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?

Christmas: The Leonine Sacramentary (and Leo the Great!)

Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome
Fourth-century nativity, Palazzo Massimo, Rome

Merry Christmas! (Don’t worry about my celebrations, I’m writing this post in advance!! Skip ahead to the prayers I’m talking about if you like.)

This Advent I explored the collects for the season from the Sarum Missal,1 taking us on a journey of expectation, calling upon the Lord to come down into our lives and stir up our own souls to do good deeds as well as to succour us in the midst of our own sinfulness. My original plan had been to approach Advent from the angle of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, as I’d been posting about Late Antique and Early Medieval liturgy in November,2 but I discovered that those liturgical books I have easiest access to give us nothing for Advent. But Christmas is a different story.

I turn our attention now to the Leonine Sacramentary. This liturgical book is not, technically speaking, a sacramentary. Sacramentaries are precursors to missals and have in them all the things you need for the feasts of the liturgical year and the saying of the Mass. The Leonine Sacramentary, ms Verona lxxxv, of the seventh century, is a collection of prayers to be said at Mass, arranged by the secular year, and does not include the actual liturgy of the Mass. The manuscript is damaged and begins in April.

It was initially imagined to be by Leo the Great because of how old it seems to be, and because Leo is said to have made some modifications to the Roman liturgy. The collection is texts is now thought to be later than Leo but likely draws upon much fifth- and sixth-century manterial. From what I understand, it is a ‘pure’ ‘Roman’ form of the liturgy, from a time before the West was engaged in a lot of cross-pollination between Frankish Gaul/Germany and Italy, or the Eastern Mediterranean and Italy.

Let’s look at the text.

Using the Ballerini edition of the 1750s (because it’s right beside me, repr. Migne, Patrologia Latina 55), we can see a nice variety of prayers for ‘VIII KALENDAS JANUARII’ — that is, 25 December. The first immediately catches my eye:

God, who wondrously established and more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance, grant, we beseech Thee, to us that we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son, who was judged worthy to participate in our humanity. Through …

Frankly, this prayer is more than enough for a blog post!

Could anything me more Leonine? The balancing of ‘wondrously’ (mirabiliter) with ‘more wondrously’ (mirabilius) is a strikingly Leonine parallel, as when this great pope speaks in his Tome (Ep. 28) of Christ’s birth that was singularly wondrous and wondrously singular. At a deeper level, the issue of ‘human substance’ is itself a deeply ‘Leonine’ theological concern (I refer the reader to J Mark Armitage, A Twofold Solidarity: Leo the Great’s Theology of Redemption) — Jesus Christ is consubstantial with us through his birth through St Mary the Virgin and with God the Father through being God, the Word, Incarnate.

This double consubstantiality is essential for salvation, and it is what is at stake in Leonine Christology when Leo begins arguing about ‘two natures’. If you read the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, this is what the Council Fathers were very concerned about as well — that Christ took on full human flesh from His Mother and was thereby fully human. It is a concern that, in these terms, reaches back to the First Council of Ephesus in 431, but goes even farther to the fourth-century argument against Apollinaris of Laodicea who maintained that Jesus did not have a human soul. As St Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it (Ep. 101):

What has not been assumed has not been healed.

Through Jesus Christ’s participation in our humanity (to return to the text of the prayer), God has ‘more wondrously reformed the dignity of the human substance’. As I say, the thoughtworld is deeply, inescapably Leonine here. I am revelling in it as I type.

And what is the actual petition in this collect? ‘That we may be sharers in the divinity of Jesus Christ your Son’.

This, my friends, is Theosis. We, as the adopted children of God, enjoy by grace what Christ enjoys by nature. He was a participant in humanity. We can participate in divinity. He became man that man might become God (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.3).

Quick closing musings. We should not be surprised that a Veronese liturgical codex of the 600s has such strong Leonine influences, especially on its Christmas prayers. Christmas is when Leo is most quoted. Furthermore, I think that Verona is in that part of Italy that entered in to schism with Rome over the ‘Three Chapters’ following the Council of Constantinople in 553 (the Istrian Schism) — the final reconciliation did not occur until during the pontificate of Pope Sergius in 700. The ‘Tricapitoline’ Christians in northern Italy were hardline, conservative followers of Leo and Chalcedon who felt that the council of 553 had abrogated Chalcedon, and therefore Leo the Great. Leo, as a result, was very close and very dear to their hearts. That his theology would penetrate a Veronese codex, then, is no issue.

As you reflect on these rich theological truths, rooted in Scripture and tradition, I hope that the joy of Christ’s Nativity will fill hearts with joy!

Merry Christmas! Christus natus est!


1. These posts are: Advent 1, Sarum: Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord; Advent 2, Sarum: More Stirring up!; Advent 3, Sarum: Give Ear to Our Prayers; Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy Power and Come
2. Ancient and Early Medieval Prayer 1: An Invitation; 2: Why; 3: Sources