Sunday, 14 September 2014

Liturgy, Revelation, and Tradition

The liturgy is the primary font or source of our knowledge of revelation. It takes precedence, I would argue, even over the extraordinary and infallible pronouncements of the popes or ecumenical councils, for it is the ordinary, normal context wherein Christian worshipers encounter the divine realities in such a way as to participate in them contemplatively and prayerfully. Encyclicals and councils serve the primarily didactic purpose of informing the intellect of the individual truths of faith – a necessary thing, in the Christian life. But the liturgy does this and more. The liturgy is where this formation of the intellect bears its fruit in the living out of faith. The liturgy is faith in practice. It is where Christians receive revelation, believe in it, and act upon that belief by directly worshiping their Creator. 

Certainly, Christians ought to worship even outside the liturgical context, and the knowledge of the faith provided by encyclicals and documents and textbooks can serve as an aid to this purpose. But such sources are not immediately directed to this purpose; their immediate purpose is simply the formation of the intellect. Through them, the intellect acquires knowledge and understanding of what the truths of faith mean. But the liturgy, more than this, is immediately directed to the purpose of the worship and adoration of God, inwardly and outwardly, with the fullness of one’s being. In the act of reading an encyclical one is not necessarily worshiping God, here and now, except in a remote sense; one is simply reading. But in the liturgical act, one is worshiping God, here and now. 

Revelation must consist, not in the work of man in coming to know God, but in the work of God revealing Himself to man. Man of his own power is unable to know God except in a very imperfect way, by natural reason. But in the supernatural realm, it is God who must reveal Himself, or else man will not be able to respond at the supernatural level necessary for his sanctification, and ultimately, salvation. It is certain that God has revealed Himself through the writings and preaching of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, as represented in the documents of the Old and New Testaments of Scripture. Indeed, after the death of the last of the Apostles, Catholic dogma holds that there is no new revelation - that God ceased to reveal truths about Himself. From that time forward, there was a fixed deposit of revelation, to be guarded and passed on by the hands of the Church. But in some sense, the action of the Church is a continual re-presentation of the body of revelation, and so revelation as an action - whose content does not continue to grow - is a continual process. This process is the repeated revelation of the same truths which were first revealed before the death of St. John.

This action of repeating revelation must also be the work of God and not of man, except insofar as man participates in the work of God as a secondary cause or instrument. This is done in several ways. Probably the first way that is likely to come to mind for modern thinkers is the study of the science of sacred theology. This is the systematic approach to revelation, which takes the truths of the deposit of faith and organizes them so as to see their connections, implications, and consequences for the life of the Christian soul. A second way is in the action of the hierarchical Church, represented in the writings of the popes and ecumenical councils. This often relies greatly on the systematical approach of individual theologians. Both of these media through which revelation is communicated are in an obvious sense the work of men, insofar as it is men who are theologians and men who are popes and men who write for ecumenical councils. But in another, deeper and more important sense, these media are the work of God, insofar as the men involved conform themselves to some prior standard which can be known with certainty to be established by God - this standard is called the rule of faith. The rule of faith is represented by scripture and tradition and whatever in the Church has been established infallibly. Ultimately, all of these must be reduced to the second, namely tradition, for in the history of the Church tradition came prior to the scriptures and to extraordinary pronouncements, and these themselves were absorbed into the tradition. Catholics were believing and practicing their belief before there was a New Testament, and before the first ex cathedra declaration or ecumenical council. This shows that the New Testament and the teachings of the Church hierarchy had to be founded on none other than tradition.

No less can be said for the sacred liturgy. The liturgy too is a medium through which revelation is communicated. Indeed, as stated before, it is the definitive and primary context where in this communication and reception of revelation occurs for Christians, precisely because it is the central act of Christian worship. Worship is the principal act of religion; all other acts are vain unless directed to the act of worship. Thus, all those actions which are immediately directed to worship, as they are in the sacred liturgy, cannot be anything else but the most important and primary aspects of the Christian life. This is pre-eminently true of the liturgical act of revelation. All the more, therefore, must it be true that this act must be carried out in conformity to the prior standard of tradition.

In the study of scientific theology, as well as in the dogmatic pronouncements of the hierarchical Church, the tradition is best and most efficaciously expressed when not only are the basic truths accurately represented, but they are also represented in a manner that is continuous with the way that tradition itself has represented them. In an encyclical the Pope might state a truth of the faith, without error, but in a manner that differs from how it was expressed before, and in departing from the traditional manner of expression he might risk the loss of certain spiritual and theological emphases originally intended for the edification of the faithful. which originally contributed much to the spiritual edification of the faithful. Christian piety and understanding is often formed by these seemingly external, but very subtle and potent emphases which surround a particular doctrine. This kind of piety results in the growth of certain  traditions which continue to feed the piety of future generations. It would be a crime to rid the faithful of such traditions, even if nothing explicitly false is said concerning the central doctrine around which they all revolved. It is a particular technique of neo-Modernist theologians, as described by Pius XII in Humani Generis, to hack away so relentlessly at such traditions that the central doctrines themselves are subtly attacked or obscured.

A similar thing occurs in those reforms which do away with liturgical traditions. While a liturgy may easily be concocted which is orthodox in its explicit verbal content but departs from ritual traditions, such a liturgy would risk obscuring the many subtle but powerful messages previously conveyed through the rites which formed around the expression of the articles of faith. The traditional understanding of the faith is likely to be lost, and the act of worship itself will thereby be altered. This risk is present even when changes are made in seemingly small and unimportant aspects of the liturgical rite. Traditionally, the depth of liturgical symbolism was interpreted to extend to far more than just the texts, but also to their order and arrangement, and the ritual actions connected to their recitation, the structure and layout of the liturgy as a whole and all its parts, and all of this on many layers permeating the whole. Seemingly small changes thus have the potential to do real and significant damage to the clarity of tradition and its expression of the faith. (This is not always the case, of course: it is certainly possible to introduce changes that further clarify and enhance the liturgical expression. Such changes are by their nature in harmony with tradition. Some changes, though perhaps intrinsically harmless, nonetheless have no real justification.)

For both theology and liturgy, such a departure from tradition would most often represent a departure from the work of God Himself. God works not merely in the giving of individual doctrinal propositions, but also in the growth and formation of the Church’s understanding of sacred doctrine, the piety of Christians in connection with the truths of faith, and the consequent acts of worship and adoration, especially in the liturgy. 

History itself testifies in some way to this superhuman activity of God in tradition. It is impossible to take any individual or group of individuals at any period of history and say truly that he, or they, invented the liturgy. The liturgy, from the human point of view, was formed from the work of centuries of Christians over time. As such, it was not formed by the conscious creative effort of men. Conscious creativity is only ever the work of men in a given time. The work of ages conditions, limits, and regulates the creative work of man. In the history of the liturgy, human creativity was thus always subordinate to the greater whole which had formed, not at any given time, but through the ages of history, and thus independently of human creativity. Certainly, men contributed to the liturgical development, but they did not create the liturgy: each contributor only ever worked within the conditions set by past liturgical history. So the question arises, what – or Who – is responsible for the creation of the liturgy as a whole? It can only be God.

In this respect, the liturgy and its history can be compared to history itself, in general. At first sight, with a view of the particular events of history, it may seem that men are indeed the creators of history. But this view is inaccurate precisely because it is only of each particular event that men are the authors or creators. If history as a whole is understood to be more than just a series of such events, but a coherent whole progressing towards defined ends, history begins to appear largely independent of the work of man. Man, for all his creative genius, could never have planned out or fashioned how history progressed. From the point of view of man, history just happened. Absolutely speaking, it was authored by none other than God Himself. 

The liturgy is similar. The main difference is that it has a different set of immediate defined ends or goals than history in general has. Also, because it is not identical to history per se, it is possible for men to create liturgies, or some semblance of liturgies. Nonetheless the analogy holds insofar as it is the liturgy of tradition that developed independently of human creativity. And because the liturgy has the worship of God and the communication of revelation among is direct purposes, it is all the more necessary, in a moral sense, for the liturgy to be allowed to continue to grow naturally, rather than created by human genius. From the point of view of Christians, the liturgy must be allowed to just happen, just as history happens, and just as revelation happens. Liturgy, history, and revelation are not created by men. Almost the reverse is true: it is men whose lives, both worldly and spiritual, are formed and conditioned by the liturgy, by history, and by revelation. 

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