Sunday, December 11, 2011


Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952) was an Anglican who belonged to an Anglican Benedictine community. As one might imagine, he lived with a certain amount of tension between wanting to defend his own order’s autonomy while fully appreciating the great Roman Catholic tradition and wishing for a closer relationship. He became a major liturgical scholar at a time of re-alignment during and after WWII, and wrote a wonderful book called “The Shape of The Liturgy” which impressed me greatly. In his later years during the war he took care of his brother’s congregation while his brother became a chaplain.

The two main ideas that I brought away were that theological assumptions drive details of the order of ceremony as much as the actual words (which is where most people find their arguments) and that the historical origin of the Mass was a two-part movement. The first part, called the “Synaxis,” is centered on the origins of Christianity in the Jewish idea of the Book (Torah) and the tradition of study that was at the heart of Judaism. The second part, which in the beginning was only for those who had converted to the idea that Jesus was the Redeemer and who had been baptized to signify their conversion, was centered on Communion and called the Eucharist.

Later the two movements conflated because of losing the distinction between those who were baptized and those who were merely considering it. At first the Synaxis was performed in one place and then the baptized people went to a separate place for the Eucharist. This is called “Fencing the Communion.” Every religion seems to want to organize an “elect” who have special privileges or to at least have the power to bar dissenters from “full communion,” a practice that continues today.

There has always been an argument about whether taking communion would be an inner force for salvation, or whether it is a privilege earned by preparation and conversion. There was also an argument between those who thought children, innocent, should be baptized or whether it should be reserved until a person was old enough to understand what faith was. Then there were the arguments about “proper” baptism. Such dissensions sent everyone back to books for justification, which kept the Synaxis alive, but it was the Eucharist, an act of community, that was at the heart of Mass.

Thus Dix saw FOUR parts to the liturgy: entry into the worship space (crossing the limen or threshold) where Synaxis took place, then a further entry into an even more holy place for the Eucharist, before the return to the world over the limen. The second part is called an “anamnesis” which commemorates and presents again the sacrifice of Christ. This second part again has four parts: Offertory, Consecration, Fraction and Communion. In ordinary language, the bread and wine are brought forward (this is NOT the same as passing the collection plate for money); the priest blesses the bread and wine (now they are holy and effective), the priest breaks up the bread into fractions, and the people partake.

One main rift in the original Christian body was between the Eastern Orthodox whose culture encouraged them to see the supernatural in everything. They concluded that the thing to do with the Holy Bread and Wine was to protect it during its transformation. A curtain was hung behind the altar so the priest could do the “fractionation” in a protected place in case it blew up or became radioactive. But the Roman culture wanted everyone to see and admire the Holy Substance, so their priest not only held it up for everyone to see, but also rang a bell in case people were so sunk in their own prayers that they might miss that moment. This affected the very architecture of the church, since a fabric curtain became replaced by a wall.

What seems simple becomes so well-known that it can be used symbolically to express many things. For instance, one seminary admitted female students at a time when not all traditions allowed women to serve communion as priests. The seminary performed a Vespers Eucharist every Friday and one could not be fully a part of the community without taking one’s turn at serving, which left the women trapped between their seminary and their denomination. So they served bread and water, which is not technically a Eucharist and which also expressed impoverishment and penitence.

Every church, it is said, is actually three churches: one in the now; one that is going ahead, cutting trail; and one that lags behind, yearning for the old days. Dix was tracing out the previous path while never losing his grip on the central act of worship in a form so natural that it has persisted through the ages. There’s a story about a Lutheran seminary student who went to one of the early English masses of the Catholic church and was thunderstruck to realize that in spite of the theological differences, Lutheran mass was not different.

The Unitarian Universalist Abraxans were also wedded to the Mass form, which became a “hymn sandwich” when the Synaxis overtook the Eucharist -- words overtaking acts. The Anglican church had a brief form they used at Vespers and some Abraxans felt this was the ultimate form, which sort of tore the legs off the original thesis I had planned. It would have been interesting to propose that the Synaxis was essentially Unitarian -- all reasoning and word -- while the Eucharist was essentially Universalist, an expression of compassion.

The Eucharist has been powerful in societies where bread and wine are the most basic of meals, taken for granted. When missionaries went to totally different parts of the planet, especially those that were still hunter/gatherers who depended on meat and roots (Inuit), the bread and wine just didn’t work. In fact, the Jewish culture’s conflation of communal meals like the Last Supper where talk mixed with food, and also prayer (at one historical point one was supposed to say a prayer of gratitude for each bite bigger than a tablespoon) doesn’t work in a context like old-time Blackfeet where meat was always simmering over a fire and one ate as was convenient, except for major feasts. We seem to have returned to that pattern.

Religious acts are expressions of daily experience, intensified, simplified, and given rationalizations. Therefore, they are dependent upon the material culture of the people themselves. Whether a Communion of Twinkies and Red Bull is sincere or sarcastic, depends on the hearts and beliefs of the communicants. Dix will not be attending. Neither will many Inuit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When considering "the historical origin of the Mass" as "a two-part movement," one might also want to keep in perspective the political and financial ramifications involved in the definition, creation, and marketing of the Catholic concept of "Mass." In particular, one might look at Cyprian and exomologesis.