Monday, August 20, 2007

"Tacking On"? - The Last Gospel and the Prayer to St. Michael

In a recent e-letter, Karl Keating of Catholic Answers attempts to explain some of the differences between the "new" Mass and the "old" Mass - the Novus Ordo and the "Tridentine" Mass.

Keating does a fair job of it but in expressing his preference for the new (1970) and much expanded Lectionary and his non-preference for the "Last Gospel" and Prayer to St. Michael, found at the end of the "old" Mass, I am moved to reflect and respond.

I would certainly not fault Mr. Keating for desiring more readings. However, I'm curious as to why we don't seem to ask the question as to why for approximately 1970 years or at least for the last 500 or so years since the Council of Trent, a more expansive use of Scripture in the Lectionary was not employed.

To simply insert more Scripture readings because it seems like a good idea begs the question about the wherewithal of our forefathers who had given us what we had up to and including the 1962 Missal of Blessed John XXIII.

I choose to believe that the Mass we had prior to the Novus Ordo was not a hodge-podge of centuries of "tack-ons" as we are sometimes led to believe, but a ritual, finely tuned and rightly ordered by centuries of use, the devotion of billions, and an organic development that could have only proceeded via the Holy Spirit directly from John's vision of Heavenly Worship in Revelation. The lack of a more extensive lectionary was not a 2000 year oversight.

I do not question the authority of the Church to expand the Lectionary, but I do not believe that the more limited Lectionary of the old Mass was a result of apathy or neglect. There was a reason for it.

Sadly, I don't know the reason or where to find it. But I can speculate. Here would be my points:

1. The change in the Lectionary flowed from the change of emphasis in the Mass. We may continue to say that the focus of the Mass is Christ, but in practice we know that the emphasis is on the community, more particularly on the "full, conscious, and active participation" of that community which "is to be desired above all else". As we all know those words - unqualified and generic - have led us down a path that the present Pope feels impelled to correct.

2. There is no mistaking the emphasis in the Old Mass. It is in word, practice, position, and posture, Christocentric in every way. The Old Mass does not attempt to encompass a Bible Study. It is not the forum for a great exposition of Scripture. The readings chosen for the Old Mass and the readings used for so many centuries were those readings that best served the theology and the action of the re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery.

3. It is also assumed with the Old Mass that the Mass itself was just one part of a larger Liturgical Day - a day punctuated and accented by many readings from Scripture known as the Divine Office. In times past this consciousness of the liturgical day was so preponderant that folks didn't refer to the hours of the day by numbers but by their liturgical names: matins, none, vespers, etc. Even the days were known by their feast names and not the pagan names we now use to refer to them.

4. The New Mass, in its attempt to meet the challenge of the modern age, in a way admits defeat in the world and says okay since you're not going to read the Scriptures for yourselves we'll read it for you at Mass. The Mass is then made to serve another new master: Bible study (the first new one being community building).

Note: I used to say that I didn't believe this (the scattered emphases of the new Mass) to be the intention of its designers, but I'm not so sure anymore. At any rate, intended or not, the effect is the same.

It is quite obvious by my above "personal opinions" that I am not all that cracked up about the expansion of the Lectionary. I have nothing against it but I would rather we relearn to incorporate the Scripture into our days as was once done.

"Tacking On"
Keating's other concern is the supposed "tacking on" of the Last Gospel and the Prayer to St. Michael which seem to be added to the Old Mass.

For those who don't know, in the Old Mass, after the final blessing, the priest would go to the left side of the Altar and read the "Last Gospel" which consisted of John 1:1-14:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
The prayer to St. Michael was said at the foot of the article at the end of an extra series of prayers which included 3 Hail Mary's and the Hail Holy Queen.

Again, I would ask those who consider this to be "tacking on" to "rely not on their own understanding" but to investigate the mind of the Church that included and preserved these practices.

I would also point out that the Mass is, in effect, at least up until the Novus Ordo, a result of two millennia of "tacking on". Prayers and actions came to be added to the Mass as the Christian community entered more deeply into its mystery. Truly, anything other than what Jesus actually said at the Last Supper in the Gospels can be considered a "tacking on".

For the modern Mass-goer who, by the time of the final blessing, already has one foot in the parking lot, the "addition" of another reading after everything seems to be over, and then followed by even more prayers, would, of course, be a jolt and an annoyance. But even for a more sincere person I would suspect that there would arise some question as to this seemingly out of place adding of not only a Gospel at the end of Mass, but the same Gospel at the end of every Mass.

It shouldn't take a liturgical expert to deduce that if this same Gospel was repeated at the end of every Mass for the last 800 or more years that perhaps our Church had deemed it important to do so and we should at least know the reason why.

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the Last Gospel was a "pious devotion" added to the liturgy about the 12th century. (By the way the final blessing was also a "pious devotion" added to the liturgy…and we still have that.) However, the question still intrigues me as to why it was added and why THAT particular Gospel passage.

Since I can't find anything to answer my question I will feel free to speculate.

The first heresy against Christianity was the refusal to accept Christ for who He said He was. We find the first instance of this in the Gospels (the Sanhedrin, etc.). This "first heresy" persisted throughout the centuries and persists today. (And in the case of Islam may well bode horrific repercussions that we can't even begin to imagine.)

One can imagine that innumerable disputes over the person and nature of Christ continued to proliferate after his death, resurrection, and ascension. But in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, it exploded into what came to be called "Arianism", which temporally and spiritually shook the young Church to its core. Arianism taught that Jesus was not God.

Because of the damage done by this heresy and the damage it continued to do, I believe that our wise fathers incorporated (not tacked on) John 1 to the end of every Mass in order to combat Arianism and its derivative heresies and to drill into Christians the truth of who Christ was and is.

(Also, we have to remember that the word Mass comes from the Latin "missa" which means "the sending". Since the beginning of Christianity this "sending" included the definite possibility of death. (It still does of course in so many parts of the world.). It was essential that the faithful be reminded again and again why and for who they were dying. We are still sent out to die, if only perhaps to die to sin.)

Today more than ever we have need of the Last Gospel. The success of the novel "The Da Vinci Code" which employs this same heresy, and the harm it caused many Catholics is a dire indicator of the state of Catholic knowledge and understanding of the true person of Christ.

Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons are two of the fastest growing sects in the world with the majority of their recruits coming from the ranks of Catholics. Both JW's and Mormons are descendants of Arius. But the threat from these two sects is insignificant when given the much greater threat of Islam.

Islam also rejects Jesus as God, but rather than walk to the next door and knock to find a more sympathetic ear, Islam teaches that you should lose your ear and your head with it.

The thought of what we are into (war with Islam - though we still call it a "war on terror") is not only beyond my understanding (for now) but cataclysmic to a frightening degree. (My friend Robert Morgan is writing a book on it which I hope will come out soon.) Meanwhile, let us read John 1 ourselves at the end of each Mass and at our breakfast and dinner tables so that we and our children will know the answer to the question: "Who do you say that I am?" when we are finally asked.

And as per the "tacking on" of the Prayer to St. Michael at the end of the Old Mass… Well God himself employs the help of this Archangel in casting out Satan (Rev 12)… maybe… well, you figure it out.
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