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Floating in the Sea, Not Drinking from the Firehose

We’ve probably all had this conversation. Your friend, who has become more conservative over the years, but still hasn’t crossed the Adige (that’s the river that runs through Trent), says in the midst of an amicable dispute: “I know there were problems with the liturgical reform… but you have to admit that adding so much more Scripture was a great thing!” Then comes that awkward moment when you have to say: “Actually, no, it wasn’t a great thing. Not the way it happened. And I’ve discovered over time that the traditional readings at the Latin Mass are much more suited to their purpose.”

Now, we don’t hold this view because we’re “anti-Scripture.” (God forbid!) We still believe Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God—which is more than can be said for the Modernists, who treat it like any other human document, and who are willing enough to contradict or ignore it. It’s also not because we are against any and all change, although it’s quite true that the rate of change slowed down in liturgical history as the rites reached perfection, and that, in any case, lots of change is always a bad idea in religious practice. Nor has it anything to do with being lazy and inattentive. We enjoy reading books on theology and spirituality, and we want to know the Word of God.

But we don’t think the Mass was intended as a Bible study, nor did anyone else, prior to the mid-20th century. The Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of the Holy Sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As a glance at its fixed and changing texts will show, the old Roman Rite is and has always been permeated with Scripture not for mere didactic reasons, but as part of the cumulative act of rational worship we offer to the Most Holy Trinity, wherein we both revere and receive Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. Our minds are lifted up by the many antiphons (almost always taken from Scripture) and our hearts are stirred by the melodies that give wings to the biblical text. The Epistle speaks hard truths we need to hear, and the Gospels deliver the Lord’s central teaching and miracles with impressive force.

The Scripture readings in the old Mass were chosen with an unerring sense of fittingness. They tend to be pithy, and, more often than not, obviously connected with the sacred mysteries unfolding in our midst. And the best part is: we hear them every year. The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—in 2020, that happens to be this coming Sunday—always has the same readings. The Epistle is Ephesians 5:15-21, “redeeming the time… be not drunk with wine… singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things”; the Gospel is John 4:46-53, the healing of the sick son of the ruler of Capharnaum: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you believe not… Go thy way, thy son liveth… and himself believed, and his whole house.” That makes these Epistles, Gospels, and antiphons deeply familiar to us as we assist at Mass over the course of our lives. The Bible becomes a book we live in. The readings are annual milestones along our way, just like the natural seasons and the liturgical calendar as a whole. If we pay attention, we will end up with something better than exposure or literacy: parts of the Bible will end up inside us as parts of ourselves, like our eyes and ears, hands and feet.

The saints of the Church memorized Scripture not in great gulps, with an all-you-can-eat cycle of three years for Sundays and two years for weekdays, but rather, in small portions repeated over and over again. Not only were the readings for Sundays annual instead of triennial, but, even more importantly, the weekdays repeated readings from the various “Commons” of the Saints—like the Mass for Doctors, with its Epistle (1 Tim 4:1–8): “Preach the word, be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time when they will not endure sound doctrine…” and Gospel (Matt 5:13–19): “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?…” Or the Mass for Confessors, with its Lesson (Sir 31:8–11): “Blessed is the man that hath not gone after gold, nor put his trust in money…” and Gospel (Lk 12:35–40): “Let your loins be girt and your lamps burning in your hands, and you yourselves like to men who wait for their lord…” As they prayed the Divine Office, the saints repeated a limited number of “chapters,” season by season, for ferias and feastdays: “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for Thou art my praise.” “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” “You have been bought with a great price. Glorify God and bear Him in your body.” They recited the full psalter of David each week—all 150 psalms, without a single verse missing. Wherever the traditional Latin liturgy flourishes, the same discipline is practiced, with the same benefits.

Isn’t it striking how the Holy Spirit led the Church to choose just those parts of Scripture that pinpoint the perennial temptations of fallen men and the crucial means of conquering them? These themes were muted in the new lectionary, sometimes by suppression and sometimes by the sheer quantity of text. Yet one might wonder if there has ever been a time when the members of the Church on earth more need to hear the message that the old liturgy proclaims, “in season, out of season”: the command to preach sound doctrine against heresy; to be salty and not bland; to keep away from greed for worldly goods; to keep our loins girt with asceticism as we prepare for our particular Judgment; and so forth. Tough love, but capable of getting us into shape and into glory. Although many causes contributed to the Age of McCarrick, and bling bishops like Bransfield have always been found in the hierarchy, it certainly hasn’t helped that the mainstream liturgy no longer targets our vices with the precision of guided missiles.

It was once considered a basic requirement for religious life that the monk or nun or friar memorize substantial amounts of Scripture. This was simply taken as a non-negotiable by the Desert Fathers and the great monastics. Yet for everyone except rare individuals with photographic memory, memorization has to lean heavily on repetition. This conquers one small space at a time in the mental storerooms, in order to build up the habits that will lead to further acquisitions for one’s spiritual treasure-chest. The old liturgy knew this to perfection. Although ordered to the glorification of God, it successfully imparted the word of truth to God-thirsting souls. Its unerring pedagogy guaranteed that those who surrendered to it would become, as it were, Bibles in the flesh. Not everyone can be a St. Bernard of Clairvaux or a St. Thomas Aquinas—men who cite the whole range of Scripture as easily as other men breathe or blink their eyes—but those who enrolled in the school of the traditional liturgy could follow and savor a Bernard or a Thomas.

Catholics who start attending the TLM and read their missals are often surprised by just how much Scripture is present in the liturgy itself. I’m not referring now to the Epistle and Gospel, which are the places you’d expect to find passages from the Bible, but everywhere else. In Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright, I point out:

The traditional liturgy as a whole is permeated with scriptural citations and allusions in a way foreign to the Novus Ordo, as a side-by-side textual comparison demonstrates. From Psalm 50 at the Asperges and Psalm 42 at the foot of the altar, to the Gradual and the Alleluia or Tract in between readings, to Psalms 140 and 25 during the Offertory, to Psalm 115 at the priest’s Communion, to the Prologue of John at the end of Mass, and verses from Psalms 17, 84, 101, 123, and others woven in here and there, with allusions to other books as well, the usus antiquior practices an “immersive” approach to Scripture that is sorely lacking in its replacement. The ancient liturgy is teaching the priest and the people how to pray God’s Word, how to understand its fulfillment and reality in the present moment. It is a crash course in lectio divina. The liturgy is showing us that the Word is for the sake of worship, and worship for the sake of one-flesh communion with God Incarnate. (163)

In my own experience, the traditional approach to the Bible in both the fixed and the changing parts of the Mass has a way of encouraging the faithful to take Scripture itself more seriously, and then to take it up on their own as part of their personal prayer:

The traditional Mass, by drawing us into a deeper union with Christ and pulling us deeper into the mysteries of God, builds in our souls a greater inclination to read and pray with Scripture in our personal prayer time outside of Mass. It might prompt us to start praying the Divine Office, with which the meditative and biblically resonant ancient Mass so perfectly harmonizes. As a result, we will no longer view the Bible as a chore to be gotten through, but rather, as an extension of the union we experience when we assist at Holy Mass. If Mass is the presence of the Beloved, then reading Scripture at home is perusing His love letters. First we need to fall in love, and then we’ll want to start up a correspondence. (Ibid., 119)

The Church in her authentic Roman liturgy understands that we will ultimately know Scripture better—we will have internalized more of the mind of Christ—if we master a limited set of readings, and work from them outwards and inwards to places yet unknown. The old approach is more like floating in the sea, looking at the sky or the stars, than it is like drinking from a firehose. Rather than marching through the Bible like a conquering army or driving through it like tourists on a bus who see a lot but perceive little, the one who assists at the traditional Mass is given the chance to rest in the Word of God and make it the form of his mind.

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