Liturgical Encoding of Hermeneutical Practices

As I listened to the Exsultet and the Vigil on Saturday night and again to the lovely version linked to by bls, I’m struck again by what I often find when I dip into antiphons, responsaries, and many of the minor propers for feasts: they are modeling devices. That is, the way that they relate the Scriptures to one another is deliberate and intentional. I haven’t done a full enough study to say that it’s consistent.

What’s going on here is that the early medieval church in the West set up a cycle—perhaps curated is a better word—a liturgical cycle. At some point. McKinnon sets a significant part of this activity (at least for the Mass) in the late 7th century and since his book folks have been debating as to whether or not he was right.

In any case, they connected together pieces of Scripture that they thought fit, and wrote texts like the Exsultet that laid out how they understood theology and therefore the ways that Scripture ties together.  Their understandings of what was normal and proper and fitting are grounded in the patristic material that they absorbed and from the ecclesial perspectives that they brought to it. When these texts are sung together by later generations, the connections are made and reinforced even if they are not expounded. That is, simply from singing the Mass year after year, connections between various biblical texts get made because of how they function liturgically. As a result, texts like the Exsultet and the way that the propers hang together both encode and transmit a very particular set of understandings about biblical interpretation and how it’s properly done. Modern Roman and Anglican congregations that are rediscovering the minor propers are moving back into a stream of transmission that has patterned the Western Church’s encounter with Scripture over centuries.

The Historic Western Liturgy itself transmits a patristically-grounded early medieval method for reading and praying Scripture.

Perhaps some day I’ll have the time to line things up properly and make a thorough study of all of this…

7 Replies to “Liturgical Encoding of Hermeneutical Practices”

  1. It’s been years since I’ve formally studied any of this, but it seems to me that the Patristics, in turn, took a cue (conscious or otherwise) from the Rabbinical/Midrashic tradition? I think of Origen studying with his unidentified “Hebrew,” and those Midrashim, although not liturgical per se, certainly love to link disparate sections of Tanakh together in often surprising ways.
    However you slice it, though, it’s fascinating, and I’d be curious to see a study go in the directions you’re talking about.

  2. Yes, there is a common style of word-linking patterns but I wouldn’t quite call it Rabbinic/Midrashic entirely. What you’re describing was a fairly common way of reading Scripture in the Second Temple period. I’d rather say that this way of reading was in the DNA of both groups that grew to become early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

    As a teaser, here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about that I posted from the dissertation a few years back.

  3. Is it possible that the tradition, of collecting assigned topical verses to be recited or chanted amidst the psalms and liturgical prayers, is itself of actual, patristic origin? In the East, there are the stichera collected in various sticheraria, and the repeated, short troparia. Makes me think this was a very widespread and very deeply embedded tradition.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this several days, Derek. For various reasons, I wonder if the word encoding in your title and in ‘As a result, texts like the Exsultet and the way that the propers hang together both encode and transmit a very particular set of understandings about biblical interpretation and how it’s properly done’ might be replaced with something like ‘instantiate’ or ‘exemplify’ or ‘model’?

    I’m working on an essay about the far-reaching malignant consequences of the ‘doce’ trope in interpretation, especially in biblical interpretation….

  5. I took encoding be to a information science/genetics metaphor to mean translating an instruction-set into a repository for transmission over time. When followed later instruction-set causes or sets into motion, depending on the environment, a recapitulation or re-enactement of, or at least a tendency toward, a previous state, ability or process.

  6. Brian’s got it. I am using “encode” in a biological sense thinking along DNA lines. That is, this is an interpretive form that gets transmitted from age to age without the need for a conscious teaching practice—it’s simply *there* for those who use the traditional forms. However, it’s only there in a latent or potential way most of the time. While I think it does exert an unconscious influence, I’d like to raise it to the level of consciousness.

    In earlier periods, the clergy and monastics who read the Night Office didn’t have to have it made explicit because the reading of the Fathers in Matins was the explicit teaching tool and the propers and other liturgical means were the subtle reinforcers. Without the regular reading of the Fathers, these liturgical bits become the main transmitters.

    (Too, this teaching was never spread as widely as intended in the early and later medieval periods because of both the liturgical language barrier and because the readings at Matins were the experience only of the religious professionals.)

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