Friday, April 29, 2022

Professions of Faith: the Perennial Value of Ceremony, According to the Angelic Doctor

Solemn High Mass, St. Stanislaus Church, New Haven, Connecticut, 2013

Among the religions of the world, Christianity stands out for its concern for—one might even say obsession about—the truth. [1] Whereas the other two great monotheistic creeds of the West, Judaism and Islam, focus on a right observance of the Law (orthopraxy), the critical controversies of Christianity have been over the right beliefs (orthodoxy). [2] Our phrase “an iota’ worth of difference” comes from the period after the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), when the bishops of the world agonized over whether Jesus Christ was truly God (homoousios) or merely godlike (homoiousios). The entire identity of the Faith hinged on whether the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet should be added to the middle of a word; there is literally one iota of difference between orthodoxy and heresy, yet that iota makes all the difference.

Christianity’s fixation on truth would seem to put it at odds with a strict observance of ceremony. Judging by the paucity of ceremonial detail in the New Testament, one might be tempted to conclude that it is irrelevant to Christian practice and perhaps even detrimental to it. It is not difficult to think of rubrical exactitude as a Pharisaical prissiness that strains gnats and hardens hearts. Or worse, perhaps religious ceremony misleads the faithful into thinking that a mere pro forma performance of a ritual is adequate for salvation, that redemption is wrought like some kind of witchcraft or voodoo. Such, at least, appears to be the opinion of many free-church Protestants, and it is arguable that some version of anti-ceremonialism was in the drinking water of Catholic liturgical reform a half-century ago.

So where does ceremony fit in a religion which has as its primary aim the Truth and the double love of God and neighbor and not conformity to a particular code of rituals? Does the Good News disdain ceremonialism as legalistic and Pharisaical or as something akin to works righteousness and superstition? Does it tolerate ritual if only kept to a bare minimum, or does it embrace ritual splendor enthusiastically? To answer these questions, let us heed the admonition of Pope Pius XI and go to Saint Thomas Aquinas and to his Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). [3] It is there that we will find a clear yet rather surprising assessment of ceremony in light of the New Law promulgated by the Son of God.
St Thomas Aquinas, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1486
The Meaning of Matthew 5, 17-18
In Matthew 5, 17-18, our Lord states that He has come not to abolish but to fulfill every jot (iota) and tittle of the Law. Since the Law obviously contains ceremonial precepts, perhaps the Son of Man is implying that the Christian life will continue, albeit in modified form, the requirements of Jewish ritual observance.
But as Saint Thomas notes, Jesus Christ’s remark, as well as the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount in which it is found, concerns the moral precepts of the Old Law such as the Ten Commandments rather than the ceremonial precepts, which regulate Israel’s external worship of the Lord God. Christ’s statement does not apply to the ceremonial precepts, for by fulfilling them He did abolish them. (ST 1, ad 4) The ceremonial precepts, such as the rubrics for Temple liturgy and the rules governing ritual purity, were designed by God to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah. Once the Messiah has come, these precepts are automatically nullified: indeed, Aquinas goes so far as to state that observing the ceremonies of the Old Law after the time of Christ’s Passion is a mortal sin (see ST I-II.103.4). The reason for this is that unlike the moral precepts, which are reflected in the natural law and are therefore perennially valid, the ceremonial precepts have the character of a promise, and once a promise is fulfilled, it no longer exists. (ST 1) Persisting in the practice of the old Hebrew rites is therefore tantamount to denying that God has kept His promise to Abraham and the fathers in the person of Jesus Christ. It also smacks of that “works righteousness” to which St Paul was so adamantly opposed. [4]
Joshua Passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant, by Benjamin West, (cropped), 1800
Further, Aquinas is equally clear about the salvific value of certain Christian ceremonies. God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, instituted the seven sacraments whereby we obtain grace, but the rest He left to the discretion of the Church. (see ST I-II.108.2) And although the things that the Church declares sacred are indeed sacred, such as a church building or an altar or the celebration of a feast, they do not in themselves give grace:
In the sacraments of the New Law grace is bestowed, which cannot be received except through Christ: consequently they had to be instituted by Him. But in the sacred things no grace is given: for instance, in the consecration of a temple, an altar or the like, or, again, in the celebration of feasts. Wherefore Our Lord left the institution of such things to the discretion of the faithful, since they have not of themselves any necessary connection with inward grace. (ST 2)
A small side note. I am struck by the precision of Thomas’ language: the institution of sacred things outside the seven canonical sacraments is left to the discretion not of the Magisterium or the clergy alone but of the faithful as well (fideles). Put simply, the laity also play a role in determining what is sacred and what is not. When a Vatican office or even an ecumenical Council ignores the sensus fidelium and rules on the sacred by fiat alone, does it act in accord with this principle?
Rationale for Ceremony
St. Thomas’ rejection of the ongoing observance of the ceremonies of the Old Law leads one to wonder if there should be any ceremonial observances apart from or added to the seven sacraments after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Saint Thomas, however, answers that there should be, and for three reasons.
Marcus Aurelius (head covered) sacrificing at the Temple of Jupiter. Bas-relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, now in the Capitoline Museums.
First, because it is morally obligatory—obligatory not in the sense that specific ceremonies are prescribed by the natural law but in the sense that the general precepts of the natural law need to be determined or specified by additional human or divine legislation; and one of those general precepts is to practice the virtue of religion. Citing Cicero, Aquinas identifies the virtue of religion as one that offers worship and ceremony to God. (see ST I-II.99.3.obj 2) Therefore, while this virtue does not require this or that particular ceremony, it does require that some ceremony be a part of religious practice. (see ST 2) Today we tend to draw a sharp line between the subjects of morality and liturgy or morality and the sacraments, but no such lines exist in the writings of Saint Thomas. In fact, Aquinas’ ethics has been called a “liturgical morality.” [5]
Second, man creates and observes ceremony because it is natural—again, not in the sense that this or that ceremony springs from nature but in the sense that ceremonies as a whole stem from a need inherent in human nature. “Since man is composed of soul and body,” Saint Thomas explains, he needs both external and internal worship, with the external ordered to the internal. (ST I-II.101.2) Good Aristotelian that he is, Aquinas holds that as human beings we ascend to the intelligible through the sensible. This ascent is not obliterated by the gift of supernatural faith; on the contrary, grace presupposes nature, healing and elevating it. Rather than eliminate man’s basic need for external gestures, Christianity fulfills that need with appropriate ceremony. Citing Pseudo-Dionysius, Saint Thomas argues that “the things of God cannot be manifested to men except by means of sensible similitudes.” (ST 3) The sensible similitudes developed by the Church are therefore an essential part of Christian life and understanding. “All ceremonies,” Aquinas writes, “are professions of faith.” (ST I-II.103.4)
Third, Christian ceremony is essential because of our place in sacred history. During the time before Christ, ceremonies foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah as well as the glory of Heaven. In Heaven itself and at the end of time, there will be a divine liturgy [6]—indeed, that is all there will be—but it will have no ceremonies, insofar as there will be no physical similitudes (corporeal gestures, paraphernalia, etc.) mediating our encounter with God. (see ST I-II.101.2) We, the current Church militant, on the other hand, live in between these two times, and so long as the Church militant remains on this world-pilgrimage, she should have ceremonies testifying to Christ’s first coming as well as anticipating the state of the Blessed. Hence Saint Thomas writes that after the Old Law fulfilled its purpose, “other ceremonies had to be introduced which would be in keeping with the state of divine worship for that particular time, in which heavenly goods are a thing of the future, but the Divine favours by which we obtain the heavenly boons are a thing of the present.” (ST I-II.103.3) Aquinas also comments that it is God’s will that these ceremonies should come not from Divine Law only but, as we have noted previously, “from the discretion of the faithful” as well. (ST 2)
Principles of Good Ceremony: The Seed of the Old Law
From the Summa Theologiae we may also cull several operating principles behind good Christian ceremonies. First, although Christian ceremonies should not be a slavish repetition of the Hebrew, it is nevertheless appropriate that they stand in some relation to the ritual and liturgical life of ancient Israel. Aquinas compares the relationship between the Old Law and the New to that of a seed and a tree or an ear and its corn. (ST I-II.107.3) There is obviously a great difference between a seed and a tree, but they also share an affinity and a continuity and a principle of identity as well. In terms of external worship, the early Church did not replicate the altar of incense in the Holy Temple, but she has used incense in her own way. She did not duplicate the High Priest’s vestments and ephod, but she has embraced the practice of sacred vestments with a style all her own (indeed, several styles varying with time, place, and liturgical patrimony). And she did not face west when she offered sacrifice like the Levites on the Temple Mount, but she did adopt the concept of directional prayer by facing east and orienting her altars accordingly. [7] While servile reproduction is forbidden, resourceful and prudent development is an entirely different matter. [8]
The High Priest Offering Incense at the Altar, from Henry Davenport Northrop’s “Treasures of the Bible,” 1894
The example that Aquinas gives is how the “solemnities of the Old Law are supplanted by new solemnities” in the liturgical year. The Lord’s Day replaces the Sabbath. Good Friday and Easter replace the Passover. Pentecost or Whitsunday replaces the Jewish Festival of Weeks, or Shavu’ot. Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, replaces the monthly feast of the New Moon, or Rosh Chodesh, for it is with the Annunciation that there “appeared the first rays of the sun, i.e. Christ, by the fulness of grace.” The feasts of the Apostles replace the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Hashanah. The feasts of martyrs and confessors replace the Feast of Expiation, Yom Kippur. Feasts celebrating the commemoration of a Church replace the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, or Sukkot. Michaelmas, or the Feast of the Angels, and All Saints’ Day replace the feast of the Eighth Day of Assembly, Shemini Atzeret. (ST 4)
The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1867
The 1962 Roman Missal provides additional examples of this principle. The September Embertide hearkens to the Feast of Tabernacles and to Yom Kippur, not only by virtue of the time of the year during which it takes place but by its biblical readings. And the same can be said for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, which echoes the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av that commemorates the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In the Gospel reading for the Ninth Sunday (which like Tisha B’av occurs sometime in July or August), our Lord sheds tears over Jerusalem’s fate after coming from the Mount of Olives, the spot where, more than thirty years later, the Roman legions would commence their devastating campaign against the holy city. By remembering the Destruction of the Temple in this way, the Church offers not only a sober reminder of divine justice and the need for our repentance and conversion, but she also locates our pilgrimage within sacred history and connects our lives to it.
Type and Antitype
Second, the relationship between the ceremonies of the Old Law and the New should be seen in light of biblical types and antitypes. In Catholic thought, a “type” is a person or event or thing in the Old Testament that serves as the foreshadowing of a reality revealed in the New Testament, called the “antitype.” According to this reading of the Bible, which has animated the Church’s exegesis since the days of Saint Paul, it is not simply various prophecies here and there that foretell the Christ event; it is virtually every verse. The Flood and Noah’s ark, for instance, are not simply an example of God’s anger and mercy but an anticipation of the sacrament of Baptism. (1 Pet. 3, 20-21) The Sacrifice of Isaac does not simply reveal Abraham’s great faith but God’s ultimate solution to the problem of sin, the sacrifice of His own miraculously-born-according-to-a-promise, only-begotten Son. And the Exodus story about manna from heaven is, like the Gospel miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, not simply an instance of divine compassion but a type or figure of the Eucharist.
The Deluge, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864
To return, then, to ceremony. For Saint Thomas, the Levitical precepts have both a literal and a figurative meaning or “cause”; that is, there is both a historical or practical reason behind a particular ceremony as well as a spiritual or figurative or mystical explanation. (ST I-II.102.2) Moreover, the same can and should be said of the ceremonies of the New Covenant. The Levitical rites foreshadowed, or were types of, both Christ and our future glory in Heaven. The rites of the New Covenant, on the other hand, are both types of our future glory as well as antitypes of Old Testament figures, reminders of the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham; (ST I-II.101.2) and the Eucharist itself is a figure or representation of our Lord’s Passion. (ST 2). Like the Holy Bible and like sacred architecture, good liturgical worship is woven of things with figurative or typological significance, a fact that is abundantly clear when studying the traditional Roman rite and the Eastern rites of the Church.
Moderate but Splendid
Third, the new Christian ceremonies and observances should be hearty but not burdensome. In comparison to the Old Law, which prescribed numerous outward acts, the New Law of Christ and the Apostles “added very few precepts to those of the natural law, although afterwards some were added, through being instituted by the holy Fathers. Even in these,” Aquinas continues, “Augustine says that moderation should be observed, lest good conduct should become a burden to the faithful.” (ST I-II.107.4)
To offer a few examples: Instead of a long litany of dietary prescriptions, the Church only has us abstain from flesh meat on Fridays and a few other days of the year. Instead of specific instructions about dress and hair, she only says that both sexes should comport themselves modestly and, traditionally, that certain customs regarding headdress be observed in church. (And even when these precepts were more faithfully observed prior to the Second Vatican Council, they still admitted of exceptions and numerous variations based on local circumstance. ) And instead of prescribed rituals for every significant event in the year, the Church provides optional various blessings in the Rituale Romanum (to which we will turn next week).
Saint Thomas’ sense of moderation in ceremony, however, should not be confused with a Gnostic or Manichean disdain for externals, a rationalist intolerance of “useless repetitions,” a pragmatic obsession with efficiency, utility, and time management, or a Puritanical “simplicity” that eschews the gratuitous and effervescent splendor of beauty in sacred worship. When commenting on the Mass, for example, Aquinas writes that “since the whole mystery of our salvation is comprised in this sacrament, therefore is it performed with greater solemnity than the other sacraments.” (ST III.83.4)
That solemnity includes (which Aquinas goes on to defend and explain) an elaborate series of rituals beginning with the Introit that are designed to render the faithful more fit for and open to participation in the divine. Although a priest can validly consecrate bread and wine without the sacred and inessential ritual accoutrements added by the Church, he would be wrong to do so. Indeed, Aquinas concludes, such a priest “is guilty of grave sin in not following the rite of the Church.” (ST 8)
Thanksgiving, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914
Bias Against Change
Fourth, ceremonies not instituted directly by God may continue to develop or be altered, (ST III.83.4) but with due respect for tradition and human psychology. In response to the question “whether human law should always be changed whenever something better occurs,” Aquinas replies in the negative. Saint Thomas begins by citing a passage from the Decretals: “It is absurd, and a detestable shame, that we should suffer those traditions to be changed which we have received from the fathers of old.” [10] From there he notes that although it is good to change positive law when such “change is conducive to the common weal,” it should also be borne in mind that
to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good: because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished. (ST I-II.97.2)
The mere fact of change, in other words, has a destabilizing effect, even if the change is objectively for the better; for changing the law undermines respect for the law. Therefore, great discretion is to be observed in this matter, with a bias in favor of leaving things as they are. In these passages Saint Thomas is writing of civic law, and so we may imagine how much more he would apply this principle to laws and rubrics regulating the sacred. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example, once described what happens when this Thomistic principle is scuttled:
The different phases of liturgical reform have let the opinion be introduced that the liturgy can be changed arbitrarily. From being something unchangeable, in any case, it is a question of the words of consecration; all the rest could be changed. The following thinking is logical: If a central authority can do this, why not a local one? And if the local ones can do this, why not the community itself? [11]
Ratzinger goes on to describe this easygoing itch for change as a recipe for introducing New Age ideologies into the worship of the Church.
We began this essay with a brief consideration of Christianity’s unique purchase on orthodoxy, the correct grasp of matters pertaining to faith and morals. Yet as Cardinal Ratzinger points out in the same speech, the word ortho-doxy means not only right opinion but “right glorying.” To be orthodox is not simply to believe the right things: it is “to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified.” [12] Therefore, even though the orthodox Christian life can never be reduced to a “code of rituals,” the very essence of orthodoxy refers “to the cult [cultus, worship] and, based on the cult, to life.” Man’s ultimate joy, Saint Augustine reminds us at the beginning of his Confessions, is to praise God, and that praise inescapably involves a ritual and ceremonial ordering. We even have a term for such formal, solemn, and vivacious professions of faith: sacred liturgy.
This article, which first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Latin Mass magazine, has been since updated. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here. For a more scholarly treatment of this topic, see Michael P. Foley, “Rituale Romanum: Fulfilling the Jots and Tittles,” in Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 15:1 (2011), pp. 78-91.
[1] This article was adapted from a previously published essay, “Rituale Romanum: Fulfilling the Jots and Tittles,” Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 15:1 (2011), pp. 78-91.
[2] This also applies to some religions of the East. See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today,” May 1996,
[3] Pope Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem 28.
[4] See Rom 3, 20; 3, 27-28; Gal 2, 16; 3, 2-5; 3, 10-14; Tit 3, 5.
[5] See Thomas Harmon, “The Efficacy of the Sacraments for Christian Living,” Antiphon 14.3 (2010), pp. 247-260.
[6] That is, the Wedding Feast of the Lamb variously described in the Book of Revelation.
[7] See Rev. Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).
[8] I add the qualifier “servile” to signify a certain kind of replication or reproduction, the kind that replicates an act in conscious subjection to the requirements of the Old Law. The replication of a Levitical practice is not per se sinful. A Christian can dine exclusively on a kosher diet, as long as he is not doing so for religious reasons; and a Christian boy can be circumcised as long as the reason is medical or cultural, not as a necessary sign of the covenant between God and Abraham.
[9] St Thomas, for instance, teaches that a woman who lives in a place where women do not cover their heads in church does not sin when she follows this local custom rather than the admonition of St Paul (I Cor 11:5-10), “although,” he adds, “such a custom is not to be commended.” (ST II-II.169.2) For some of the (amusing) exceptions to, or rather interpretations of, abstinence from flesh meat, see Michael P. Foley, “Fish on Friday: The One That Got Away,” The Latin Mass 19:3 (Summer/Fall 2010), pp. 43-44.
[10] Decretals, Dist. xii.5, quoted in ST I-II.97.2.sed contra.
[11] “Relativism.”
[12] “Relativism.”

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