Thursday, March 30, 2006

Symbols Eliminated, History to the Memory-Hole

Blosser posts an excellent excerpt:

... Those of us who are now elderly remember vividly that priests were identifiable not only because of their Roman collars and dark suits, but also because of their tonsure. The latter had a clear symbolic meaning: the fact that part of the priest's hair was shaved indicated his total donation to God. After Vatican II, this longstanding tradition was abolished. I do not recall that a convincing reason was given for this change, but somehow the special dignity of the priesthood was no longer honored by a visible sign.

Before ascending to the altar for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, priests had to don 7 pieces of clothing, each one of which symbolized a step in a particular scene of Christ's ascent to Golgotha, where the ultimate sacrifice of the God-man for our redemption took place. These symbols have been powerfully highlighted in [Martin] von Cochem's book, The Amazing Catholic Mass [i.e., The Incredible Catholic Mass] (TAN). Today many of them have been eliminated. It is most unlikely that young priests know either their names or their symbolic meanings. What is particularly regrettable is that priests are likely to be much less conscious of the fact that Holy Mass is essentially a non bloody re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, a fact of which the priestly vestments they were wearing physically and forcefully reminded them.

Whereas in the so-called Tridentine liturgy the priest stood first at the foot of the altar -- once again symbolizing the way of the Cross toward the hill of Calvary -- in the Novus Ordo he immediately faces the congregation. The steps have been eliminated. And yet, how deeply meaningful and symbolic were these "steps" -- powerful expressions of the virtue of discretio, which teaches us that before reaching a noble goal, we should beware of rushing to it without proper preparation.

Another significant change is the abolition of minor orders: up to Vatican II, there were seven steps leading to the priesthood: porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, and then subdeacon, deacon, and finally the holy sacrament of the priesthood, in which a human creature is granted the unfathomable privilege of representing Christ, and of changing bread and wind into the holy Body and Blood of the Savior of the world. These seven steps had a deep meaning: inspired by a sentiment of sacred discretio, the Church in her wisdom reminded the candidate to the priesthood of the awesomeness of the step he was about to take. Whether in universities or in the military, we note grades of dignity. It was thus highly appropriate that the ascension to the highest dignity ever given to man should be marked by several degrees, each one of them granting the seminarian a more intimate participation in the mystery of Holy Mass. Once again, this tradition rich in symbolic meaning has been eliminated.

It is also regrettable that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is now celebrated on a table, the piece of furniture used for meals. An altar, on the contrary, was exclusively used for sacrifices, as clearly stated in the Old Testament.

Another important change is that priests now face their congregations, whereas for centuries they were facing east, and Christ is called the sol justitiae. He is the light -- the lumen Christi. Once again, a profound symbol was discarded.

Still another break with tradition is the elimination of the altar rails in catholic churches. For centuries, people knelt while receiving Holy Communion, and kneeling in our culture is the most perfect expression of an adoring posture -- that is, a bodily duplication of the proper posture of the soul. Why this change was introduced (at great financial cost) is difficult to understand, by unfortunately it is not the only case in which symbolism has been eliminated. --Alice von Hildebrand.

The "prayers at the foot of the altar," and the steps leading to the altar, were part of an integral schema resembling the schema of the church building itself--which reflected "progression," as it were, from back to front. Stepping closer to the tabernacle, the presence of Christ, was an incarnation of the mind's thinking pattern: forward or up is 'progressing.'

Now there's no "progress," nothing (or little) to indicate motion. It's the triumph of 'horizontal' liturgical thinking, also shown in the 'horizontalization' of the texts.


Neo-Con Tastic said...

Wow! That guy's good. Now, if we could only print this and distribute to the whole Church - that would be progress.

Bernard Brandt said...

Of course, if you wish to retain just about all of the traditions that have been eliminated in the Roman Catholic Church, may I recommend the Eastern Catholic Churches?

Even in our service of Baptism, a tonsure is retained for all who are baptised. Our mark of the priesthood, however, is not tonsure, but beards. It's also a good way of eliminating that "woman priest" nonsense.

In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, in the Rite of Preparation, our priests and deacons still vest themselves in the ways which you mention.

In that same Divine Liturgy, we have it both ways: our priests are in the sanctuary, facing East; our deacons are out among the people, but also facing East, praying on behalf of the Church.

In the East, we also retain the minor orders. The subdeaconate tends to be a residual practice, along with the minor orders of porter and exorcist. This is perhaps because we "get 'em early", and include the old prayers of exorcism in the Rite of Baptism. Nonetheless, we still have them in "parts East".

We also retain the altar, though we differ a bit from the Tridentine style: our altar, in the center of the Holy of Holies, is a cube (most definitely NOT a table), rather like a butcher's block, and more particularly, rather like the altar of sacrifice used in the old Temple of David and Solomon.

As regards the "altar rail", that requires a bit of history: in the Roman Empire, the Emperor was separated from the people by pillars and rails. In order to show the royalty of God (from the Psalm verse: The Lord is King: He is robed in majesty), the practice began in the common ancient Church of East and West to separate the sanctuary (wherein our Lord dwelt and dwells) by the same pillars and rails.

In the East, the practice began of paneling the Royal rail with icons, and eventually, of separating the sanctuary from the nave (or the ship of Christ, containing the faithful), with the iconostasis.

In the West, while they retained the ancient practice of the simple pillars and rail, the pious custom began of the faithful kneeling to receive the Eucharist in front of the Royal rail.

While I believe that it is a great pity that the Royal rail was removed from RC churches, it is certainly the case that the East has retained the iconostasis, and has retained the most ancient practice of serving the Eucharist to the faithful outside of the iconostasis.

I entirely agree with you that it is a great pity that the West has abandoned the marks of Holy Tradition as described in your essay. I decided long ago that I needed to be nourished by Holy Tradition, and so I left a church which appears to have abandoned it, and gone to a church (still in union with Rome) which has retained it.