Thursday, December 5, 2013

An Even Shorter History of the Mass

I just got done reading a book called A Short History of the Mass by Alfred McBride, O. PRAEM (O. PRAEMs are also known as Norbertines).

The author launches right into the celebration of the Last Supper & its components. The celebration of the Eucharist began as a Passover meal & continued as a meal in the "Breaking of the Bread" which was celebrated on the Lord's day (Sunday). Eventually the practice of the meal was done away with in favor of a more structured setting because cliques had formed, folks were getting drunk & the poor were being left out (1 Co. 11:20-21, 34).

A kind of liturgy was adopted in the 1st & 2nd centuries based on the model they had from the Jewish synagogues. The apostles ordained bishops as their successors & these ordained priests & deacons to see to the Mass. Blessings, prayers, scripture & praise began to surround the Eucharist as Christians met in various homes / house churches (& even the catacombs) to avoid detection & persecution by the Roman government. I found it interesting to note that the bread & wine were brought by the people as gifts. The priests faced the people, they gathered around common wooden tables & used common baskets & goblets. There was no altar guild. Everyone had a part to play.

When Constantine came along in the third century, the persecutions ceased. He began building large churches called basilicas. House churches fell by the wayside, but the structure of the Mass had been established. Christians met to hear the great church fathers' homilies, incense came into use & folks started bowing & genuflecting to God as they would to an Emperor. Bishops began standardization of Eucharistic Prayers at this time. Gold & silver receptacles replaced the common fare. Tables were now made of stone or marble. Hymns & chants were introduced & the Nicene Creed was established thanks to the Council of Nicea (325). To maintain a sense of unity between congregations, the Bishop would break consecrated hosts & send pieces abroad to the other parishes, kind of like what we do today with the 3 holy oils (the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Infirm, and the Oil of Holy Chrism).

In the middle ages, the people began to become separated from the Mass. The priest began Mass facing the people as usual, but turned East to celebrate "with the people" for the Eucharistic prayer. The universal language of the Mass eventually became Latin, which sent some packing. Others engaged in private devotions (such as the Rosary or other prayers) during Mass in an attempt to remain participants of the proceedings. The communion rail was introduced & people could no longer receive in the hand. They were now required to kneel & receive on the tongue. Eventually, they could only receive the Eucharist at certain times of the year.

By the time Luther had come onto the scene, major abuses were in play & the Council of Trent convened to combat them. The Tridentine Mass was introduced & the priest now celebrated with his back to the people the entire time. Eventually, church architecture became infused with dramatic baroque elements. Pulpits were elevated & garish. The stations of the cross began to line the walls & statues of Jesus & Mary, saints & angels appeared around the sanctuary. Concert worthy hymns & choral Masses were sung. The church was now seen as a throne room for the presence of God.

When Vatican 2 came along some 400 years later, the churches were essentially stripped. Statues & communion rails disappeared, tables replaced altars, the priest faced the people & they could now partake on the tongue or in the hand. Worship bands replaced choirs & Latin was reserved as an option for select prayers. The Novus Ordo was born.

So what?  As a new Catholic, I've heard countless people talk about how the Tridentine (Latin) Mass is superior to the Novus Ordo (Vatican 2). But after reading this book, I can see that V2 was a valid attempt to return to the Mass of our fathers. The Tridentine Mass is beautiful in its own right, but it can't be denied that certain aspects of it were divisive. Novus ordo- while also far from perfect- seems a fair medium... considering.

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