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“…how dare we think we can do better?”

I think I’ve dealt with some of my funk. I think. I’ll still feel a lot better once Friday rolls around, but I don’t feel quite so much like the world ended anymore.

Jeffrey Tucker over at The New Liturgical Movement posted a link to Google Books’ digitization of the 7th century Gelasian Sacramentary. He has some choice words for those who might find it, shall we say, not quite in the spirit of Vatican II:

Just looking through it, one is touched by how close a connection we have to history in the Roman Rite. Humbling, isn’t it? How dare we litter this pious masterpiece with our own pop music and pop theology, and how dare we think that we can do better by making up our own words and importing our own sensibility to the liturgy?

Standard disclaimers—I’m not Roman Catholic, and I am really less than qualified to deal with issues of theory and theology. (Let’s be honest; I’m really not qualified to deal with much of anything at this point, which is why I’m trying to get into grad school.) Still, even as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, the Gelasian Sacramentary is part of the spiritual patrimony of the undivided Church, and therefore as much a part of my liturgical heritage as it would be for a Roman Catholic.

With that in mind, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment. What do you mean, “how dare we”? They’re just words men wrote, after all, somebody had to make them up at some point, somebody had to import their own sensibility into the liturgy somewhere along the line, and surely we can make a case, even for a late antique liturgical book, that it is not much more than a product of what would have been the pop culture of its day. All worship styles were “contemporary” when they were first put into practice, right? How dare we not put these things in the language, context, and culture of our own day?

In The Mystery of Christ, Dr. Fr. John Behr speaks about the difference in how truth is thought of between the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern minds. For the pre-modern, truth is found in what something means. If we want to understand this in terms of grammar, this is the Greek present tense—present time, progressive/repeated aspect. In other words, what does it mean right now and on an ongoing basis?

For the modern, truth is found in what something meant—aorist tense, so past time, simple aspect. What did it mean at the point in the past when it was relevant, and then how do we transplant that to today?

For the post-modern, per Fr. Behr, truth is located in what something will have meant—future perfect tense; future time, completed aspect. Real meaning is somehow always something that hasn’t happened yet, but even once it does it will be something looked back upon, not something occurring on an ongoing basis.

I suggest, therefore, that part of the problem Mr. Tucker describes comes from a modern way of looking at the problem and an attempt at a post-modern solution. The “return to the sources” approach is certainly nothing new, but it seems to me that it what one finds there will depend on one’s assumptions. If you begin with the assumption that an old liturgical practice as received today is somehow beyond the comprehension of the average person in the pews (which already cuts off the possibility of talking about what it might mean here and now), then in looking at the historical context for the development of that practice, you’ll find the reasons to justify your point of view—“See? They had that, that, and that happening, and we don’t, which is why this, this, and this practiced in today’s world makes no sense.” A break from the received tradition now having been justified, something can be inserted which will hopefully take hold and become the received tradition down the road.

“Returning to the sources” doesn’t necessitate a lack of continuity, however; sometimes what it can generate is a reminder of of what something means when many people have forgotten. Many Christians in this country have no idea what an Easter basket actually means, for example, since there’s no fasting or abstention during Great Lent to put it into context.

To reclaim what something like the Gelasian Sacramentary means, however, takes effort—no doubt about that. I suspect that for many who would rather insert contemporary-sounding praise songs, it’s an effort that isn’t worth it; “It won’t reach today’s people the way our music does,” I suspect many would say. In other words, it won’t have meant what contemporary music will have, from their point of view, and I also suggest that the problem is exacerbated by the perception that people will go where they hear what they like, and if one church won’t do it, another will. (Which suggests to me that the biggest threat to cohesion among church communities is the automobile, but that’s a different topic altogether.)

What effort would it it take to reclaim what it means, present tense, here and now? Well, I’ll humbly suggest that if people would dare to think they can do better, then it’s up to those who would hold fast to the received tradition to dare to teach them why they won’t do better.

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