the needs and conditions proper to our own age, and still others, such as the prayers for the Church, for the laity, for the sanctification of human labor, for the community of all nations, and certain needs proper to our era, have been newly composed, drawing on the thoughts and often the very phrasing of the recent documents of the Council.
          On account, moreover, of the same attitude toward the new state of the world as it now is, it seemed to cause no harm at all to so revered a treasure if some phrases were changed so that the language would be in accord with that of modern theology and would truly reflect the current state of the Church’s discipline. Hence, several expressions regarding the evaluation and use of earthly goods have been changed, as have several which alluded to a certain form of outward penance which was proper to other periods of the Church’s past.
These young modern people don't seem to have any problem with Tradition...
“Some phrases were changed so that the language would be in accord with that of modern theology…” If you would like to have a clearer sense of just how “some phrases were changed,” check out Matthew Hazell’s “The Postcommunion Prayers of the Missale Romanum (1970/2002): Translations and Sources” or Lauren Pristas’s tour de force The Collects of the Roman Missals. One will see the plain evidence of a wholesale rethinking, reworking, and rewriting that leaves little of the Tradition untouched. Modernity is the controlling and defining spirit, Tradition the raw material subjected to its scientific scrutiny, superior judgment, and, finally, ruthless surgery.

There you have it in a nutshell—discontinuity and rupture, cloaked under the guise of modest and reasonable reform. This is not, I submit, the meaning of Matthew 13:52 as understood by any Church Father or Doctor, nor even a legitimate extension or accommodation of the text. It makes “old things” equivalent to “the traditional doctrine and practice handed down from our forefathers” and “new things” equivalent to “new stuff we experts make up in response to our understanding of modern man.” What would any orthodox Christian, Eastern or Western, think about the (novel) idea of mixing new and old, understood in this manner?

As we begin the Year of Our Lord 2015, we might reflect once more on the nova et vetera that we are called upon to ponder, teach, and guard as proponents of the New Liturgical Movement. In the name of our blog, “new” does not mean novelty and innovation, but a renewed interior spirit of gratefully receiving and understanding the Catholic Tradition that enables us to participate fruitfully in the sacred mysteries of Our Lord.

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