Modifying ancient liturgies

Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book

I must confess out front that I am no great friend of liturgical innovation. I realise that much of what we do at Christian gatherings was, at some point, an innovation, such as using a language other than Greek (be it Latin or English or any modern vernacular), or singing hymns, or using an organ, or stained glass windows, etc. Nevertheless, I am not generally interested in the creation of wholly new liturgical developments that do not interact with or grow from the existing traditions.

Indeed, one of the great things about the BCP is the fact that most of it is simply an Englishing of Sarum with a few new prayers, and some collects and other prayers translated from other sources. It is a completely traditional innovation in liturgy. It was an attempt to keep in step with both tradition and scripture, being catholic and reforming.

I can also see circumstances for the creation of new orders of worship, of new prayers, as well as adaptations of old ones.

For example, I recently spoke warmly of my church’s use of the ancient Liturgy of St James on the apostle’s feast day.

What I did not say is that we did not use said liturgy precisely as it exists in the editions, translations, and manuscripts.

Why?

Well, first of all, the Liturgy of St James takes around three hours. In the economy (oikonomia) of church life, not every congregation can handle that. My church is a diverse group, not all of whom are yet comfortable with any liturgy, let alone three hours of it. Most lack the stamina for these ancient services. So our priest cut it to an hour and a half, mostly by cutting repetitions.

He also made necessary changes because the rubrics require the presence of quite a few clergy, and all we’ve got are a priest and a deacon (so we’re better off than many other congregations!).

A third set of changes was a modification of the wording because a great many people in our congregation are ESL, often from East Asia but also some Europeans. This was a way to make using this ancient form of worship accessible to them.

A fourth set (I imagine) was the cutting of aspects of the text as we have it that would be simply unacceptable to those of evangelical background who attend our church. This I am not sure of, because I’ve never read the entirety of the text. But, given that some invocations of saints slipped through, I bet others were cut. Now, our priest is himself edging ever higher, but in the oikonomia of parish life, clergy have to tread carefully.

These strike me as four acceptable reasons to tinker with an ancient liturgy, for their main purpose is, while maintaining the heart and core of the worship as laid out, to make it more accessible to the congregation at hand. I think this is the sort of thing that must be done carefully and prayerfully, mind you. We live now over fifty years after Vatican II, and all the liturgical churches of the West have suffered through their share of poorly-executed liturgical experiments done, one hopes, with the best of intentions.

But if we tinker and prod and sometimes shorten the ancient texts with care and reverence, doing so as a means of opening them up to others — surely this is no bad thing?

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The Divine Liturgy of St James, this Tuesday!

This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!

For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.

And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?

It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.

It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.

That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.

It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.

What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?

Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.

That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.

Incarnation and Eucharist

I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.

First the hymn as we know it:

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’

Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:

O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies

Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.

Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).

Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.

Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.

In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.