Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Red Book on liturgical services


             This post is the third in a series.  Previous posts in the series can be found here and here.
             In this post I examine the chapter of The Red Book which speaks of liturgical services—i.e. gatherings of Christians at which a set form of service is used, whether formally liturgical (using a printed service where the words are provided in advance), or informally liturgical (with the material, to quote the authors, “unwritten, but just as mechanical and predictable as if it were set in print”)   To their credit, Valentinus and Marcion recognize both types of service as essentially liturgical, since even traditions not having a set liturgy still prescribe in advance the basic order of service.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, this existence of liturgy is bad—Sunday mornings are thereby “set in concrete”, are “ironclad”, with the order of worship therefore “perfunctory”.   All such set worship is unbiblical:  “You can scour your Bible from beginning to end, and you will never find anything that remotely resembles our [Protestant] order of worship...In fact, the Protestant order of worship has about as much biblical support as does the Roman Catholic Mass.”  For Valentinus and Marcion and their intended readers, of course, the “Roman Catholic Mass” is the epitome of corruption.  Their verdict is plain:  “Both [Protestant and Roman Catholic services] have few points of contact with the New Testament.”
            We have seen that for the authors of The Red Book, anything differing from the praxis of the first century church is necessarily a corruption.  Since the Eucharist (to use a later term) was part of a meal in the first century churches to which St. Paul was writing, this means that it must continue to be so for us today.  Our authors characterize the worship of those early days as “marked by every member-functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy and open participation...a fluid gathering, not a static ritual.”
            Unwarranted dichotomies aside (can’t rituals be vibrant?), this is a not unfair assessment of the sacramental meals held, for example, in the Corinthian church to which Paul wrote.  But as we have said in our previous post, soon after this, under the authority of the apostles, the ritual elements of the meal were separated from the social ones, and the Eucharist separated from the agape/ love feast.  By the end of the first century, the Eucharistic partaking of consecrated bread and wine was held before dawn on Sunday, with the love feast/ social meal held later on that day (possibly at another location or locations). 
This is crucial to understand, because spontaneity, open participation and fluidity still characterized that social meal, the agape—but not the Eucharist.  People having a meal together of course interact.  There may be set prayers (whether a short “table grace” or more formal and lengthy prayers), but in between the prayers there is lots of time for talking and socializing, for sharing and spontaneity.  This is where “fluidity” is possible, for social interactions are not scripted.  From the late first century onwards, when the Eucharist was separated from the agape meal, fluid and unscripted social interaction took place during those meals and were confined to them. It follows then too that at the Eucharist held in the morning, there was no such informal social interaction or fluidity, but rather set ritual.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, such lack of social freedom invalidates the whole event.  They ask rhetorically, “Let’s suppose that the authors of this book attend your own church service.  And let’s suppose that the Lord Jesus Christ puts something on our hearts to share with the rest of His body.  Would we have the freedom to do it?  If not, then we would question whether your church service is under Christ’s headship.”  As one reviewer of The Red Book perceptively asked, “So, in short, [the author’s] measure for whether Jesus is in charge is whether he’s allowed to interrupt proceedings any time he thinks Jesus is talking to him? Doesn’t this beg the question of whether [he] is imagining such communications?”  Nicely put. 
            In fact (as the above reviewer also pointed out), the Christians of those early centuries assembled at the Eucharist not to express their own individual ideas, share their own individual stories, or sing their own individual song selections.  They came together as a body, to perform a set of corporate actions—that of listening to the Scriptures as a body, interceding as a body, exchanging the Peace among themselves, and offering up the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a body, led by the prayers of the one presiding.  To quote our perceptive reviewer again, “The early church was collectivist; expression was NOT ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’”.  In contrast to the early church, The Red Book “goes constantly wrong is in that [it] unwittingly panders to selfish individualism”.
            For Valentinus and Marcion, the history of liturgy is the history of a catastrophic downward spiral.  They trace many elements of the Protestant liturgical tradition to their origins, such as the “altar call”, the centrality of the sermon, the use of “the sinner’s prayer”.  This is salutary, since it reveals these elements to be of recent vintage, and not a part of the Church’s historic inheritance.  But it does not look at that historic liturgical inheritance in any real way.  In a footnote we read, “The story of the origin of the Mass is far beyond the scope of this book.  Suffice it to say that the Mass was essentially a blending together of a resurgence of Gentile interest in synagogue worship and pagan influence that dates back to the fourth century.”  It is difficult to know how to respond to such unhistorical twaddle.  To find such a combination of heated polemic and historical ignorance one usually has to peruse the pages of an Awake! magazine such as is thoughtfully provided by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  “Suffice it to say” that the Mass (or Divine Liturgy) was essentially the fruit of Christ’s commands during His Last Supper, and the influence of the apostles.
            One can see this when one looks at writings before the fourth century, such as those of Justin Martyr, who wrote in the second century.  In his Apology, he describes the Sunday morning service of the church with a kind of studied naivety, so that his hostile pagan readers can see that there is nothing to the slanders which they had heard, slanders about Christians eating the body and blood of babies.  In this work, he describes the service is this way:  on a Sunday morning, the Christians of the city “gather together in one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.  Then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.  Then we all rise together and pray. [A little before this, Justin also added the detail that after these prayers, “we salute one another with a kiss”.]   When our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings according to his ability, and the people assent, saying, ‘Amen’, and there is a distribution to each...” (Apology, chapters 65-67).
            The main elements of the Sunday morning Eucharist that Justin knew in about 150 A.D. are thus as follows:
-assembly
-Scripture reading
-homily from the one presiding
-intercessory prayer
-the exchange of the Peace
-Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving
-reception of Holy Communion
            These elements are basically the same ones as later found in the Roman Mass in the west and the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in the east.  Certain other elements would be added later to fancy it up a bit—in the Byzantine service, three hymns would be added to the beginning, and a Creed inserted before the Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving—but the essential elements, the backbone of the service, remain the same.   And let’s be clear:  if Justin was offering this description of the service in about the year 150, then it must have predated him by about a generation at least, for Justin gives no evidence that the service he describes was a controversial newcomer on the liturgical field.  A date of a generation before Justin puts the service he described almost in apostolic times, given that the apostle John died in the last decade of the first century.  In short, after the apostles separated the Eucharist from the agape, the Eucharist remained pretty much the same until Justin’s day—and our own.  There is no room or time for “a resurgence of Gentile interest in synagogue worship and pagan influence” to intrude themselves (whatever might be meant by those terms).  The Mass or Divine Liturgy is the apostolic way of worshipping on Sunday morning.   “Every member-functioning, spontaneity, freedom, vibrancy and open participation” might still be found in Sunday evening agape meals (though I suggest there was far less of that even there, since the early church did not value these things as do Valentinus and Marcion), but on Sunday morning, there was what The Red Book would call “static ritual”. 
            We Orthodox, whose Liturgy has not changed substantively for about a thousand years, are delighted with such static ritual—mostly because we do not experience it as static but as dynamic.  That is, it has a power, a dynamism, it is capable of transforming us and moving us and bringing us into the presence of Christ.  It is nonsense to define submission to His headship as the freedom to interrupt a service.  True submission to His headship is found in fidelity to the praxis established by His apostles.  Our Liturgy is not “set in concrete” as The Red Book alleges.  It is built upon a rock.

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