Daily Archives: July 2, 2013

On Liturgical History, Meaning, and Function

Again—just a quick thought, but one that I’ve been rolling around for a while in relation to my Prayer Book Spirituality project.

Liturgists, clergy, and those who teach the faith need to be careful when they make claims about the meaning and function of parts of our liturgy based on history.

The reason why things were put in long ago are not necessarily the reasons why they are useful and valuable now. The function that a certain liturgical element had may no longer be the same based on what else has shifted around it.

Liturgies are not just texts—they are always and should be approached fundamentally as enacted practices. However, we do encounter them (particularly historical liturgies) preeminently as texts and we apply principles of textual interpretation to them as we read them and make sense of them.

I’m going to caricature a little bit now… I see some people using historical criticism as a base reading paradigm. As in biblical  scholarship, this perspective believes that identifying when an element came in, where it came from, and why it was added is determinative for what that element means. I wouldn’t agree. I think the history is important to know, but that it operates on the role of being a supplementary fact that may or may not have any real impact on the use and function of an element now.

I prefer to take a reader-response approach as a primary tool among others in my interpretive toolkit. The question I ask, then, is “How have and how do people encounter what’s there largely apart from the original intentions of the authors, editors, and compilers?” This is one of the reasons that I love looking at the late medieval devotional guides for the Mass: they show the wide diversity of actual concrete readings of the liturgy operating from a radical ignorance of liturgical history and development. These texts discover, locate, and/or impose meaning on the liturgy in a variety of ways. Each of these teach us about how meaning can be found in the liturgy. Each of these gives us options to weigh when we start considering how meaning should be found in the liturgy. Some provide very interesting insights worth being recovered. Others—really deserve to be forgotten. But in the act of discovering and winnowing, I think we learn a lot about the process as a whole.

Quick Note on the Creed

This will be brief as I’m seriously crunched for time this week…

If you don’t at least look at the Liturgy blog of Fr. Bosco Peters, you’re missing out on a thoughtful voice grounded in an ecumenical appreciation of our ways coming from the New Zealand perspective. I find him to be a great representative of the best of the Vatican II spirit and tradition in ecumenical liturgy.

His latest post on the Creed, though, I find just plain wrong. He argues for dropping the Nicene Creed in the Eucharist because it serves functionally as a doublet for the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. That is, if I’m reading him right, he’s arguing that both the Creed and the beginning of any decent Eucharistic Prayer are both about the mighty acts of God and therefore the Creed can be considered extraneous. Furthermore, he suggests that the Creed began being used in the liturgy when the Eucharistic Prayer went silent, and that since we are back to a clearly-heard Canon, the utility of the Creed has outlived its purpose.

I disagree. There is some support for the notion of the Creed as a rehearsal of the acts of God if you look at the missionary preaching of the early medieval period. That is, Augustine’s On the Catechizing of the Uninitiated takes the creed as a basic framework for the Christian proclamation. Following Augustine, Martin of Braga (+580), Pirmin (+753), and my buddy Ælfric all use the creedal frame for their communication of the basics of the Faith. But that’s not to say that rehearsal of the acts of God is its only or even primary function. Rather, its primary function was—and remains—to lay down the fundamental boundaries of interpretation within which the Church reads the Scriptures.

As I see it, the Creed was added into the Mass during the Carolingian period because there were a lot of fundamentally unformed Christians. Adding the Creed was a way to put the framework of the Faith and the basic interpretive rubrics in front of as many people as possible.

As I look across the Church, we’re far more in an 8th or 10th century situation than a 3rd or 4th when it comes to formation. That is, there are an awful lot of Christians—and people period—who do not grasp the basics of the Faith. (Even worse are those both inside and outside the Church who think they know it but are woefully lacking…)

We need the Creed.

Furthermore, as we can plainly see, repetition of the Creed alone is not sufficient; it has to be explained and understood. But at least if it’s heard regularly, it provides catechists with a starting point!