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!

7 comments:

  1. If a Lutheran -- an ELCA Lutheran no less -- can understand this, Catholic liturgists have no excuse.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I find this notion very odd, that one has to DO something in order not to be shut out. Attending lectures, watching a movie, admiring an oratorio by Händel is not being shut out. When I attend Mass, I do nothing at all, outwardly. But Im am not shut out.

    This whole notion of participation as something external, and of liturgy as being performed by "the whole community" baffles me. And bores me immensely.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dr. Senn spoke a few years ago in Philadelphia at the Anglo-Catholic parish of S. Clement's. At that time he said that, rather than being motivated by fear of change, liturgical traditionalists are people making a consciously post-modern statement.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Rev. Senn said...

    "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."

    BEAUTIFUL!

    ...even a stopped clock is right twice a day!

    STARKENBURG
    The Holy Mass, that cannot die,
    Was said amidst the oaks,
    While pin-oak leaves came floating down
    Around the simple folks,

    Who knelt upon the acorn floor,
    All dotted nutty brown.
    The acorns cracked and old knees snapped,
    Yet still there was no sound...

    But the tinkling of the golden bells
    As the White Host Son rose high,
    On priestly limbs, like mighty oaks,
    They branched up to the sky.

    And in that wood, I laughed with joy,
    Amongst the souls bowed down,
    For the mighty oak was once a nut
    That merely held it's ground.

    So Christian souls, like acorn nuts,
    Must burrow all around
    And be the seed that sprouts new oaks
    On consecrated ground...

    Where the Holy Mass, that cannot die,
    Is said around the oaks,
    While pin-oak leaves come floating down
    Amidst a mighty folk!

    ReplyDelete
  5. ... 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.

    What an arresting, wonderful concept! I'm surprised I hadn't thought about this before. The fact that Catholicism had an accepted, rich, and wide-ranging "vocabulary" of art and craft that included things like music (chant, polyphony), ecclesiastical architecture, stained glass, vesture, ritual, painting and decoration is something we've largely lost. These "vernaculars" were understood on an almost unconscious level—a building, a piece of music could be identified as "Catholic" almost intuitively. I'm doing a bad job at attempting a description this, I'm afraid, but what I'm trying to say is that Catholicism had some common (but incredibly varied) cultural "markers" that could be identified and understood across long stretches of chronological time and geography. This common cultural vocabulary seems to have been abandoned, much to our impoverishment. Instead, we're willing to settle for the Babel of individual "diversities" rather than a wider, richer, and more catholic unity.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Aloysius,

    "I find this notion very odd, that one has to DO something in order not to be shut out."

    But to be fair that is not the point addressed here. It is more that one is supposedly or actually shut by not hearing or seeing.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for this post. I was introduced to the wrok of Senn when I was at Lenoir-Rhyne College, an institution of the ELCA. It's an impressive work, with an impressive sympathy for the Catholic understandings, practices, and sensibilities in the Mass -- at least in most instances. Nice choice of loci for discussion too.

    ReplyDelete

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