Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From "The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy" | Does Christianity Need A Liturgy? | Martin Mosebach | From The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy

Some Catholics, who enjoy being provocative, say that the Christian religion could manage without the Bible sooner than without the liturgy. What do they mean by saying this?

In the centuries following the Secularization, Jesus attracted much admiration and sympathy from philosophical and philanthropic writers and those in the Enlightenment tradition. Even avowed atheists saw Jesus as a great teacher of humanity, a new Socrates, a new Buddha. "I bow before him as the divine revelation of morality's highest principle", Goethe said to Eckermann. (This dictum should not be used to pigeonhole Goethe as a representative of Enlightenment thought: I quote it only as a particularly clear example of an attitude that has persisted to our time.) Accordingly we read in Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: "Thus, for the noble part of mankind, the way he (Jesus) lived is even more instructive and fruitful than his death."

Jesus Christ the Teacher: this is one of the Redeemer's most exalted titles, for Christians too. It was in teaching that he spent the major part of his public ministry. But what was his teaching? Did he proclaim something new? It is obvious, of course, that in religion it is not a case of proclaiming novelties: the subject of religion is not "the new", but "the true". What is true may be ancient, in which case it always remains true; sometimes, if it has been forgotten, it can reappear unexpectedly and so seem to be new. Jesus' truth was an ancient truth; with all his authority he reminded people of what had been revealed in many different ways. The prophets had already taught, and taught impressively, that a man deceives himself if he tries to use sophistry to avoid the divine commands. The commandment of love comes from the Old Testament. The individual petitions in the Our Father come from an ancient tradition of prayer; this only confirms their profound value.

Seen as the founder of a religion, Jesus Christ characteristically taught nothing new and certainly no new morality. Nor is this contradicted by the oft-quoted Sermon on the Mount, for it does not deal with moral laws. "Blessed are the poor in spirit--blessed are you who hunger--blessed are you who weep now-- blessed are you when men hate you"--these are not moral laws. They are a portrayal and the invocation of a new creation. He who weeps now will laugh--in a new world and once he has "put on Christ", as Paul says. It does not say, "Blessed are the righteous," but "Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness", that is, those who have a sense of the world's fallen-ness and their own failings and who yearn for healing.

The restless yearning of which Jesus speaks is not a moral category. It is not something to be achieved by willpower. We cannot desire to be poor in spirit and then hope it will happen. The need to become a new man is not a moral demand. Essentially, morality and holiness are concepts that have hardly anything in common. Of course, this does not mean that one can imagine an immoral saint-although Russian literature, for example, has journeyed far into this territory. No. The only new thing in Christianity, and what distinguishes it from all other religions--what makes it, so to speak, the capstone of all religions--is not the doctrine, but the Person of the God-man, his birth from a Virgin, his sacrificial death for the sins of mankind, his Resurrection from the dead. It is a historical person, not a mythical one, and the historical events of his life can be fairly precisely dated from the reports of the officials of an obscure Roman province.

The situation is in fact the very opposite of what Goethe expressed: the teachings of Jesus are less fruitful than his birth, his death, and his Resurrection for mankind--and not merely for the "noble part" of mankind. Only in this context do the teachings of Jesus acquire their authoritative status; otherwise they would be insights of the most sublime wisdom, yet still open to debate. At the center of Christianity, however, stands the miracle of the Incarnation. Only against the background of the Incarnation do all the words and deeds of Jesus exercise their binding claim upon us.

It is this physically embodied God-man who is at the heart of the Christian message. Through the eyes of the Evangelists--in spite of their classically laconic style--we see him not only teaching, but also eating and drinking, feeling hunger, shuddering at the bitter gall offered to him, enjoying the perfume of the jar of ointment, receptive to the beauty of flowers, showing terrible anger, and, most of all, saying nothing. At key points in the Gospel the God-man is silent, or else he does other, strange things that continue to puzzle us: he spits into the dust and makes a dough with it; with his finger he writes words in the sand that no one can decipher; he roasts a fish for his disciples; he sheds tears on learning of the death of Lazarus. We have no idea of his stature and facial features, yet in the Evangelists' accounts we continually see the effect he made on people.

The great conversions in the Gospels never come as the result of intellectual battles or instruction, Socratic dialogues, refutation, or persuasion: they happen without a word. Jesus looks at someone eye to eye and binds him to himself forever. He walks clown the street, past the beggars and the sick, who find healing through their confession: "I believe". What did the blind and lame "believe" when they saw Jesus walking by? Not the Creed of Constantinople, at all events. Perhaps they could not even have expressed with any clarity what they meant when they said, "1 believe". After all, they did not know Jesus at all, nor could they have had any idea of his life story. It was the bodily presence of the God-man, and the certainty that he was there precisely for them, that created in these sick people a union with Jesus. It was this union, far transcending anything they could have known about him, that made them whole.

The early Christians knew that the Christian message was Jesus himself. The essence of the Gospels' new, more profound, and more compelling picture of God was that God had become flesh, present among us, in the God-man. The apostles were clearly aware that they could not hold on to their faith without the physical presence of Jesus, and so, as he left them, Jesus promised that they would never have to do without this presence. "I am with you to the end of days." The promise of the Paraclete is the assurance that the soul's connection with its Creator will not be broken, that God's Spirit is present in his Church; but above all it shows the way in which the physical presence of the Son of God will be continued--in a changed mode--even after he disappears from the visible world; namely, through the action of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy.

So began one of the most unique, most magnificent spiritual processes of world history: in order to make present among us the most spontaneous and baffling being in history, personal in the highest degree-the God-man Jesus Christ--a highly restrained, completely harmonious, impersonal, and non-subjective liturgy was created. When we want to identify the action of the Holy Spirit (promised us by Christ) in the Church, we often refer to the presence of the Spirit in the Church's councils and synods and in the grace of state given to bishops and priests, who are illuminated by the Spirit in their doctrinal decisions. I do not want to deny this in the least; but often it is not easy to discern the Holy Spirit's influence with certainty in such cases. We know instances in which the episcopate of an entire country not only took decisions that were dishonorable in the secular sense, but clearly took them in the absence of the Holy Spirit (and of all good spirits). There can be no doubt that the Holy Spirit is only present in the liturgy and the sacraments when he effects the bodily presence of Jesus. Putting it in a nutshell, we could say that Holy Mass is the Holy Spirit promised to the disciples. Jesus, whose physical existence was the core of his message, continues to live physically in the liturgy in the laying--on of hands, in anointing, and in the physical realities of bread arid wine.

The early Christians also knew, however, that this presence had to he a gift if it was to be real; that is, it could not be something manufactured, something resulting from man's creativity. Jesus himself had instituted the heart of the rite when he broke bread in the Upper Room of the Last Supper; but it was not simply a case of replaying this scene, because--as the primitive community realized, first gradually and then definitively soon after Jesus' Ascension--the breaking of bread contained not only the event of the Last Supper, but also the sacrifice of Golgotha and the eternal Marriage of the Lamb of which the Apocalypse speaks. If the breaking of bread was a sacrifice, pagan and Jewish sacrificial liturgies could best express it; they were already in existence, and countless people had spoken to God in them. They expressed their waiting for the Redeemer and so were apt to express the Christians' waiting for his return. Those who find fault with the liturgy for retaining elements of ancient paganism would have to apply their criticism with equal severity to the elements of Judaism it contains.

When God became man in the Roman colony of Palestine, it was clear that Christianity would have to become a Roman religion, that is, if it were to be, not a Jewish sect, but the tight to lighten the Gentiles, the universal religion. In the Orthodox Church, Socrates and Plato are placed on the same level as the prophets, and on the Areopagus Paul told the Greeks that the God he was proclaiming was the same God of whom their poets had spoken. (No doubt he was thinking of the picture of God presented by Greek tragedy, particularly the tragedies of Sophocles.) Ever since the sacrifice offered by Abel, human history has produced anonymous artistic forms, and now they were filled with the whole depth of the divine presence. Filled in this way, the old forms were naturally transformed into something else. We only have to think of the sacred places, the holy mountains and springs of the pagan and Jewish worlds. Once the period of the persecution of Christians was past and Christianity had become the state religion, pagan sacred places were often chosen when it came to building churches. So temples of Venus became Marian churches, and temples of Mercury became churches of Saint Michael. Nonetheless the "Christian atopia", or "place-lessness", as I call this characteristic freedom with regard to place, asserted itself. Now the place was sacred, not of itself, but because Mass was read there. Furthermore, the place where a church stood was no longer simply this place: it was Jerusalem; nor was it the geographical Jerusalem, but an ideal Jerusalem, that is, heaven. As for the sacrifice that was offered there, it was no longer primarily man's turning to God in the hope of entering into relationship with him through gifts and adoration: it had become God's turning to man. We are constantly being astounded by the reform introduced by Jesus Christ the only reform that deserves this name. An inherited, sacred form is used to express something completely new, something that reverses all the relationships operating up to that point.

I said that Jesus and his disciples, and the first Christians, were aware that if they were fully to grasp Jesus' message, it was not enough to hand on his teachings faithfully--as, for instance, in the little black book my father used to read on Sundays. If these teachings were to have their effect, it was essential for the disciples to have the experience and know the influence of Jesus, bodily present. And if the liturgy is to be this manifestation of the bodily Jesus, essential for the Christian life, it must be possible to experience it as something that is not a human artifact but something given, something revealed. Thus Basil the Great, a monk and one of the Fathers of the Eastern Church, regarded the Mass as a revelation that is just as great as Holy Scripture, and consequently he strictly forbade anyone to alter or refashion the liturgy. The fact is that the modern reformers of the Mass and the modern exegetes who try to subject revelation to the historico-critical method are birds of a feather. Strangely enough, after all the archaeological and philological expertise, what comes out is a Jesus who could have been an honorary member of the SPD [German Social Democratic Party], a Jesus who is as acceptable to women as Willi Brandt--and equally unresurrected.

Of course we know that the rite has not come down to us unchanged since the days of early Christianity. And yet we can regard the old Mass (wrongly called the Tridentine Mass: it should really be called the Mass of Saint Gregory the Great, just as the Orthodox speak of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom) as something unchanged and unchanging, something that has come down to us directly from heaven. The reason is that these changes were not arbitrary but the result of gradual growth; they took place so slowly that no one really noticed them. The gradual and constant changes that did take place in the rite were not the work of scholars at their desks; they were the result of those praying at Mass over a two-thousand-year history. Only saints such as Ambrose or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas should be allowed to add anything to the Holy Mass, never men at office desks--even if they work in the Vatican. With regard to the question of women priests, a priest said to me: "The idea that women are excluded from the Church's decision making by being denied the priesthood is yet another of the fruits of Modernism, which has brought a tidal wave of decisions into the Church in the areas of theology, liturgy, morals, and law. In former times a priest had no decisions to make. He had to be obedient. A priest had no power, nor does he need to have any." Strictly speaking, this applies to the papacy, too: papal infallibility is nothing other than the pope's submission to revelation and to the teaching of all times.

We know that tradition's mysterious work, making present things that are long past, has been painfully disturbed. Things that are sacral are by definition untouchable, and this untouchability has been gravely damaged; indeed, it is being injured every day, whether by malice or folly. Even among those who will not and cannot abandon the old rite, there is a kind of reforming zeal that can only be attributed to the yearning for self-destruction that sometimes afflicts unsuccessful opposition groups. The highly charged term "pastoral" is always used when liturgical changes are to he introduced. "Pastoral" means pertaining to a shepherd's care, but we have long become used to translating it differently: "We, the clergy, decide how much of the splendor of truth the stupid and confused lay people can take."

No one, however, who has found his way, through sacrifice and trials, to the great Christian liturgy will allow any progressive or conservative cleric to deprive him of it. We must not think of the future. The prospects for a liturgical Christianity are poor. From today's perspective, the future model of the Christian religion seems to be that of a North American sect--the most frightful form religion has ever adopted in the world. But the future is of no concern to the Christian. He is responsible for his own life; it is up to him to decide whether he can turn away from the gaze of the liturgical Christ--as long as this Christ is still shown to us.

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Martin Mosebach was born in 1951. He studied law and has lived in Frankfurt as a freelance writer since 1980. Mosebach is an award-winner author who has published novels, stories, and collections of poem; he has also written scripts for several films, opera libertti, theatre, and radio plays. A regular contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he also writes on art and literature for other newspapers and journals.

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