Monday, October 16, 2017

Homogeneity vs. Hierarchy: On the Treatment of Verbal Moments

Chanting the Epistle
In discussions of problems with the Novus Ordo Missae, its advocates will frequently say that its opponents are always assuming the “worst practices,” that is, the panoply of liturgical abuses so prevalent that they almost constitute an unspoken set of rubrics as rigidly required as that of any Latin altar missal. This is a fair point. As Cardinal Sarah has tirelessly pointed out, the Novus Ordo allows for many of the elements that Catholics devoted to the Church’s Latin liturgical tradition value: first and foremost, the ad orientem stance, which is presupposed in the very rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI; the use of Latin, Gregorian chant, the Roman Canon, incense, and beautiful vestments and vessels; a prominent place for silence; only men in the sanctuary, and always liturgically vested. True as all of this may be — and we must protest, with Martin Mosebach, that it is a profound problem for such elements to be merely allowed and not required — we are nevertheless confronted in the Novus Ordo with elements of rupture that no “hermeneutic of continuity” can heal or overcome. This post will consider one of the most obvious of these, namely, how what I shall call “verbal moments” are treated in terms of their spatial and positional differentiation.

Think about a Sunday Mass in the Ordinary Form: the first reading, the psalm, the second reading, the Gospel, the homily, and the prayer of the faithful are usually all recited, all at the same place (the ambo), always versus populum in just the same way. The Eucharistic Prayer, high point of the liturgy, is also recited from the nearby altar, versus populum, in the same voice as the Gospel is read. A huge swath of the liturgy is being performed in exactly the same manner: read aloud, in the vernacular; read towards the people; read from more or less the same place; read in the same auditorium voice. It has the effect of evening everything to the same level. There is no ascent; there is only succession. It is reminiscent of Newton’s notion of time as equably flowing at the same pace. One moment of time is the same as any other. The liturgy becomes a homogenous block of undifferentiated verbiage. It is almost a demonstration of how much greater time can be than space — as in waiting in a doctor’s or a dentist’s office.

How different, I reflected, is the traditional Roman liturgy, in the way it has developed over the centuries![1] Acknowledging the ceremonial differences between Low Mass, High Mass, Solemn High Mass, and Pontifical Mass, there is a commonality of approach whereby one can see the “genetic derivation” of the later simpler forms from the earlier and more elaborate forms.[2]

Chanting the Gospel at a Missa cantata

Chanting the Gospel at a Missa solemnis
In the Low Mass as well as in the Missa Cantata, the priest begins at the foot of the altar, where he tarries to prepare himself for the arduous ascent. He works his way up to the altar to kiss it, and commences the Introit at the southern side. All throughout the liturgy he is weaving back and forth, like a figure-skater tracing out a pattern. He reads or chants the Epistle on the side that represents the faithful — the Mediterranean south, where the Faith was first planted. The Gradual and Alleluia are chanted by the Schola somewhere else in the church, usually in a choir loft or side chapel. After these interlectional chants, the priest crosses over to read or chant the Gospel towards the side that represents the unconverted pagan world — the cold and barbaric north, where many fought to plant the Faith. He leaves the altar for the ambo, where he will explicate the Word of God to the people. When he is finished, he returns to the altar, kisses it in reverence, asks the people to join him in prayer, and enters into the heart of the Mass with the Offertory. From this point onwards, apart from a momentary excursion to the south, he is firmly fixed at the middle of the altar for the oblation of the Victim, offered to the East, facing the same way the people are. All are caught up in the same orientation — to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The Solemn High Mass expresses all of this differentiation of “verbal moments” even more dramatically, when the subdeacon chants the Epistle, the deacon chants the Gospel, and the priest, after the homily, offers the Holy Sacrifice.

What we see here in the original Roman rite is the tracing out of a sacred geography, whereby the “verbal moments” in the Mass are hierarchically and symbolically ordered. The Epistle at the south, the Gospel towards the north, the homily towards the people, and the Canon towards the Lord demonstrate in a bodily way, with the vividness of the immediately sensible, the differentiation and articulation of liturgical acts. The multiple qualities of each “verbal moment,” whether proclaimed aloud or whispered sotto voce, gives to each its own profile, a dignity that corresponds to its function:

epistle tone

melismatic tone

Gospel tone
incense, candles
plain speech

incense, candles, bells

The Epistle can be fully and simply the Epistle, and retains its dignity as the sacrament of the Word by not being announced to the people as if it were merely instructional. The homily, as instructional, is rightly directed to the people. Last and best of all, “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), comes the Canon of the Mass, “the dispensation of the mystery which hath been hidden from eternity in God” (Eph 3:9), which is uttered in silence, as the Word was made flesh in silence (Dum medium silentium), with nothing of the priest’s individual face or voice edging into the perfect embodiment of the suffering and glorified Christ. There is an arc of spiritual progression from one moment of the liturgy to the next. We are caught up in pilgrimage. We sense ourselves to be nearing a destination, one stage of a journey after another, towards the Promised Land. Rather than one thing after another, as in a modern agenda, each step is qualitatively different — a fact impressed on us unmistakably by the use of space, posture, orientation, chant tone, and voice level.

Preaching the homily
In contrast, we see in the reformed rite an anti-hierarchical egalitarianism that levels, equalizes, homogenizes, verbalizes, and externalizes. With it comes the loss of any order of acts of intimacy — the varied series of communications from outward to inward, from echo to source, from shadow to light, from memory to reality, from word to flesh. The monotony of “out loud, versus populum” makes the entire experience uniform, contiguous, blurred, unimpressive, and unmemorable; it sends a message that all of this is book learning, directed to this congregation, in keeping with congregationalist theology. It is far different with the unreformed rite, in which hierarchy is the very soul of the liturgical event. Everything that is to be done must be done in its due (distinctive) place, making full use of compass points, background and foreground, levels of voice, contour of tones. It places heterogenous utterances at different levels, in complex relationships, driving always towards internalization of meaning, and this it does precisely through the senses, so that we see and hear and even smell the stages of the journey. The liturgy is in motion, driving towards a destination, and we are privileged to be carried along with it.

As mentioned above, hierarchical differentiation, sacred geography, and progressive motion are carried to their fullest extent in the distinctive roles and places allotted to priest, deacon, and subdeacon in the Missa solemnis or Solemn High Mass. The subdeacon’s chanting of the Epistle; the deacon’s chanting of the Gospel, using a book held by the subdeacon, flanked by acolytes bearing torches and incense; the priest’s preaching aloud and then praying in silence at the Canon, not to mention the priest’s blessing of the deacon and the latter’s return to the priest after chanting the Gospel — all of these articulations of liturgical action show a profound awareness of the language of the body and the bodiliness of language, so that we never have the feeling of being trapped in tedious talk, but are borne from one station to the next, as if we were following the Lord through the desert to the Jordan, from the Jordan to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to the heavenly sanctuary. He moves in us and among us; His ministers move; we move with Him and with them.

As is so often the case, I feel inadequate to express what I have experienced, but I take consolation in knowing that those who assist at the traditional Mass will grasp that of which I speak — and in hoping that those who have not yet had the happiness of assisting at it may be moved to seek it out, so that they, too, may join the same pilgrimage. “And it came to pass, when the days were well-nigh come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51).

Silently offering the Divine Victim

[1] I say “as it has developed,” because the locations from which certain parts of the liturgy are conducted have changed over the centuries, as the architectural layout of the church and especially its sanctuary and ambo underwent various modifications. Nevertheless, every age of the Church shows us a keen awareness of the spatiality of liturgical actions, and the fittingness of assigning different moments to different places in the building, different ministers, and distinctive stances and tones.

[2] I say this deliberately because, as in the history of human languages, so in the history of liturgy, the idea of evolution from simpler to more complex is only partially true. We can find many examples where ancient forms are more complex or elaborate than later forms. Just as classical Greek is more complex than classical Latin, Latin than Italian, and 19th-century Italian than 21st-century Italian, so too is the pontifical liturgy of the Middle Ages more complex than the Missa solemnis, the Missa cantata, and the Missa recitata.

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