Rorate Caeli

A Lutheran Liturgist of Today on the Medieval Mass

Frank Senn is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (that is the mainstream of American Lutheranism) and a well-known liturgist. And yet the cover art of his recent history of the liturgy is an attractive drawing of a traditional Corpus Christi procession in what could be a neighborhood in a modern city. Lutheran theology has traditionally condemned veneration of the Body of Christ outside of the Lord’s Supper as contrary to Christ’s command to take and eat.

In the book itself, after a section detailing the varied ways in which the medieval laity were successfully catechized in the vernacular while the liturgy remained in Latin, Senn writes the following:

Whether worshipers were reading a devotional book, looking at pictures, reciting prayers, whispering to a neighbor, or waiting on the church porch, they were summoned by the ringing of the sacring bell to the moment of the elevation, the exchange of peace or kissing of the pax board, and, at high points of the year such as Christmas and Easter, to the reception of Holy Communion. The Mass was still a work that all the people did together. And whether they got it from the devotional books or the homilies of the priest, the laity still understood at a basic level what was happening: Jesus Christ, true God and true man, had come among them in sacramental bread and wine, bringing the grace of his passion to his sinful and suffering people.

Thus the view that lay people were shut out from the medieval mass rests on a narrow understanding of “participation” that sees the liturgy only as text and limits participation to speaking roles. In any event, the accusation has been greatly exaggerated. The laity have always found ways to participate in the liturgy, whether it was in their language or not, and they have always derived meaning from the liturgy, whether it was the intended meaning or not. Furthermore, the laity in worship were surrounded by other “vernaculars” than language, not least of which were the church buildings themselves and the liturgical art that decorated them.

(Frank C. SENN. The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Pp. 144-145.)

Thanks to Reverend Senn for this!