Friday, May 06, 2022

Jots, Tittles, and the Roman Ritual

Teodor Axentowicz, Blessing, circa 1899

In addition to the Missal and the Breviary, the Rituale Romanum is among the most important liturgical books of the traditional Roman rite. First codified in 1614 and last edited in 1953, the Ritual contains a priestly blessing for almost every occasion from the cradle to the grave and for almost every object, sacred and profane. In addition to blessings for every conceivable kind of cincture, scapular, and rosary (did you know that there are special rosaries of Our Lord, the Precious Blood, the Holy Trinity, the Seven Sorrows, and St. Joseph?), there are also benedictions for bees and beer, wine and women, mountain-climbing equipment, railroads, and seismographs. Several of these blessings were formerly reserved to particular religious orders and congregations, but today they can be used by any validly ordained priest.

The value of these blessings is immense. Blessings have long held a cherished position in Catholic life for the specific benefits they bestow on body and soul, but they also serve additional functions that are conducive to the good of the Church. One way to appreciate these additional benefits is to view the blessings of the Ritual through the prism of Christ’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount that He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it in its most minute details, even its “jots” and “tittles.” (Matt. 5,17-18)[2]
Fulfilling the Law
In using this prism, however, we must be careful not to think that Catholic blessings and rituals are a literal fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. As we explained last week, the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law were abolished by Christ and are not meant to be repeated. In the words of St. Paul, love is the only thing that fulfills the Law. (Rom. 13,10)
And yet love and caritas are inevitably incarnational: they seep into every nook and cranny of our being, transform without violating, heal and elevate everything they touch, and change the way we interact with the persons and things around us. One way, then, to interpret the blessings of the Rituale Romanum, even the relatively insignificant ones, is as so many of the sometimes inconspicuous acts of love that befit a loving person. These little acts, especially those associated with our daily or annual life, go on to form an ethos and a shared way of life for the People of God, just as the Mosaic Law once helped cement the identity of the nation of Israel.
To understand what I mean, let us examine three basic domains of the Old Law and see how they are transformed in the Rituale in light of the New: field and farm, hearth and home, and ritual purity.
Field and Farm
The Hebrews had a rich rotation of feasts tied to the agricultural cycles of the land, and so too have their Christian counterparts. The 1953 Rituale, with a zest for particular blessings in response to particular situations, contains benedictions for fields or pastures, seed, fruit, oats, young crops and vineyards, first fruits, fowl, cattle and herds (sheep, goats, swine, etc.), horses, lambs, bees, grapes, silkworms, a separate blessing of the harvest, and two different blessings for sick animals. There is also a blessing against floods and a blessing against “mice, locusts, wingless locusts, worms, and other harmful animals.”[3]  But there is one in particular to which I would draw our attention: the blessing of herbs and fruits on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Blessing of Grapes in Armenia on the Feast of the Assumption
From the earliest centuries, in both the East and the West, the Church has blessed herbs and fruit on this day. No doubt this was due to the time of year the feast occurs, for around August 15 many herbs and fruits are being harvested. Still, the custom can be used allegorically to teach us something about our Lady’s role in the economy of salvation. Eve foolishly used herbs (fig leaves) to hide and aggravate her sin, thereby perpetuating the disorder that her sin had introduced to her body and soul. By contrast, Mary, the new Eve whose soul and body are untouched by sin or the decay of death (as this feast celebrates), foreshadows a complete healing of the Elects’ frailties on the Last Day, a healing represented by herbs.
Likewise, fruits are an appropriate symbol for Mary the new Eve because she never ate of the forbidden fruit of sin but brought forth only the fruit of good works and, most importantly, the Fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ. The fruit blessed on this day thus betokens the fruit of a holy and generous life which we are called to enjoy from our Lord through the patronage of His mother.
A synagogue decorated for the Season of First Fruits, 1906
Moreover, as one of the blessings from the Ritual explicitly indicates, this custom hearkens back to the Mosaic Law:
O God, who through Moses Thy servant didst command the children of Israel to carry their sheaves of new fruits to the priests for a blessing, to take the finest fruits of the orchards, and to make merry before Thee, the Lord their God: Kindly hear our supplications, and pour forth the abundance of Thy blessing upon us and upon these sheaves of new grain and new herbs, and upon this assortment of fruits, which we gratefully present to Thee and which we bless on this feast in Thy name. And grant that men, cattle, sheep, and beasts of burden may find in them a remedy against sickness, pestilence, sores, injuries, spells, snake venom, and the bites of other venomous and non-venomous creatures. And may they bring protection against diabolical illusions, machinations, and deceptions wherever they are kept or carried, or with whatever arrangement is made of them: that with sheaves of good works and through the merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose Feast of the Assumption we celebrate, we may deserve to be taken up to where she herself was assumed. Through our Lord.[4]
Simply put, the blessing is understood in terms of the Israelites’ Feast of First Fruits described in Leviticus 23,10. 
Hearth and Home
The Hebrew home was blessed, loosely speaking, in a number of different ways. One of the most dramatic was the sprinkling of the blood of the Paschal lamb on the lintel and sides of the door to avert the Angel of Death during the first Passover (Ex 12,1-14). Another had to do with obeying the commandment of Deuteronomy 6:9, “to write in the entry, and on the doors of thy house” the great commandment, or Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD. Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength.” (Deut. 6,4-5) Pious Jews complied with this command (and still do) with use of a mezuzah, a small cylinder containing the words of the Shema Yisrael that is nailed to the side of the door.
Shema Inscription on Knesset Menorah
The Christian home lives in the spirit of these ancient customs through several blessings found in the Rituale. There are a number of blessings of homes, either for any time during the year or for special feasts such as Epiphany and Holy Saturday and Paschaltide; and of course there are several blessings for holy water, which can be placed near one’s door in a receptacle like the mezuzah.
Another interesting custom is the blessing of chalk on the Feast of the Epiphany. The priest first blesses chalk and sprinkles it with holy water in the church. The faithful then take the chalk home with them and write on the lintel of their front doors the current year along with the letters C, M, and B, interspersed by crosses—e.g., 20+C+M+B+22.
Chalk on door of St. Michael Church, Welling, England
Chalk, as a product of clay, is a fitting symbol for the human nature assumed by the Word whose incarnation the Feast of Epiphany continues to celebrate. The year signifies the time that has elapsed since Our Savior’s birth into human history, the crosses represent Christ Himself and the holiness of the Magi, and the letters represent the initials of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. These same letters can also stand for Christus mansionem benedicat—“May Christ bless this house.”
Having one’s home blessed on Epiphany is itself an appropriate custom, for just as the wise men visited the temporary home of the Infant Jesus and brought Him gifts, so too do we pray that through the intercession of the Magi, Christ Himself may visit our temporary earthly homes with gifts of grace and peace for ourselves, our family, and all our guests. And obviously, this charming custom that involves writing on the lintel of one’s door hearkens to the Old Law’s writing “in the entry and on the doors of thy house,” yet in a way that bears witness to the Christian faith.
Ritual Purity
On the Feast of Candlemas on February 2, we commemorate several events, including the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The former was done in compliance with the Levitical law that a firstborn male, who belongs especially to God, must be bought back or redeemed from God one month after he is born.[5]  The purification, on the other hand, had to do with laws governing ritual purity, in which a woman was ritually cleansed of the blood of childbirth forty days after the delivery of a boy by offering a lamb, pigeon, or turtle dove to God and having the priest pray over her.[6]
Corresponding to Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, there is a blessing of an infant in the Rituale[7] as well as a blessing of children “especially when presented in church for a blessing.”[8] But it is the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary that merits closer attention, for in imitation of her example arose a popular and somewhat curious custom. In Latin it is known simply as the benedictio post partum,[9] the blessing after childbirth, but in English it is better known as “churching,” since it usually takes place the first time that a woman goes to church after having delivered her baby.
Anonymous, Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin Mary, ca. 1535-1545
The Blessed Virgin Mary was a faithful and law-abiding Jew, yet she stood in no need of purification. Certainly, she did not need to be morally absolved of any fault (which was never the function or capability of the Levitical ceremonies anyway),[10] nor did she need to be cleansed of a ritual impurity. Interestingly, the Mosaic Law stipulated that the rites of purification be observed by a “woman who, having received seed,” bears a man child.[11]  Since the Mother of God received no seed but was conceived by the Holy Spirit, she was exempt from this law.[12]
Nevertheless, Mary willingly submitted to the custom, and her precedent was followed by generations of Christian matrons. The early Church made it clear, however, that the meaning of a churching was to be understood in light of the New Covenant rather than the Old. St Augustine of Canterbury, inquiring into what practices he should encourage for “the rude nation of the English,” wrote to Pope St Gregory the Great asking how long a woman who had given birth had to wait before being allowed to enter a church. Gregory replied that she could go to church in the same hour that she delivered if she wanted to, for she is under “no burden of sin.”[13]
The Churching of Alexandra Foley, 2008
The Christian custom of churching, then, concerns thanksgiving for a safe delivery, not the removal of guilt for an activity that incurs none. And it is also, I would add, a psychologically astute practice. The effect of churching is to reintroduce a mother to a sacred place after having doing something of great moment. Because childbirth is: 1) an act fraught with physical danger, and 2) physically, emotionally, and psychologically tumultuous, it is appropriate that a woman: 1) give formal thanks for a safe delivery, and 2) mark her transition away from the trauma or drama of childbirth with a ceremony welcoming her back to the regular rhythms of her spiritual life. One could even think of this postpartum blessing as a kind of spiritual response to the possibility of postpartum depression.
The Corporate, Social Value of the Ritual
We are now in a better position to appreciate some of the hidden value in the blessings of the Rituale Romanum. Even aside from their most obvious good—which is the blessing, be it constitutive or invocative, of people and objects—the ceremonies contained in the Rituale have other advantages as well.
First, the clear relation that many if not most of its blessings have to the Old Law aptly highlights the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. It is true that there is a danger in minimizing the differences between Judaism and Christianity or in mixing them, as we see in the heresies of the Ebionites and the Nazarenes—ancient sects that, to paraphrase St Jerome, in wanting to be both Jews and Christians were neither.[14]  But there is also a danger in forgetting or deprecating those roots, as the heresy of Marcionism makes clear. “Spiritually,” Pope Pius XI declared, “we are all Semites.”[15] In their modest way, the blessings of the Rituale correctly remind us how.
Second, the Rituale’s blessings are particularly helpful in a world where shared, meaningful ritual is on the decline. This is a disturbing trend, for it is an indication of increasing barbarism. According to Confucius, it is respect for and observance of traditional ritual that separates the civilized from the savage.[16] Although it is true that the purpose of the Catholic Church is to produce saints rather than ladies and gentlemen, it would hardly be lamentable if she produced both. Surely this twin goal was behind many of the efforts of the educators, some of whom are now canonized saints, who founded Catholic schools, colleges, and universities in both the Old and New Worlds.
Second, good ritual fosters in men and women a civilizing pattern of behavior that the Latin Fathers of the Church called humanitas, which denotes not simply humanity or human nature but a refined warmth and courtesy.
And third, an advance in genuine humanitas is an advance in pietas, for as the opening lines of St Augustine’s Confessions makes clear, we are most authentically human when we praise and give thanks to almighty God. Josef Pieper, in his delightful book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, writes that the heart of festivity consists “in men’s physically expressing their agreement with everything that is” and that “ritual festival is the most festive form that festivity can possibly take.”[17] “The only fitting way to respond to the gift” of our existence, Pieper adds later, is “by praise of God in ritual worship”[18]—even modern secular festivals, which are often distortions and repudiations of the Christian faith, have “their roots in the rituals of worship.”[19]
But from this follows a sobering conclusion: “There can be no deadlier, more ruthless destruction of festivity than refusal of ritual praise.”[20] Pieper even suggests that the notion of ritual purity, along the lines of making oneself ready for a feast, “should be rethought and recaptured.”[21] Obviously, having a rich roster of specific rituals like those we have examined in this essay pales in comparison to the central ritual worship of the Church, the celebration of the Eucharist: the blessing of wine on St John the Evangelist’s Day, for example, is trivial when compared to the consecration of wine in the Precious Chalice. Yet even trivial things, even jots and tittles, have their place in the Christian constellation of signs and should not on that account be disregarded or suppressed.
Fortunately, a generous use of the Ritual is possible today thanks to several resources. Preserving Christian Publications has a handsome reprint of Philip T. Weller’s three-volume, bilingual The Roman Ritual, first published in 1950. (And special mention should also be made of PCP’s two-volume Manual of Episcopal Ceremonies, which contains the rubrics for bishops on annual ceremonies such as Candlemas and the Rogation Days.) Online, the website has in both English and Latin the blessings formerly reserved to particular orders or congregations, and has a free downloadable pdf of Weller's English translation of the 1962/1964 Rituale, along with additional helpful commentary. Finally, for a lively and informative explanation of many of these blessings, I highly recommend Fr. Arthur Tonne's Talks on the Sacramentals, recently republished by Romanitas Press.
The availability of the Ritual is especially welcome given the post-Vatican-II alternative, the American bishops’ 1989 Book of Blessings. The Book of Blessings has a lovely, heart-warming introduction praising a life rich with blessings, but the rest of the work is crippled by one glaring deficiency: the entries do not bless anything. Or rather, when blessing an object, the prayers actually ask for a blessing of the person using the object rather than the object itself. Further, many of these blessings can be used by the laity as well as by priests and deacons, thereby equivocating on what is meant by a blessing.
All told, the traditional Rituale does not simply enable priests to impart specific blessings on the faithful or their possessions: it gives texture and greater meaning to one’s daily life and annual routine. A life filled with the blessings and rhythms of the Rituale, especially when shared with one’s family or parish, is a life formed by a culture that is both godly and humane. Thanks in part to the Rituale, the Church, that holy nation of the New Law (I Pet. 2:9) called out from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Rev. 5:9), is able to say with the Patriarchs and Prophets of old: “What other nation is there so renowned that hath ceremonies and just judgments, and all the law?” (Deut. 4,8).
This article, which first appeared in the 2012 Christmas 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] “Jot” is the English term for iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, while “tittle” designates a tiny, diacritic point over a Hebrew letter or the dot over the letter “i.”
[3] Benedictio deprecatoria contra mures, locustas, bruchos, vermes, et alia animalia nociva, in Rituale Romanum (henceforth RR 1953), Tit. IX, cap. ix, no. 27, pp. 614-616 [pp. 632-634], §§2105-2112.
[4] Benedictio herbarum in festo assumptionis B. Mariae Virg., in RR 1953, Tit. IX, cap. iii, no. 14, pp. 424-428 [pp. 436-440], §§1421-1435, here §1433, translation mine.
[5] Ex. 13,2; 12-13; Num. 18,15-16. 
[6] See Lev. 12,1-8.
[7] Benedictio infantis, in RR 1953, Tit. IX, cap. iv, no. 3, pp. 436-437 [pp. 448-449], §§1480-1481.
[8] Benedictio puerorum cum praesertim in ecclesia praesentantur, in RR 1953, Tit. IX, cap. iv, no. 5, pp. 439-446 [pp. 451-454], §§1480-1481, §§1489-1500.
[9] Benedictio mulieris post partum, in RR 1953, Tit. VIII, cap. vi, pp. 391-393a [pp. 399-402], §§1277-1290.
[10] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1.
[11] Lev. 12:2. [12] See Summa Theologiae 2. Aquinas even states that it appears as if Moses chose his words precisely in order to exclude the Mother of God from the requirement.
[13] Gregory the Great, Registrum Epistolarum, 11.64. Hence the instructions for churching in the 1839 Paris Manual: “And yet it is a laudable custom, and approved by the Church, in which a woman comes to church to give thanks to God for what she has freely received and for her safety, and to seek a blessing from the priest. For just as the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though consecrated by the divine birth, did not refuse to come to the Temple with gifts as if to be purified, so too may the Christian mother come to the church piously and modestly and, before the Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered, receive a blessing from the priest” (trans. mine).
[14] Epistle to Augustine 75.4.13.
[15] The Holy Father said this to a group of Belgian pilgrims (see La Documentation Catholique, 29 [1938] col. 1460).
[16] See Analects 1:12, 2:7, 3:8, 16:13, 17:19. Indeed, the Confucian worldview goes so far as to consider the rule of law a measure necessary only for the barbaric. Civilized human beings do not need the force of law, only custom and ancestral ritual.
[17] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999) 31-32, emphasis added.
[18] Pieper, 71, emphasis added.
[19] Pieper, 35.
[20] Pieper, 32.
[21] Pieper, 40.

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