The question has been in my mind since I read Mosebach’s book and gave some general comments in Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness. What kind of Church would there be if there were no liturgy? Mosebach has a captivating anecdotal style, describing Mass in a chapel in a remote place and the simple things the priest did to transform a neglected place into a church worthy of the Holy Mystery. It takes practical sense to convert something dead into something living and which gives life, but also it takes vision and faith to answer the question of why we should bother going to all the trouble. He gives an answer to that question by going through the Mass in slow motion, savouring the spiritual meaning of every text, gesture and symbol.
Mosebach’s technique is quite stunning by the use of contrast, building up the reader through his description of the spiritual experience, and then presenting the case of an “authentic” Christianity without a liturgy. Surely, Jesus was as the Protestants and the 1960’s reformers portrayed him. The Gospel shows little sign of any ritualism on the part of Christ. If anything, he seemed to oppose such an obstacle to simplicity, innocence and authenticity judging by the way he blasted the Scribes and Pharisees. It looks as if Christ not only intended to sweep away Judaism with its Law and traditions, but all formal religion. We seem to be reading about the ultimate anarchist!
From the beginning of church history, we find reforming movements laying waste churches, images, monasteries and priests and all the paraphernalia of liturgical worship. The same movement springs up again and again, in the Franciscan movement – not only in the order approved by Rome but also the marginal movements like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Fraticelli and the brothers of Fra Dolcino. We have the Lollards in England and the Hussites, and then finally the Reform movement exploded in the sixteenth century. Within Catholicism, it resurfaced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with Jansenism and in the wake of Vatican II. This mindset obviously has very deep roots in Christianity itself, and we can only ask ourselves if it represents true Christianity.
Mosebach then brings this anti-ritualist movement into the events of his own life, his Protestant father devoutly reading the Bible and his mother holding to a minimalist understanding of Catholic religious practice. After this, he asks the very question of whether ritual is alien to true Christianity and the Gospel. The key is asking the question of knowing why Christianity came into being, and who for – the Jewish people or the Gentiles, the people of all other faiths and cultures. Most of us reading this blog are certainly not of Jewish origin. Go back a thousand or fifteen hundred years and we were pagans. Why did Christianity get so mixed up with Odin, Zeus, Dionysius, Mithra, Isis and Osiris and Plato’s philosophy? As I mentioned in my earlier article, Christianity has two-stepped between the Jewish Old Testament and the Mystery Religions of antiquity. Ever since, the two pillars of Christianity have played tug of war against each other.
What does we know of Christ’s intention? We could pore through the Gospels, as that is just about all we have outside of a notion of an esoteric tradition. There are also the Gnostic Gospels for those who are ready for a challenge. There is evidence that Jesus spent parts of his life outside the Jewish world, and indeed Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus lived in Egypt when they took refuge from Herod. What really makes Christianity unique is that it is not simply a book or a set of doctrines, but a person – a divine Person who fulfilled everything that was prefigured, not only by the Old Testament prophecies, but also by the Mystery religions of Greece and Egypt. Thus the Gospel writers did not plagiarise the old stories of Horus and tales of virgin births, but related what they saw and experienced. The antique Mysteries prefigured and prepared the ultimate Mystery, and mythology became historical fact. This is the Incarnation of the Mystery, of the true God.
This is about the finest and most profound chapter in Mosebach’s book, and I have already been familiarised with these notions through reading Dom Casel and Louis Bouyer among others. Without the incarnate Mystery, Christianity could no longer be a person, but simply a message, an ideology, a political or revolutionary ideology. Mosebach and I are on the same page here.
St Paul described the Church as the body of Christ. Theologians speak of the mystical body, a sacramental reality, something much higher and beyond the materialistic notion of a human institution. The humanity of the Church is only a symbol or an image of her divinity. Bodies grow and develop from conception, birth, childhood, adolescence and ripening adulthood – and then decline towards death and resurrection. Apologists of the traditional liturgy talk of organic development in the same way as Newman formulated his theory of doctrinal development – and the difference between developments and heresies. Pope Benedict XVI made much of this notion in his writings and his attempts to foster a quiet and prayerful revival of liturgical tradition. I have given careful thought to the “immobilist” notions held by Protestants, many Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics and reformers in Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism – the back to the “pristine” sources ideology. I can never been able to become convinced even though I did not go through with the Ordinariate movement. Now, Benedict XVI is in retirement, no longer the Pope… The notion of development justifies a rite and tradition that did not exist in the early centuries, but which contain all the seeds from those forgotten times. The big problem with this is considering the future of the liturgy. Should it decline and die like a human person who has grown old and is singing his Nunc dimittis? Should it be reinvented or done away with altogether in order to restore pure Mosaic Monotheism? These are questions anyone will ask, and our answers are often woefully inadequate.
I don’t think all the questions can be perfectly answered to complete satisfaction. They need further thought, and we are always haunted about whether Jesus should continue to live among us in signs, symbols and veils – or allowed to die in order that the pure message of love and generosity between humans may be proclaimed in a new secular world purged from superstition and fanaticism. Jesus himself could be advanced as the ensign of the new atheism!
I think we need to ask a question. If all churches disappeared and we were persuaded to believe that the Christian priesthood is worthless, the notion of mystery no more than an illusion, would we continue to be Christians? If Evangelical groups were all that remained after a successful purge of all liturgical and sacramental Christianity, would we go to their services? I think most of us have been to the Baptists to accompany our siblings and friends in their prayer and commitment to the Christian way of life in terms of being good and eschewing evil and sin. I have prayed with Baptists, but I have never been inclined to join them or affirm them to be the true church. In my thought over the years, if such a thing happened, I would see no need to join a defined church community and would certainly prefer to take my place in secular life. Certainly, I would continue to make the Gospel message my rule of life to be good with other humans, kind, compassionate and self-sacrificing – but invisibly without trying to persuade others to adopt the same philosophy of life. Perhaps I might be inclined to study the old Pagan ways and spiritualities, seeking spirit in nature and the life of this world. Perhaps sacramental Christianity could be found in another form, in another pre-Christian prefiguration, the cycle beginning anew as we wait for the Redeemer.
Such an extinction has not happened, and Catholic Christianity continues in its various manifestations and ecclesial communities, from the great Patriarchates of Moscow, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople and others to the small Churches like our own going by an ecclesiology akin to that of local Orthodox Churches. In our communities, we may not understand things in the same way, but we all seek to continue to have our beloved Saviour with us, not only in memory, but in Mystery and Sacrament.
I am deeply edified by the devotion and sincerity and a-liturgical Christians like in my sister’s Baptist community. Those are solid people like the Jewish people of old and the Reformers themselves who endured dungeon, fire and sword for their beliefs. Fr Dolcino, Wycliffe, Cranmer, Luther and Calvin were passionate men who sought the truth and who denounced the evils of institutional corruption and popular religion gone wrong (or adapted for clerical business profitability). They share this solidity with the Fathers of the Church and with generations of monks, prophets and saints. At the same time, one who has seen the sun is unwilling to go back to living in a cave! Those of us who have eaten meat cannot be satisfied with milk alone.
I can only think a moment and remember what brought me to Christianity. We are all different, and our experience is not the same. I cannot help but think that what really makes the difference is our experience and inner knowing and not listening to a barrage of words and more ideologies and information.