Friday, October 08, 2010


The first major cultural change to affect Christian liturgy was through the change in status of the religion from suppressed and persecuted to an officially accepted state religion. There was a great leap in the richness and mannerliness of the ceremony as it went from a simple devotion in a private home to a court-style event in a public basilica. More importantly, the distinction between the first half of the mass, which could only be attended by communicants, and the second half, once reserved for committed believers, disappeared: the distinction between the two sorts of worshippers had become too blurry to enforce. No longer was this a company of martyrs and saints. Society in general became Christian in its assumptions. Babies were baptized before they were old enough for instruction. Finally only the specifically excommunicated could be barred, but they didn’t try to come anyway.

Two other related developments changed the nature of the Eucharist. Those who attended the Eucharist had at first been “offerers” rather than “communicants;” they brought the bread and wine themselves. In the fifth or sixth centuries the clerical orders began to supply the bread, so that the people were demoted to being receivers only. Either partly as cause or partly as effect, the act of communion began to take on mysterious, even fearful, overtones. Especially in the East, Communion was regarded as something safe only for the truly sanctified, so that fewer people felt entitled to even receive, and the rest were demoted still more to merely watching others received. This was not in words, only a shift in the “felt concept.”

Another simple act with large consequences was the transfor of the Prayers of the People from the Synaxis to the last half of the Eucharistic Prayer. This left the whole Synaxis bereft of anything for the people to do after the reply to the greeting except to listen and watch. The congregation was getting to be an audience. Prayers became elaborate monologues of intercession by the celebrant, supported by belief in the special efficacy of prayer in the presence of the consecrated sacrament -- a drift towards magic.

Whether attitude changed practice or vice versa, the trend was toward a larger group of people, less distinguished from society at large, less personally committed to each other because of risk and friendship, more in awe of the believed efficacy of Christian rites, more passive than active, more divided from the clerical “order,” more subject to superstition and elaboration for its own sake. Christianity was becoming more closely related to culture so that when Eastern and Western cultures began to separate, so did their liturgies. Eastern worshippers, in awe of the power of the Elements (bread and wine), eventually walled off Communion from the congregation. Western worshipers shared the awe but were motivated to draw near to watch for the moment of Transsubstantiation. (A bell was rung to make sure no one missed it.) Westerners approached in fascination; Easterners withdrew trembling.

In the interval between the fifth century and the eighth century, society was in unheaval. Government decentralized, education and general prosperity declined, and much was lost. In those centuries the Mass persisted, but each geographical area was so separated from the others that the different places diverged. Three Eastern versions -- “Far East” (Syrian), Egyptian and Greek -- and at least five European versions -- Roman, Milanese, Spanish, Gallican, Celtic -- existed with sub-categories in each type.

The Mass structure is so sturdy that it survived all this. In fact, in historic times it has survived adoption and variation by several denominations: Church of England, Episcopalian (American Anglican), Lutheran, Methodist, for example. But also as the contemporary culture has changed from being progressive and “hip” (guitar mass and unscrewing the pews) to something like mainstream and then whiplashed back to traditional Latin mass with pews in rows.

Blackfeet “Bundle Opening” ceremonies have undergone a far more radical culture change but their structure has also held true. A different kind of person gathers in the circle, most of them cannot speak Blackfeet and don’t know the songs, much less the animals and land they refer to. The objects are the same (animal skins, a pipe stem or calumet) and the people are in lineal descent from early Blackfeet. The ceremony is not the same and yet it IS the same.

I have used the Unitarian symbol of the flame in the chalice (rather than wine) as a way of symbolizing the traditional structure of liturgy that contains the spiritual. I believe that liturgy is rooted in biology, the natural pattern of coming together and going apart.

I've also used a story from the Jewish tradition. In the first ceremony the rabbi goes to a special place in the forest, kindles a fire, prays, and is in contact with the sacred. In the next generation, the people are displaced, but the rabbi kindles a fire, prays, and the holy is there. In the next generation it is forbidden to kindle a fire or pray. But the rabbi tells the story and the holy is there.

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