Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Marian Character of Ad Orientem Worship: Guest Article by Zachary Thomas (Part 5)

In the fourth and fifth parts of this article, Zachary Thomas reflects on the ad orientem posture in Christian worship as an expression of the Virgin Mary’s role as a type of the Church. I have therefore given them a slightly different title from the first three parts, (“Marian character”, rather than “priestly character”), but they are nevertheless the continuation of the same article. To read the first four parts, click on the following links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Our thanks once again to Mr Thomas for sharing this series, which is now concluded, with NLM.

Recalling our previous discussions of the mediating role of the priest, I’d like to suggest that by embracing its proper ritual articulation as found in the old rites, we affirm a Marian, feminine aspect of the priesthood, one which the new rites often obscure in favor of an excessively masculine activism. In doing so, I am following the insights of David Schindler. (“Catholic theology, gender, and the future of Western civilization,” Communio 20 (1993), pp. 200-239.)

Earlier we argued that dynamic ad orientem worship actualizes the Church’s posture of dependency and receptivity as it goes up to the mountain of God, while the static versus populum posture and the insistence on distributing clerical roles to laity seems to validate only the active part of the priestly ministry. This semblance has often been carried to extremes, when priests (encouraged by the rite’s casual ritual language) take it upon themselves to improvise liturgy and intrude their own personalities.

Simone Martini, the Annunciation, 1333
What does it mean to talk about the Marian character of the priesthood and of the Church? The Fathers have always identified Mary as a type of the Church, because her “fiat” sums up the Christian people’s fundamental disposition toward generously receiving the revelation offered in Christ. If there had been no Mary, there would be no Christ, and no Church. But Mary’s role is not just antecedent and preparatory, a necessary hurdle before the “work” of redemption goes on. Rather, her receptivity continues to be the foundation and paradigm for the Christian soul and for the Church’s own relationship to Christ the Priest. Even now, as “all of creation groans for redemption,” fallen humanity bears a Marian character in that it is struggling to give birth to Christ.

The Church appoints sacred ministers to perform the active, Christ-like functions, preaching, governing, sanctifying, etc. But we should take careful notice that these active functions always presuppose the continued receptivity of the whole Church: in Baptism, the priest is born out of the womb of the Church, and his active role is predicated on the Church’s serene and unending acceptance of his sacramental works. In the spiritual life, the greater the openness and receptivity to grace, the more God can give. Even Christian works, so necessary to salvation, are understood by St. Thomas to be preceded by a gift of grace, so that our actions are carried out by a principle that we receive.

Christ himself bears this stamp of duality:

“As representative of the Father’s initiative, the Son is masculine; as receptive in relation to the Father from all eternity, the Son is feminine; finally, the Son, in generating the receptive womb of Mary in order then, as it were, to receive back his own (masculine) priesthood, is thereby—that is, in the act of receiving back his own priesthood in and with Mary—feminine. It is this distinction between masculine and feminine in Christ which founds the distinction between the ordained and the common priesthood” (Schindler, 217).

We find these relations in Christ because their deepest source is the Trinity itself, where the persons each loves and receive from one another. These deep mysteries of Trinitarian life, which flow into Christ, and thence into the life of the Church and of every individual soul, ought to find their expression in her most solemn public rituals. And indeed, in traditional rites, they do. In the dynamic ad orientem posture, the priest turns constantly toward God: he is receiving from him, begging him to make the gifts fruitful with his spirit, and, like Mary, begging our Lord to help his people. Then, when he turns back to us to give the blessing, he stands in his Fatherly role, dispensing to the receptive, Marian Church.

It could be argued that the new rite, in the various ways that it privileges “activity,” over-emphasizes the masculine role of the priest. The tendency today is to distribute “roles,” but the role of passive recipient—i.e., of a normal layman, of Mary—is never acknowledged, much less privileged. Priests read us the Gospel, priests read us the Eucharistic prayer, laymen read us the readings and psalms, laymen distribute communion. One of the liturgical reform’s main results was to eliminate all the ways the laymen traditionally received liturgy throughout history: gazing, private meditation, visits to side altars or icons, paging through the Missal, or just walking through the building, as still happens in Eastern churches; all this is eliminated in favor of a forced conformity to the “action at hand.” In its relentless attempt to eliminate fruitful silence and contemplative atmosphere, the culture of the new liturgy threatens the total domination of activity. Who is being receptive, when everyone must be “active”? In a truly ironic parody, the Novus Ordo has fallen into even worse clericalism than what it was trying to banish with its “reforms” of the Old Rite.

Looking at the Church’s life more broadly, when are monastic forms of life, contemplation, more resplendent liturgies, or participation in the divine office, put forward as a solution to modern problems, as a complement to social action? In all of this “going forth”, we choose to emphasize the clerical, masculine, active role, and despise the quiet life of reception and interiorization. This is the opposite of what the modern world needs to hear!

Precisely in ceding liturgical functions to the priest and the sacred ministers, delegating this specialized job to a few functionaries, rather than distributing them to everyone, traditional liturgy emphasizes the external, specialized role of the clergy in relation to the anterior, and primary maternal role of the laity, and of the Church as a whole. Just as in reproduction the male has a fairly straightforward, technical role, while the whole drama of life unfolds within the woman, so in the life of the Church, the priestly, active role of Christ is directed toward reception of the life of grace in the individual soul.

In this light, entrusting all ministerial functions to specialized clergy, far from humiliating and debasing the laity, actually privileges their status. In some sense, everything is for them. The liturgy is by the clergy, but for the laity. The active ministers act, creating music and sacred choreography and sacrament, so that the laity are free to concentrate entirely on taking in the whole person of Christ inherent in these actions. (As any server or chorister can attest, a specialized role in liturgy can be more limiting than liberating, as it distracts attention from the larger action. The flautist can’t very well appreciate the whole orchestra, if she is properly concentrated on her score!) By limiting clerical activity, or rather circumscribing his activity closely in humble service to the Church, or hiding it under veils, it reveals the priesthood’s subordinate nature to the larger Church, and allows laity great spiritual freedom to truly participate.

The best way to destroy this marital harmony of roles would be to make everyone priestly, to give everyone a job, or to turn the priest around so we can see his face. As long as we can see his face, he is not a specialized functionary, through whom we pass to the object of his function, to the life of grace and the reality of the living Church he makes possible; rather we exult the individual and make him opaque to these more fundamental realities. We tempt him to take control, by using every ritual indication to make him the center of attention: his seat in the center of the sanctuary, his voice in the canon, his personality in the sermon. The old rites cloak the priest in such a weight of symbolism and rubrical uniformity that (though we never forget he is a man), his reality in the liturgical drama passes over into his sacramental-symbolic identity of alter Christus.

The glories of the Church’s liturgical life come to us through the active agency of the priesthood, but only if their active posture is conceived in proper relation to the anterior, privileged posture of receptivity of the laity, without whom all priestly activity is meaningless. The traditional rites, with their dynamic ritual of ad orientem ceremony, emphasize and lift up precisely the feminine, Marian aspect of the Church, Christ, the Trinity, and the priesthood. Re-emphasizing this feminine aspect is a crucial step in the battle to reclaiming our culture—both political and ecclesial—from an excessive masculinity of restless activity and technological manipulation of the created world. Ad orientem is therefore also the ritual posture most truly in line with true feminism against all false-clericalism and the arrogant abuse of human ecology.

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