Sunday, November 09, 2003

Article VII: Of the Church.
1] Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.
2] And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and 3] the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. 4] As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4, 5. 6.

I would remark this concerning the liturgical practices that fall under the category of human traditions: They can, to a greater or lesser degree, conform to and manifest the doctrine of the Gospel. Likewise they can be a more or less appropriate matrix for the sacramental ministry of the Church.
The question is what might be the standard of conformity and appropriateness? Von Balthasar writes, “The sacramental event ought to unfold visibly in as beautiful and worthy a form as possible.” (Exploration in Theology II: The Spouse of the Word) I would make a distinction here between aesthetic sensibilities and something I will term Christian beauty. Christian beauty is conformity to and harmony with the Glorious Word, for “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Jn 1:14) This harmonization, however, can and does take many forms just as there are many possible harmonies to one melody. This is because it is made manifest in aesthetic sensibilities which reflect the diversity of human sensibilities over time and space. Some historical traditions have been deemed worthier and more lasting than others – Gregorian chant, the Lutheran choral tradition (Bach, whose “Mass in B minor” is in my stereo as I write this, being the greatest exemplar), and Byzantine iconography come to mind. All three of these bear witness to that Christian Beauty mentioned above, but also the fact that true art has a transcendent value that appeals to a diversity of aesthetic sensibilities in different ways in and in different times.
Is the continual use of these forms of worship ironic? Yes and no. Yes because a proper appropriation of past is, as Clint indicated, one that goes beyond innocent traditionalism. Irony is characterized by an incongruity between what is expected or intended and what actually occurs. This incongruity is necessarily present in such a trans-temporal/trans-cultural experience. However, it is not ironic in the sense that the substantial conformity of the liturgical practice to the Word remains the same in our appropriation.
Traditionalism can be characterized by one of two contradictory perspectives concerning history; one is fundamentally static and the other, dynamic. The static position would appropriate a practice as hermetically sealed and wholesale – a form bequeathed from a Golden Age, in opposition to and superior to the present. Similarly, the static mindset might reject a liturgical practice as hopelessly dated and forever embedded in the past. The dynamic perspective would be more open to a dialogue with the past that involves a mindful/ironic appropriation of its forms of worship as a sign of unity and common goal. Unity in Christ is not simply a matter of the here and now, it involves the dynamic history of the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit and directed eschatologically to communion with the Father. Liturgical appropriation of the past is a sign of the dynamism which characterizes the Church of our Lord. It is, as Clint wrote, “ancient-future” in scope and simultaneously a principle of the unity and diversity we enjoy in the Body.

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