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Liturgy as Sacred Soap Opera?

Soap Opera

There is a tendency to treat liturgy as mimicking Jesus’ earthly life – acting it out, pretending we don’t know what happens next, making believe that we live in another time and place…

This is called mimesis μίμησις, the Greek word connected to our English word “mimic”.

But the older and deeper understanding of liturgy is anamnesis ἀνάμνησις, the Greek opposite to our connected English word, “amnesia”.

Jesus’ incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit are events about 2,000 years ago. The purpose of the liturgical year is not pretending they haven’t happened yet. Christ does not die again – we die a little more. Christ is not incarnated yet once again – we are divinised more. The purpose of the liturgical year is to provide a template by which our lives are shaped. Our life is moulded and transformed to participate in Christ’s life.

The confused solely-mimetic understanding of the liturgical year cannot understand why we would celebrate the Eucharist at Christmas. For them we are just pretending little baby Jesus is being born, and no crying he makes; why would we at the same time pretend also that he is dying, they wonder?! This confused solely-mimetic understanding balks at reading the Passion story on Palm Sunday. For them we are just pretending that Jesus is entering triumphally into Jerusalem (complete with donkey). Already revealing that it doesn’t end well is a spoiler to their fantasy. This particular mimetic confusion comes complete with the false Chinese whispers that we are only reading the Passion on Palm Sunday because we don’t expect people to come to church on weekdays (ie Good Friday) anymore (that day, for them, is the only proper day to read the Passion)!

George Weigel (H/t Peter Carrell) is a typical example of this confusion in his advocating that we abandon Ordinary Sundays and instead number Sundays after Pentecost:

St. Augustine’s sermons “de Ascensione Domini,” in which the learned Bishop of Hippo takes as his text Colossians 3:1-2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated, at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

A familiar enough text, right? But then Augustine, as is his wont, gives it a striking twist: “For just as he remained with us even after his Ascension, so we, too, are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. . . . While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity; but in him, we can be there by love.”…

There are many reasons to deplore the change in liturgical nomenclature for the weeks after the Easter Season, from Sundays “after Pentecost” to Sundays “in Ordinary Time.” As has been noted previously in this space (perhaps to be point of reader-tedium!), there is nothing “ordinary” about time after the Resurrection and Ascension. For, as that Colossians text suggests and Augustine makes explicit, human “time” has now been drawn into the divine life through the mystery of Christ’s return to the Father and his being seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3) as Lord of history. History, in that sense, is “inside” the Godhead.

While his quote from Augustine is certainly worthy of deep reflection, George Weigel is confused about its application. Our celebration of Christmas is after the historical Pentecost. Our celebration of Lent is after after the historical Pentecost. Just as our celebration of Good Friday is with and in the presence of the risen Christ.

To add insult to injury, George Weigel claims he is lapsing “into a relevant bit of liturgical antiquarianism” but does not bother to explore what St Augustine himself would term these current Sundays in the church’s year. You may be able to tell me more, but the best information that I have been able to obtain is from The Liturgical Year by Rev. R. Henry, S. M. (H/T Prior Aelred)

At one time the Sundays belonging to the second half of the liturgical year were arranged in groups attached to some leading feast: Sundays after SS Peter and Paul (June 29) Sundays after the Feast of St. Laurence (August 10) Sundays after the Feast of St. Michael (September 29)

This is confirmed by my e-friend Fr Daniel McCarthy OSB (Institutum Liturgicum) that as early as 400 in Rome the individual mass booklets of the Verona collection began to be produced. These were bound together between 561-574. Thus, for the period of Augustine’s life and episcopate in Hippo, Rome had no bound liturgical book, only the gradual development of individual mass booklets. As one example: the Verona developed the Papal tradition. The Tridintinum (Papal; left Rome around 685) and Padua (Papal adapted for use at St Peter’s; left Rome around 670-680) have: 5 numbered Sundays given after Pentecost; 6 after the feast of Sts Peter and Paul; 5 after the feast of St Lawrence; 9 after the feast of Michael the Archangel.

So, far from Augustine thinking in terms of “Sundays after Pentecost”, most probably he would have thought of this coming Sunday as “The First Sunday after the feast of Sts Peter and Paul”! George Weigel’s attempt to lapse “into a relevant bit of liturgical antiquarianism” actually wades into his own anachronism.

There is little excuse for educated Christian leaders to be unable to recognise and teach about the homonym “Ordinary” in “Ordinary Time“. Furthermore, those who want to continue the falsity that Christians didn’t read the Passion on Palm Sunday until these recent non-Good-Friday-attending times, should check here and here and begin to realise that reading the Passion on Palm Sunday is a very ancient tradition.

Now do go back and read the wonderful concepts in St Augustine’s sermon, and realise that it applies to all our worship, and all our lives – not merely a few weeks between the Day of Pentecost and Advent:

…For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. … While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity; but in him, we can be there by love. He did not leave heaven when he came down to us nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven….

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9 Responses to Liturgy as Sacred Soap Opera?

  1. Well done again Bosco. It is worth noting that anyone who claims early church antiquity for their argument is on a slippery slope. With every source document from anywhere near the period (including the so-called Apostloic Tradition) under a cloud of questions, we have to accept that we simply don’t know what our early forebears were up to. Which also begs the question, even if we did, so what? Old isn’t always best, or right.

  2. Although «after the Pentecost» nomenclature can’t be traced back to saint Augustine, it became accepted, step by step, by all the rites of all places. (And some began to count from Trinity, after the late apparition of this feast).

    Why on earth an «ordinary» time? That’s the question. Why break a harmony between the “common agreement” of all rites of everywhere?

    The problem is not so much about how we count the Sundays. The problem is that the whole West doesn’t even celebrate the resurrection of Christ on an “ordinary” Sunday more than on an “ordinary” Monday or Tuesday. Except, maybe, a tiny phrase in the Preface (pre-Sanctus). But that’s not enough. This is the real problem.

    • Ah, Georges, how you must get out and mingle with your Western sisters and brothers more often… In the “whole West” I’ve met congregations that do indeed celebrate the resurrection of Christ Jesus on Sunday, in “ordinary time” or otherwise. How the church building thunders when the worshipers declare “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”

      Ecclesial superiority is such a tired game. Tie “celebrating the resurrection of Christ Jesus” to how seriously people put his gospel ethics and charity toward others into practice (a much better sign of it than mere hymnody), and one finds that the East fares no better than the West in that regard — and in some cases, worse.

  3. Hi Bosco
    Your post is too hard on the church as it tries year by year to initiate its children into the glories of the divine narrative.

    This all or nothing attack on mimesis discourages churches who rightly feel that mimesis is a great way to bring its children year by year into the divine narrative by bringing to life through action the story it seeks to enculturate in its children’s lives.

    The best way to initiate young minds in the story of the entry to Jerusalem as integral to the suffering of Jesus is to make them sit through long readings? Yeah, right!

    It is a matter of interest what the ancient church got up to, and occasionally it provides useful lessons for us. But let’s be honest, in a church where we priests enjoy being married, and in a church such as ours contemplating changing the ancient doctrine of marriage, appealing to antiquity (whether 2000 or 1500 or 1000 or 500 years ago) cuts little ice.

    What cuts ice, in every age, is what communicates the gospel to each new generation. Whether antiquity or mimesis provides the way, I am up for it. All options to be considered on their merits. I think it unhelpful to cut options off at the pass as you do in this post.

    • Thanks, Peter.

      It is a little difficult to follow your points in the midst of your bringing up debates on marriage and other apparent responses from you to points I am not making.

      Mine is not at all an “all or nothing attack on mimesis”, but a response to those who suggest that somehow not using “Sundays after Pentecost” as a title for tomorrow limits the experience of the Spirit in our midst, and that we do not “truly believe that ‘we are already in heaven with [Christ]’ [and] offer others the possibility of living like that.” Far from being “all or nothing” I was clear that I am responding to the “confused solely-mimetic understanding of the liturgical year”.

      I was not at all, as you suggest, arguing that “The best way to initiate young minds in the story of the entry to Jerusalem as integral to the suffering of Jesus is to make them sit through long readings” – all I was doing was pointing those who maintain that reading the Passion on Palm Sunday is a novelty, that this is not a novelty at all. By all means let’s discuss whether it is helpful – but not including in that good discussion patent historical falsity.

      Blessings.

      • Hi Bosco
        Yes, I apologise for over-reading your critique of mimesis: you are attacking the ‘solely’ mimetic.

        Perhaps it would help to have a positive word for the semi-mimetic among us!

        • A positive word for the semi-mimetic among us: God is present and able to work in and through semi-mimetic individuals and communities, and one can make particular connections with children and the child within each of us.

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Rev. Bosco Peters

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