Monday, January 24, 2022

“Moments of Liturgical Action”: Recovering the Sacramentality of Biblical Lections

In his work Philosophy of Cult — published, so far, only in Russian and in an Italian translation La Filosofia del Culto, from the latter of which the following translation was made by Zachary Thomas — Pavel Florensky articulates the orthodox understanding of Scripture, in contrast to the Protestant one:

The apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel are often considered books. The Holy Gospel and the holy apostolic letters are not “books,” but rather moments of liturgical action, deriving from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edifying meaning, but one even more important — precisely an active, sacramental meaning.
          In short, even to read the Holy Scriptures is something that acquires its full significance only liturgically, in prayer, and not outside of the liturgy…. To remove it from this context, even if it is very pleasing to do so, would mean to secularize it. Just as it is impossible to walk down the street wearing a chasuble just because it is a beautiful garment; the moment one did so it would be equal to desecrating the holy vestments.
          It is good to reflect on rules of conduct in the same way. The holy fasts, for example, do not have an autonomy or moral order to themselves. They are rather tied to the liturgy; they play a part in the liturgical order akin to the preparation for Holy Communion, the ritual organization of life. They are therefore an ordo, or rather a liturgical moment, a moment of the ecclesiastical function.
          The instruction in our seminaries and in our ecclesiastical schools is mistaken from the start, from the moment that it is characterized by a certain autonomy of theology and even of diverse theologies — “dogmatic,” “moral,” and so on. In this entirely formal program a Protestant mode of thinking is already embedded, because Protestantism is in its essence the negation of the centrality of cult and the substitution of the center of religion with thought that, of its nature, cannot but be autonomous.
          Personally I have not the slightest doubt that orthodox instruction centers itself on cult — not on teaching about cult, but on life in cult — and thus the diverse “subjects” are only moments in the study of cult. But as soon as they become autonomous and forgetful of cult, in spite of their contents they end up in the orbit of Protestantism. In fact, even if they are orthodox in respect to the content delivered, nevertheless by not being centered on cult they are eccentric in respect to orthodoxy — which is to say they are Protestant.
Never have I found so well stated the basic difference between the traditional conception and practice of readings found in the usus antiquior and the modern conception and practice found in the Novus Ordo. The former is orthodox in the broad but precise sense; the latter is Protestant in Florensky’s sense. The observation that the postconciliar liturgical reform emerged from and resulted in protestantization is commonplace, but generally the focus is on something like the reduction and removal of sacrificial language from the Offertory and the Eucharistic Prayer; seldom is it seen how protestantized is the novel approach to the Scriptures.

The Roman tradition shows us attitudes that match Florensky’s account. In his superb biography of the saint, Fr. Augustine Thompson describes St. Francis of Assisi’s attitude towards scraps of parchment that had the words of Scripture or the name of God written on them, which he insisted should be collected and kept in suitable places, because they were a form of divine presence. This would strike many moderns as superstitious only because we live in a world denuded of sacrality, deaf to the transcendent vibration of symbolism:
For Christians of his age, the words of scripture were not merely didactic reminders of past events or moral norms. As divine words, they were a locus of power. Merely pronouncing them, as when the bishop read the beginning of the four Gospels toward the city gates facing the four points of the compass during springtime Rogation processions, put demonic powers to flight. When used by Brother Silvester over the city of Arezzo, the divine words could, by their very power, end civil strife.
          Now, when Francis began to chant from the book of Gospels as a deacon, he himself proclaimed and enacted the words of power. A perplexed brother once asked Francis about his practice of collecting such scraps of parchment, and he replied: “Son, I do this because they have the letters that compose the glorious name of the Lord God, and the good that is found there does not belong to the pagans nor to any human being, but to God alone, to whom every good thing belongs.”....
          Before, as a simple cleric singing the Office, he had chanted the psalms of David; now, as a deacon, he read the very words of Christ. At Solemn Mass, he did so facing north — the direction of darkness and, for medieval minds, paganism, and thus putting both to flight. That certain clerics treated these powerful and holy texts with disrespect outraged Francis’s acute spiritual sense. To leave sacred books on the floor or in dishonorable places was, in its own way, as sacrilegious as the desecration of the Host. Ever more intensely, Francis associated his own experience before the Cross, his transforming encounter with the lepers, and the divine commission to live the Gospel perfectly with the immediate, unmediated presence of Christ given to each Christian in Word and Sacrament.
In the traditional liturgy, the readings are given “eccentrically,” that is, directed away from the people in a different direction (either eastward or northward). This shows that the Word is first of all a glorification of and an exultation in the truth God has spoken, done on behalf of the worshiping congregation, and only secondarily an illumination of the ones present. A sign that this must be right is that the readings are still read even if no congregation is present to be instructed. (Certainly, the priest may be instructed himself, qua baptized Christian, but the scenario seems absurd from an excessively didactic point of view; one would think, on the didactic model, that readings should be skipped when there is no congregation.) Put differently, the Word of God is greater than and exceeds every gathering of the Church; it convokes but also transcends the Church.

Hence the least proper direction for chanting is directly at the faithful, as if the Word is subordinate to them, rather than they to it. Chanting, or speaking, the readings at the faithful betrays precisely that anti-cultic Protestant conception Florensky critiques. In today’s context the directing of readings towards the people has one and only one meaning: this action is enclosed within the present gathering, having its finality in the reception and comprehension (such as it is) of the listeners. This contributes to the “closed circle” phenomenon that Joseph Ratzinger diagnosed as the primary disease of postconciliar worship.

No one denies that the Scripture lessons have an instructional element. They are intelligible words meant to be grasped by intellect. But the most important element of the instruction imparted is not textual biblical knowledge but fear and reverence towards the infallible, inspired, awesome Word of God, such that we intuitively feel that this book is qualitatively different from any other book, that it measures us (our minds are subordinate to its wisdom) rather than being measured by us (the arrogant error of modern biblical criticism).

That I personally should venerate the Word of God as inerrant and infallible, the purest, highest, and most reliable testimony to divine truth available to me in this life, is an attitude and a mentality I learned from the solemnly chanted readings of the traditional Mass, not from the wearisome wordiness of the Novus Ordo that turns the church into a classroom. It is even enough to see the readings devoutly read at a low Mass by the priest facing the altar to acquire a sense that there is something special about these words, since they are being placed on the altar, as it were, as a verbal homage to God.
In words reminiscent of Florensky, Martin Mosebach in The Heresy of Formlessness writes about how the liturgical announcing of the readings in general, and of the Gospel in particular, are not mere declarations of texts, but are ways of making Christ present in the church:
The reading of the Gospel is far more than “proclamation”: it is one of the ways in which Christ becomes present. The Church has always understood it to be a blessing, a sacramental, effecting the remission of sins, as is affirmed by the “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta” [by these evangelical words may our sins be blotted out] that recalls the Misereatur after the Confiteor. The Gospel’s sacramental character, effectively remitting sins, is surely the decisive argument for its being read in the sacred language. The liturgical signs of the procession make this character particularly clear…. The liturgy had taken over from the court ceremonial of the pagan emperors the symbolic language for the presence of the supreme sovereign: candles, which preceded the emperor, and the thurible. Whenever candles and incense appear in the liturgy, they indicate a new culmination of the divine presence. At the reading of the Gospel the candles of the Gospel procession and the incensing of the Gospel book as well as of the celebrating priest once more indicate the presence of the teaching Christ. The readings are not simply a “proclamation” but above all the creation of a presence.
It is, needless to say, a minority view that the chanting of the readings at Mass is an act of worship directed to God as well as an instruction for the people. In fact, there is something counterintuitive about this idea. After all, it would seem obvious that the reason Scripture is read in the Mass is to educate the faithful. But it is not so simple as a binary “either/or.” The traditional Roman liturgy tends, over the centuries, to turn everything into a prayer directed to God, as if there should be no place in the liturgy for something that is exclusively “for the people.” A great example of this is how the Creed is recited or sung in the usus antiquior. We all know that the Creed is a confession of faith, that it is basically a list of dogmas held by Christians. It has no obvious characteristics of being a prayer directed to God; rather, it looks like a badge of orthodoxy by which we signify our orthodoxy in the sight of the Church. And yet, in the usus antiquior the priest recites the Creed ad orientem at the high altar, bowing the head at the name of Jesus, genuflecting at the Et incarnatus est, and making the sign of the cross at the Et vitam venturi saeculi, concluding with an “Amen.” In this way the profession of orthodoxy has been turned into a prayer to the Triune God, a manner of communing with the One who has graciously revealed His mysteries to man.

What we see with the Credo is what we see with every element in the Mass, Office, and other sacramental rites. The whole liturgy is for God, and in fact its highest educational value consists precisely in communicating to the people the primacy and ultimacy of God, that He is the Alpha and Omega of all our exterior and interior acts, including the act of listening to readings and comprehending them. In a sense, the readings are offered up to God so that we may be offered up to Him in our understanding of the Word and the affections stirred up by it. This is why it does not matter so much whether or not every word is intelligible; what matters far more is to see that this Word is divine, holy, heavenly, that we are standing on holy ground. The verbal comprehension can follow in due time, but we will never grasp the Word rightly if we do not first venerate it as divine and worship the God from whom it emanates and in whose presence it comes alive.

The traditional Roman Rite indicates again and again its fundamental orthodoxy by not treating “the apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel” as mere “books,” but by treating them as “moments of liturgical action, deriving from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edifying meaning, but one even more important — precisely an active, sacramental meaning.” Once more we see how the true meeting of East and West must take place not by means of papal visits to Cyprus or other staged events fueled by hot air, but by means of recovering our common catholic liturgical heritage and purging forever its protestantized simulacrum.

I would be remiss if I did not close with the following ironic observation. Catholic clergy and academics for decades have tended to align themselves with liberal Protestant biblical critics who end up undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. “Traditional” Protestants (if I may indulge an oxymoron) hold much more closely to the authentic Catholic position than today's Catholics often do. We can therefore say that a Protestant who really understood the implications of his own claims about Scripture (the journey of Scott Hahn from evangelical to Latin Mass attendee comes to mind) would necessarily gravitate toward the orthodox understanding of the primacy of the liturgical presencing of the Word, that is, what we see in the classical Roman Rite. In this way, traditional Catholics and “traditional” Protestants have much more in common than either of them has with the mainstream of Catholic academia or the mentality of the liturgical reformers.

Eastward reading in an oriental liturgy

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