Monday, October 26, 2020

An Allegorical Rationale for the Ministers Sitting During the Gloria and Credo

Seated clergy removing birettas at the Name of Jesus
In discussions of the classical Roman rite and the twentieth-century liturgical reform, one example that always comes up of “something that just had to change” in the Tridentine Mass — one among many things targeted as supposed flaws by reform-minded people — is the custom whereby the ministers (the priest at a Missa cantata, the priest, deacon, and subdeacon at a Missa solemnis) return to their seats for the duration of the sung Gloria and Credo after they have recited the text themselves at the altar.* The reform-minded protest against both the “duplication” of the text and the alleged oddity of everyone sitting during the singing of these parts of the Mass Ordinary. Shouldn’t the clergy sing the texts together with the people, and everyone remain standing?

In an earlier article at NLM, “Is It Fitting for the Priest to Recite All the Texts of the Mass?,” I defended an affirmative answer to that question on spiritual and liturgical grounds. I shall not rehash the same arguments here. Nor will I comment on practical reasons for sitting, such as lengthy pieces of polyphony, or giving older or infirm clergy a chance to rest. I also would not dispute that the monastic custom (at least, I have seen it most often at monasteries) of the ministers remaining standing during the entirety of the Gloria and Credo is fitting for the relatively short duration of chanted Ordinaries; I do not maintain that the ministers should always sit down. The rubrics allow them to remain at their places; sitting is a concession.

Rather, taking it for granted that there are theological reasons for duplicating and practical reasons for sitting, I would like to consider some theological connections that have occurred to me over the years as I have watched this custom and thought about it. The contemplative atmosphere of the classical Roman liturgy has nurtured in me a patient, open-minded, speculative disposition towards texts, music, and ceremonies. My habit of mind is now to ask, in accord with the allegorical method of our ancestors: “What meanings can I glean from the liturgy as it exists in front of me?,” rather than: “How ought it to be improved?”

I can honestly say that I had never pondered the mystery of the “session” or seatedness of the Son of God until I had seen ministers moving from the altar in a liturgically dignified manner and sitting down ceremonially at the High Mass and Solemn Mass. Until then, “sits [or is seated] at the right hand of the Father” had been no more than a line rattled off when reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Yet it is a mystery important enough to receive many mentions in the New Testament (cf. Mk 16:19, Acts 7:55, Rom 8:34, Heb 1:3, Rev 3:21), and in liturgical texts. In the Gloria itself: Qui sedes at dexteram Patris, miserere nobis: “Thou who art seated at the right [hand] of the Father, have mercy on us.” In the Credo: Et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris: “And He ascended into heaven, [and] is seated at the right [hand] of the Father.”

Moreover, in a church that had no pews in the nave, the sitting of the clergy would more obviously accentuate their special role in the liturgy. St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Gregory the Great (Hom. xxix in Evang.): “It is the judge’s place to sit, while to stand is the place of the combatant or helper” (Summa theologiae III, q. 58, a. 1, ad 3).

It is not exactly scripted in the rubrics when the ministers are to sit down, nor are they required to do so; they may remain standing the whole time, a posture that will always retain its resurrectional significance, as it does to this day in the Eastern tradition. Nevertheless, it was the Solemn High Mass that made the custom of being seated “click” for me.

At the "Et incarnatus est"
The ministers all kneel at the altar, as is appropriate, for the Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est. Then they rise and return to the sedilia at the side of the sanctuary. The priest, who primarily represents Christ in the offering of the Mass, is seated. Around this time, the schola (and in some places the people too) are singing: passus et sepultus est — Christ, having suffered, was laid in the tomb. The Creed almost suggests this natural moment of rest as it mentions the lowest and humblest point of the Savior’s descent among us.

At the same time, the subdeacon remains standing while the deacon proceeds to the credence, receives the burse from the MC, and brings it to the altar to set forth the corporal. During this time the schola is usually singing Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas, et ascendit in caelum. The reason we can turn from the Scriptural part of the service (the Mass of the Catechumens) to the Eucharistic sacrifice (the Mass of the Faithful) is that Christ is indeed risen from the dead, and death hath no more dominion over Him. He is able to renew His sacrifice among us sacramentally precisely because He is glorified. His rising on the third day was the great opening not only of the kingdom of heaven but of the sevenfold font of sacramental grace that brings us to heaven.

Deacon carrying the burse and corporal to the altar during the Credo

Call it accidental if you wish, but I find it very beautiful that as this Christological confession is sung, the principal minister occupies a seat as does Christ the Lord in heavenly glory, while the deacon, also bearing His image, prepares the altar for the “return” of the King, and the subdeacon stands at attention. The Creed then acknowledges the seating of Christ at the right hand of the Father, and His return in glory: sedet ad dexteram Patris: et iterum venturus est cum gloria. Around this time, the deacon returns to the side, and both he and the subdeacon take their seats. In this way, the various intertwined mysteries the Creed mentions at this point (around the resurrection, ascension, and session) are all somehow put on display, as if being acted out before our eyes.

Then, when the schola sings: Et vitam venturi saeculi, “[and I believe] in the life of the world to come,” all make the sign of the Cross, the ministers rise, and the people rise as well. This final strophe of the Creed has just mentioned the general resurrection of the dead and the life without end in heaven, when all the blessed will share the glory of the risen Lord. How appropriate that the “general rising” takes place right at this point in the Creed!

It is as if we are permitted to “act out,” in a sense, certain of the mysteries confessed, even as the priest during the Canon “acts out” some of Christ’s gestures, as Michael Fiedrowicz describes:
The traditional rubrics of the Roman Canon call for a “reenacting” of Christ’s actions through the celebrating priest. He not only reads aloud the words of institution, but copies Christ’s gestures as they are described: at the moment of the accepit panem/calicem he takes the offerings in his hands, which were anointed by the blessing (in sanctas et venerabiles manus suas), lifts his eyes (elevatis oculis), gratefully (gratias agens) bows his head, makes a sign of the Cross at the benedixit, and in a humble attitude completes the transubstantiation, with his arms touching the altar, once more emphasizing the union with Christ. (The Traditional Mass, p. 274)

Years after the above “picture” was formed in my mind, I decided to consult William Durandus, whose Rationale Divinorum Officiorum had recently entered my library. Sure enough, he had beat me to the main point, once more demonstrating that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles 1:9). Book IV, chapter 18 concerns “Of the Seating of the Bishop or the Priest and the Ministers,” of which the following lines are apropos (pp. 168–69 in the Thibodeau trans.):
He is seated in a prominent place, so that just as the vinedresser cares for his vineyard, he cares for his people; for the Lord, seated in the highest heavens, guards His city (cf. Ps 126:1)…. Sitting down after the prayer signifies the seating of Christ at the right hand of the Father after His Ascension, for the seat naturally goes to the victor. Thus, the seating of the priest designates the victory of Christ… The seating of the ministers signifies the seating of those to whom it is said: You shall also sit on the twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mt 19:28): namely, those who now reign in heaven; those who labor in the choir signify those who are as yet pilgrims in this world… Some ministers sit with the bishop, through whom is understood that the members of Christ at last have repose in peace, about which the Apostle says: He seated us together in heaven, in Christ (Eph 2:6), or else those who judge the twelve tribes of Israel; others remain standing, through whom is understood those members of Christ who continue with the struggle in this world.

* NOTE: I have decided not to address here the question of the sitting of the clergy during the Kyrie, although the enterprising reader will find it pleasant to meditate on the allegorical interpretations that might be proffered.

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