To the Best of His Ability
And on the day called Sunday, τῇ τοῦ ῾Ηλίου λεγομένη ἡμέρᾳ, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to 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, and, as we before said, 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, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. (taken from an internet translation and commentary on St. Justin Martyr’s Apology: Chapter LXVII.—Weekly worship of the Christians)
Just last week sitting in the Geneva airport waiting for my flight to Paris, I observed a traveling businessman standing near the gate waiting for the boarding call, playing with his IPad. His hand and fingers moved across the screen in flourishes which showed him to be an accomplished “IPadder”, capable of “opening all sorts of windows”, “turning pages”, and, well, you name it. In the old days my companions and I in the seminary would have labeled him as caught up in the material and in the possession of or possessed by a “semi-cult object”. How all of that differs from idolatry would require traveling back 35 to 40 years in time…
I bring this up because of a heated debate in the “blogosphere” over a priest, who announced that he is setting up his IPad to substitute for the liturgical books: some of the commentators insisting that this “semi-cult object” has gone to his head.
Also in these days, I was a bit surprised to hear from a friend that some priests are objecting to the new English language edition of the Roman Missal, appealing to the authority of Justin Martyr and citing the expectation of folks to be entertained of a Sunday, like in the Crystal Cathedral or in Joel Osteen’s covered stadium turned church. These priests understand that part of the change to the new Missal involves their adhering to the words of the text and the rubrics prescribed since forever ago for the celebration of Mass. To resist or object to the new Missal they go about piously quoting St. Justin Martyr’s Apology as grounds for their resistance to renouncing what they see as the natural or expected measure of liturgical improvisation: “and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, and the people assent, saying Amen”. Let us hope and pray that any priest, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, who finds the ultimate argument for liturgical improvisation in words written by St. Justin Martyr, to help a pagan emperor understand who this new group, the Christians, was in society, has not missed Justin’s more basic argument about Sunday Eucharist as a sine qua non, as the ultimate point of identification for Christians and the one thing necessary for our survival or existence as Children of God en route to the Kingdom.
How do you or dare you argue in favor of improvisation at the dawn of Christianity, before books, before printing, before publicly recognized places of worship, full well knowing that we’re not too much less than two millennia of experience, creativity and reflection away from building on Justin’s witness? We are bound by a very different set of historical precedents than was he. Argue ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ if you will, but know that you are arguing in bad faith. Needless to say, my friend too was scandalized by this approach to the Church’s best effort in our lifetime to reestablish liturgical continuity with the Mass of the Ages. He asked poignantly: Isn’t the problem really the vernacular? If we want to exclude improvisation, don’t we have to return to Latin as our liturgical language? Good question! Interestingly enough, he was not advocating the suppression of the novus ordo, but of abandoning vernacular hymnody, the vernacular common parts and the vernacular propers for Mass, along with everything else but the vernacular lectionary. He was not pushing the usus antiquior, which was totally foreign to him given his age, country of origin, and experience of the world.
While the modern day school of improvisation impressed my friend (as it does me) as being a wrong-headed approach to Divine Worship, he classed the situation as hopeless, and not only in the face of opposition from “dyed-in-the-wool” improvisers. Because of a certain genius inherent in the use of the vernacular he despairs of being able to rein in improvisation for as long as the vernacular is afoot (I could not say why the argument that plays and movies follow a script, that opera has its libretto and that symphonies have sheet music does not seem to apply to the man behind the Altar!). Are improvisation and showmanship inexorably/ineluctably bound to the vernacular? Obviously not, as one only has to experience Pope Benedict XVI celebrating Mass to know that the renewed liturgy willed by the Second Vatican Council is possible.
My guess is that between now and Advent 2011 most bishops will make their best effort to convince their priests that liturgy is meant to be celebrated with a certain dignity (as I have said elsewhere, with a certain gravitas). Those same bishops and priests of good will may abdicate their responsibility to face the issue of liturgical music and what constitutes that music as what it should be, namely sacred in character, such that St. Augustine’s famous words might not be betrayed: He who sings prays twice. In biting the parish hymnal “bullet”, the bishop must face not only his priests, but the creatures of habit in the pews and the so-called music ministers, who have seldom been properly formed to the “ministry” they exercise and who often enough think that nimble fingers for plucking cords or tinkling the ivories doth the musician make.
All too many of those who love standing up front and to the side to make music are convinced that they are performers and facilitators, just like Ms. So-and-so’s leotarded and smocked bunch that are convinced that there is such a thing as liturgical dance, ὅση δύναμις αὐτῷ, even if they can’t find a proof text for it in St. Justin Martyr.
Because indeed Christ reigns supreme and the Holy Spirit blows where He will, it is hard to claim that the “moment of truth” is approaching and that unless we finally get a handle on liturgy and move decisively to heal the rupture which has desecrated so many churches and left the young especially without that recourse to God through the Liturgy and Sacraments which has always resisted in the past, even in the darkest of times. Even so, for all in Holy Orders, let it be said that we risk condemnation as hirelings if we do not succeed in reestablishing sacred space and Divine Worship as God’s action and not our own.
We will soon be gifted with a new English translation, a fine tuning of what has been ours. Thereby will we be given an occasion as celebrants to “clean up our act”, if you will. With July 1st on the horizon, I stand joyfully at the threshold of eleven months since I began to celebrate exclusively ad Orientem in my chapel. Each day I am more thankful for this blessing which allows me a more focused and I believe better focused celebration of these Sacred Mysteries. The chapel lends itself to this kind of worship, granted, but I see a positive difference in the way my regular daily Mass-goers pray and note the pleasant surprise on the face of the occasional visitor when I turn to ask them to pray, offer them the peace of Christ or present to them the Lamb of God with no Altar, no barrier between us as we are turned together toward the Lord.
In Rome two weeks ago, I encountered some liturgy specialists, who are doing their best year round in favor of dignified or sublime worship. To my surprise they had not heard of a great resource out there, namely Corpus Christi Watershed. http://corpuschristiwatershed.org/ Although the name had my friends chuckling, I hope a look-see has them encouraged by the material available free of charge for enhancing sacred music.
Time is on the side of the reform of the reform. Each day brings new discoveries of what is possible as the cleverly or not so cleverly but stubbornly concocted myths (Woe to you, improvisers!) pass away. I’m still convinced that vernacular worship in Spirit and in Truth is possible.