Saturday, March 22, 2014

Book Review: Worship as Revelation by Laurence Paul Hemming

Unfortunately I do not have the time to give this book a proper full length review, but I can provide some insight into the content and value of an excellent little volume by Dr Laurence Paul Hemming, a British academic and a deacon for the archdiocese of Westminster. 

Worship as Revelation begins with a commentary on the rites for the dedication of a new church, a new temple of God. The chapter, titled "I Saw the New Jerusalem," lays the groundwork for Hemming's concept of worship as an encounter with the Divine, a participation in the opus Dei. The central words to the rites often repeated, are "I saw." In the presence of the physical temple we see God and the holy things He has prepared for us. The prayers of the priest for the sins of the people make this place holy, as the prayers of the Aaronic priests sanctified the Temple of Jerusalem. The atoning offering within the church is not a new one, as were the offerings of calves in the old Temple, but a renewed one in a renewed world. The re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem following its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes was celebrated for eight days, a prefigurement of Christ's resurrection and renewal of creation on the eighth day of the week, the beginning of the last era of the world. For this reason the dedication of a church is, or rather was, observed for an octave every year, as were over a dozen other feasts. Secondly, the temple or church is the bride of Christ and where the Bridegroom Christ appears. In doing so He bridges the things of heaven and the things of earth, as one of the Mattins antiphons for the feast of a dedication indicates.

Hemming, a scholar of philosophy, traces the loss of this understanding to a pattern of intellectual decadence originating in René Descartes, who although he recovered his Catholic faith after a brief intellectual crisis, made himself the focal point of existence. All he could know initially was that he existed, and from that he could deduce that God exists. Indeed, for Descartes the existence of God was more certain than the rules of mathematics, but the relationship between God and man was still inverted in this schematic. Hemming hardly pins the burden of problems in liturgical theology on Descartes, but does indicate that the tendency to view God from one's own perspective rather than how He actually is might originate in his line of thought.

To the modern mind a man is what he does. To the Christian mind what a man is sets what he does. A Christian, by virtue of his Baptism, is a participant in the liturgy, in the opus Dei. The 19th century debate in philosophy and politics over the identity of modern man, his new needs, and his sense of judgment traced similar shapes of thought in the Liturgical Movement and its unhealthy obsession with the "pastoral." Lost in all of this was a concept of who the Christian is rather than what he supposedly needs.  In such an inverted order of perspective the liturgy is of man, for man, and about God rather of God, for God, and to the benefit of man.

For such a small book Worship as Revelation covers immense philosophical material related to the liturgy, particularly ideas about time and why the Papal stational churches of Lent paralleled Christ's own path to Jerusalem. Another interesting discussion concerning time is the proper translation of the Greek prologue of St. John's Gospel, which would read something to the effect of "Before all time was  and still is the Word...."

Near the end Hemming reflects on the consequence of privatizing the liturgy, of making mandatory spoken recitation of the breviary for example, often with the unintended consequence of making rarer celebrations of the Office in the temple of God, the church. Even more damaging is the constant change in the Roman rite, change which more often than not erased ancient meanings of gestures and prayers. Hemming finds that the violence against the Roman rite began not with Vatican II, but with Pius X's assault on the psalter and kalendar: "the alterations to the breviary exhibited.... an objectification of the liturgy as a whole—something subject to papal fiat" (143). And while grateful to an extent for Summorum Pontificum Hemming approaches the "hermeneutic of continuity" with a healthy skepticism based on scholarship of the liturgical language used in older and newer editions of the Roman Missal. Indeed, Hemming rightly argues for a wholesale return to the liturgy without any of the 20th century reforms (154). A recovery of proper worship and a more fundamentally liturgical outlook in the Catholic Church would mean discarding the Cartesian objectification of things sacred outside of the self and embracing the encounter and experience (in an orthodox sense) of God in time, of entering into God, from Whom we as Christians gain our identity, rather than going in and out of the Divine at our own wills.

Worship as Revelation concludes in a brief study of the liturgical cycle of Epiphany and Candlemas, the period during which Christ appeared to gentiles, took possession of the rule of the world, was worshipped in adoration by those to whom He had appeared, revealed the mystery of water and wine, confirmed His priesthood according to the line of Melchizedek, commemorated His heavenly birth by being baptized by the Forerunner in the Jordan, and took His place in the Temple before the illuminating figure of His Virgin mother—who would symbolize in her ritual action what Jerusalem could become in her Son. 

I strongly recommend this book for those who wish to approach liturgy from a philosophical perspective and would like to define in more specific terms the suppositions of men like Aidan Kavanagh. The gradual accretion of concepts means one must read this book in order of chapter rather than skipping around from chapter to chapter as one can do in some other more disparate books. It is written in a readable way, without long and turgid quotes. The author's perspective is not quite as fresh as Kavanagh's or Schmemann's, but Hemming's contribution is in giving a well defined Latin shape to their general liturgical views. Get a copy!


  1. A propos Des Cartes and his inversion of the natural order of things: according to the DTC he made a pilgrimage to Loreto after his "insight" of "Cogito, ergo sum" in order to give thanks to the Bl. Virgin for finding a way to "save" the dogma of the Incarnation in the light of modern thought.