Scripture Interpreting Scripture

A number of things have floated across recently including this discussion of English Mass Propers at PrayTell, the appearance of this classic set of Anglo-Catholic Minor Propers and Gospel Canticle Antiphons materials at NLM, and the discussion below and attending link.

Particularly in terms of the discussion at the last link, at Fr. Gregory’s blog, one way to construe the discussion is as the Office either/or; a protestant approach tends to privilege the encounter with Scripture, while the catholic approach tends to privilege the encounter with interpretation. My research indicates that it’s not an either/or but polarities on a sliding scale.

Psalm and Gospel Canticles in the Offices and the Minor Propers in the Mass occupy a particular position  that splits the difference. (We could also throw in Matins responsaries, particularly those of the Temporale but as these are less familiar to most moderns, I’ll leave them aside for now…) That is, these materials are predominately scriptural and yet their function is interpretive.

I’ve suggested before that there are three fundamental mechanisms by which interpretation occurs within the liturgy. Here’s how I’ve spoken about that elsewhere:

I’d like to focus today on three major methods through which the liturgy interprets Scripture: discursive analysis, selection, and pregnant juxtaposition. Discursive analysis appears in composed liturgical texts like prayers, gospel antiphons, proper prefaces, hymns and homilies. This is where a liturgical text explicitly makes an interpretive move—often applying some point from a Scriptural text to the congregation in a moral or typological sense. Examples of this  include the Proper Preface and Benedictions from the Leofric Missal:

From the Proper Preface for Lent I:

…through Jesus Christ our Lord who, for a period of forty days and nights, dedicated this fast—but without hungering. Afterwards he did hunger, not for the food of humans, but their salvation; nor did he lust after dishes of worldly foods, but desired more the sanctification of souls. For his food is the redemption of the people, his food is the complete devotion of a good will. It is he who teaches us not to work for bread alone from which one receives transitory sustenance but it is he himself from which one receives the lesson of the divine Scriptures. Through whom…

(Missal of Robert of Jumièges & the Leofric Missal)

From the Benedictions for Lent I:

May the Omnipotent God bless you (pl.), he who consecrated for the fast the number forty through Moses and Elijah and likewise our mediator [Christ], and grant you (pl) accordingly to steward this present life like the denarius received from the master of the household as a reward, traversing through to the forgiveness of all sins and to the glorious resurrection with all of the saints. Amen.

And may he give you (pl.) the spiritual power of the invincible weapons [cf. 2 Cor 6:7]—which is the example of the Lord—that you may mightily subdue the exceedingly keen temptations of the ancient enemy. Amen.

In him in whom a man may not live on bread alone, but in all the words that proceed from his mouth receive spiritual food, through the observation of this fast and the example of other good works, may we be worthy to attain to the imperishable crown of glory. Amen.

(Leofric Missal)

Homilies clearly fall into this category even though we don’t always consider them as textual elements of liturgies.

Selection is a broad category that ranges from highlighting individual verses—say, for use as Little Chapters at Vespers or Lauds—to identifying large chunks of text as particularly suitable for certain occasions—like selecting Gospel or Epistle texts for Mass. Isolating a single verse out of a text highlights. And even more so if that verse gets repeated for the whole rest of the liturgical season! For instance, the two little versicle and response pairs  from Ps 90 are repeated daily until Mid-Lent.

Versicle/Response following the Lauds Hymn daily until Mid-Lent:

R: He shaded you with his wings; V: And under his pinions you shall trust. [VgPs 90:4]

(Portiforium of St Wulstan)

Versicle/Response following the Vespers Hymn daily until Mid-Lent:

R: God has commanded his angels concerning you; V: That they will keep you in all your ways. [VgPs 90:11]

(Portiforium of St Wulstan)

The effect is that these two verse snippets become an integral part of the monastic experience of Lent. So, whether big or small, selection makes a difference and alters, sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly, how a monastic would encounter that same passage again whether inside or outside of the liturgy.

This principle of selection is the starting place for the third and final interpretative method found in the liturgy. Pregnant juxtaposition starts with selection, but kicks it up a notch by putting two or more selections in relation with one another. That is, the liturgy may take two passages from two entirely different parts of the canon but by placing them next to each other has created, in essence, a new Scriptural concept or narrative. Some of these juxtapositions are smooth—like this one:

Responsory for the Night Office

R: Hide your alms in the bosom of the poor and [the alms] will pray for you to the Lord. For just as water quenches fire, so alms quench sin. [Sir 3:33]
V: Honor the Lord out of your substance, and out of your first fruits give to the poor. [Prov 3:9] For just as water…

We have two gnomic statements on the same theme and they flow into one another without a hitch. Others are more challenging and take on the character of a fundamentally under-determined text. That is, you have two concepts intentionally placed together but with no discursive direction as to how they relate. The under-determined character requires the reader and the whole reading community to actively participate in the process of meaning making by creating comprehensible connections. The second example gives a flavor of a more under-determined juxtaposition:

The Introit for Lent I

Ant: He called upon me and I will hear him, I will deliver him and glorify him. I will fill him with length of days. [VgPs 90:15-16]

Ps: He who dwells in the help of the Most High will remain in the protection of the God of heaven. [VgPs 90:1] Glory be…

Ant: He called upon me… [repeated]

Therefore I modify this connection with “pregnant” because the connection between texts is loaded with potential meaning, but the liturgy leaves it in a potential state, not making it quite explicit.

So—these are three major mechanisms through which Scripture interpretation happens in the early medieval monastic liturgies: discursive analysis, selection, and pregnant juxtaposition.

Christopher mentioned below the possibility of a fuller set of antiphons for the Gospel Canticles within the BCP tradition. Obviously, I’m all for that and, alongside traditional resources and current offerings like The English Office and A Monastic Breviary have sought to include both psalm and gospel canticle antiphons in the St Bede’s Breviary.

If we’re going to talk about these antiphons, though, we might as well include the Minor Propers within the discussion as they are perfectly analogous to these antiphons albeit appearing in a different liturgy—the Mass rather than the Office.

I’d love to see a supplement—whether authorized or not (and I’m guessing that “not” is much more likely at the current time)—that is rooted in both the historic Western liturgy (i.e., Sarum and Roman sources) and is sensitive to the Post-Vatican II realities of our present liturgies that offers interpretive Scripture to enrich the BCP. I believe that there have been some useful starts towards this but nothing that fully embraces this scope.

What are your thoughts? Is it even worth the effort to proceed on a project of this magnitude?

1 thought on “Scripture Interpreting Scripture

  1. Christopher

    In both counts, I would hope that the privileging of texts is done in such a way that the goal is encounter with Jesus Christ. I was once dismissed for suggesting that there is indeed a sacrifice present in the Offices, that is, that in some way Jesus Christ is truly present to us. And so in the case of the Offices through word. St Augustine’s fuller sense of the sacramental understands this, as does Luther’s sense of the word. A Benedictine approach avoids the Protestant/Roman Catholic trap by saying yes on both counts as you seem to do here, and says yes, because of the theological core: Christ above all else. This theological premise should be central in organizing both the selection and the interpretation. As I think it did for Cranmer through the justificatory lens, which is none other than a christological lens emphasizing that God alone saves.

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