Friday, February 27, 2015

Blessed Are They Who Hear the Word of God


Never has the Word of God been more discussed than in the last two centuries. Vatican II's Dei Verbum is an entire document on interpreting it. Protestantism is an entire religion founded on most of it. Nineteenth century German biblical scholarship assured us it was mostly second century bosh while late twentieth century scholarship has shown it originated frighteningly proximate to Christ and the Apostles. The average American household owns four copies of it. Never before has it been more read, more discussed, and less heard.

Our modern relationship with Scripture is abecedarian. A layman sits at his reading desk or cozies himself in his arm chair in quiet repose, opens his Ignatius Study Bible to whatever section of the Johannine gospel looks interesting, and reads while imagining the events described, as though he is the woman at the well. Could anything be more Ignatian? Could anything be more modern? Could anything be more removed from how our fathers in the faith interfaced with the Word of God?

The dispute over the place of liturgical theology and the value of the pre-20th century Roman rite—the real thing, I call it—is closely related to a long lost dispute over the place of Scripture in the liturgy. The Byzantine rite long replaced most of the Scriptural portions of the liturgy with hymns and symbolic gestures, although readings of substance remain at Vespers for great feasts and the pre-Sanctified weekday rites of Great Lent. The un-reformed Roman rite retained the place of Scripture from ancient times, although some abbreviations took place, such as the reduction of the psalm verses in the introit. Holy Writ narrated the Mass and the Office. The liturgy was how people encountered what we call the Bible. Liturgical worship outside the Eucharistic sacrifice culminated in the reading of the words of Christ by the herald of the Gospel, the deacon, from a lecturn or ambo in the midst of those destined to hear it. In the Roman rite this singing of Christ's words took place in medio choro, in the Greek rite from an enormous stone ambo in the center of the Hagia Sophia.

In neither of these settings was the place of proclamation a rival or equal to the altar of sacrifice that so much heterodox architecture now presents it to be. The Gospel was sung from a prominent place amid the congregation. The Eucharist is offered from the most prominent point, somewhat veiled, and removed from the congregation until Holy Communion. The Word anticipates the Sacrament as it did for the Israelites in the desert of Egypt.

source: lamprotes1 on YouTube

The Gospel was sung either in vernacular or in a mostly intelligible language proximate to the common tongue. Slavonic is near enough to most Slavic languages as is Latin to French and Italian. If not directly understood, the gospel readings would be comprehended to some degree and decorated with some ornament of mystery. A few oddities did and do exist, like Classical Arabic, which is far removed from vernacular Arabic. We Anglophonic men also seem to have been born outside of the Lord's good liturgical graces, condemned to a bastard Germanic language well removed from the tongues of liturgy.

Above all the reading of the Gospel was the greatest encounter with the spoken word of God a human being would have. God the Holy Spirit spoke by the prophets and Christ spoke to the Apostles His commandments. Christ wrote nothing, but He did say, "Blessed are they who hear the word of God and who keep it." The extravagant actions of the Greek rite and the Scriptural narration of the Office and fore-Mass in the Roman rite climaxed with the solemn speaking of God-made-Man. The words of Christ and the actions of Christ are renewed in the presence of the faithful for their edification and holiness. Previous generations, enriched in their poverty of electronic entertainment and television, understood that anticipation and fulfillment meet the imagination's ideas about God. Gestures, actions, and words together synthesize into a taxis which follows the plan of Revelation: the anticipation of the prophets and the fulfillment of Christ.

The marriage of Protestantism and book-printing changed the purpose of the word of God in people's minds. What was something sacred and removed became a pocket-size product for individual interpretation and personal consumption. A Romanian friend once confided that his mother had never heard of a Bible before she came to America: "Oh yes, we have the prophets and the gospels, but not everything bound up in one nifty package." St. Augustine recalls in his Confessions that when the child said "Take and read" he picked up the letters of St. Paul, not the Revised Standard Version. There is nothing wrong reading the Scriptures on one's own outside a liturgical setting for knowledge or spiritual meditation, but who will deny that generally the accessibility of the words of God has resulted in a decline of reverence for those words. God's word has become my Bible. Some well meaning but very lost celebrants of the Pauline spoken Mass try too hard to imbue rediscovered significance in the spoken Gospel by "proclaiming" the "Good news" in theatrical voices punctuated by long, awkward pauses and eye-piercing stares at the congregation. Father, you are trying too hard. The religion founded on [most of] the Bible has reduced the Bible's gravitas. Combined with emotionally and intellectually dulling forms of entertainment like television, the abecedarian approach to Scripture given to us by the Protestants has removed our awe in encountering and keeping the Word of God when we hear it.

In spite of these losses, hope is not gone. Even in the reformed rites of Holy Week ('62 or Pauline) people find the non-Sacramental gestures and readings powerful. People attend these rites for these ceremonies and readings almost exclusively. Were Thursday of Holy Week just a Mass, how many would attend? Most go because of what makes it unique: the reading of the Mandatum periscope and the washing of the feet. The same is true for the singing of the Passion and the adoration of the Cross on Good Friday as well as the blessing of the fire and the prophecies on Holy Saturday. They are going to find Christ in His words and actions, something previous Catholics were able to see more regularly than we can, who Platonically peer into the water which reflects the Sun those before us saw so brilliantly.
source: the Pit


  1. I have always thought that less is more. Any Byzantine-rite Christian can tell you what Lazarus Saturday is about, but who off the top of their head can remember what the readings are for the postconciliar Roman-rite Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent (Year A or B)? We have the Church to sort out what are the most sanctifying parts of Scripture to hear, that's why the Lectionaries of the various rites sample so little of the Bible. By contrast, Protestants only have Sola scriptura, which in practice means they have to treat every part of the Bible as equally important.

  2. Hey now, to be fair to our bastard Germanic language... It sounds a thousand times better than the mother tongue. A Catholic Mass done in Tudor English can be awe-inspiring.

    1. When English is spoken without all the Franco-Latinisms, it is actually a very attractive language and by no means inapt for the celebration of the liturgy. It is to William the Bastard of Normandy that we owe the unfortunate adulteration of our language.

    2. You, Sir, are being guilty of what Master Fowler so aptly named "saxonism". It is to the Norman Race that we owe the Cathedrals, Customaries, Cartularies, &c., which you so treasure.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.