A Walk Down Liturgy Street

When my son, Michael, was younger, sometimes he and I would sit in a chair together and look at a book called New York, Then and Now. This book’s left-hand pages have old photographs of streets in New York City taken between 1875 and 1920. The facing pages on the right-hand side have photographs of the same streets taken today.


We loved to compare the pictures and look for differences and similarities in the people — in their styles of clothing and vehicles — but most of all in the street itself and the buildings that line it. Sometimes the street has changed so much that nothing of the old remains. Sometimes it looks much the same. Michael’s favorite detective game was to find the old still present in the new — the one old office building still on the street but hiding with a cornice added or removed, or doors and windows changed, so that only the most detailed look can spot that it is still the same place.


If only we had a book like that for the Church’s liturgy! It could help us realize that the liturgy, like a city street, is alive and evolving. It’s a place where people live and meet and mingle (or just pass through) and where we conduct our (sacred) business. It’s a place that gives structure to who we are, while we simultaneously structure it according to our needs. Also like a city street, liturgy blends the old and the new, the organized and the cluttered, and passes through a continuous cycle of vibrancy and decay.


Think about the entrance rites, for example. In the earliest days of our liturgy, there don’t seem to have been any entrance rites at all. The community would gather in silence and the liturgy would begin with the readings from Scripture. But people like to have more formal beginnings to things, and soon we begin to see reports of the presiding celebrant greeting the people with “The Lord be with you” or “Peace be with you,” and the people responding. By the way, some scholars say that the original response to that greeting was “And also with you”; it was changed to “And with your spirit” by Church leaders like St. John Chrysostom in the late fourth-early fifth century.


By Chrysostom’s time, Christians were using larger buildings for the liturgy. Often the room where the ministers prepared for Mass (the beginnings of the sacristy) was outside the building. The ministers needed to get from that room to the worship area, so they began to process through the assembly to their places. The presiding priest would greet the people, and the liturgy of the word would follow.


Soon, however, the entrance rites began to get more complicated. For example,


• The procession was often accompanied by the singing of a psalm by the people.


• The Kyrie — originally an acclamation to the emperor in pagan worship — was applied to Christ the Lord. It may have been used first as a response to a litany during a procession from church to church, or as the bishop moved from the altar to his throne. When the prayer of the faithful disappeared from the liturgy in the sixth century (to return in our day), it was replaced by a litany of petition with the Kyrie as the response.


• The Gloria, originally an Easter hymn, was used in morning prayer and eventually found its way into Sunday Mass.


• Starting no later than the fifth century, the opening prayer was used to sum up the silent prayers of the entire assembly before all listened to the word of God. In the new translation of the Roman Missal, this opening prayer is again called the “collect” (from the Latin colligere, “to collect”) because that’s what it does: it “collects” the silent prayers of the whole assembly and gives them voice in a prayer spoken by the presider.


• The Sign of the Cross, a relatively late addition to the entrance rites, came in during the medieval period as part of the priest’s private prayers at the foot of the altar.


By the way, it’s important to remember that these changes didn’t all happen in a uniform way and at the same time throughout the Church. Until the Council of Trent in the 16th century, there was a lot of variation in the details of our rites from place to place. But, in general, all the elements I’ve mentioned gradually underwent change.


• Entrance psalms would become elaborate pieces sung by great choirs. But in many places, as sacristies were built inside churches, and the distance from the sacristy to the altar became much shorter, there was no need for a processional, and the entrance psalm was reduced to an antiphon and became part of the priest’s prayers at the foot of the altar.


• Long after the Kyrie litany was dropped from most liturgies, the Kyrie response itself was still popular enough to remain. It is now part of the penitential rite (called the “act of penitence” in the new translation).


• Other elements of the priest’s private preparation were soon added to the introductory rites, and these rites often became very cluttered. It is said, for example, that in medieval England the entrance rites alone could take over 45 minutes to complete.


• The reforms of the Council of Trent did much to renew and smooth out the introductory rites, and made them uniform across the Church. And in our time the Church has restored the entrance song of the people, provided for a renewed dialogue between presiding priest and assembly, and added, for the first time, a public penitential rite to the beginning of Mass (the Confiteor had been a private prayer of the priest and ministers).


This very brief survey touches on only a few highlights of the complex pattern of growth and change in our introductory rites. It’s really important to recognize the interlocked senses of change and continuity. In the liturgy then, and in the liturgy now, the Christian community seeks to reach out so that it may give thanks to, and be embraced and transformed by, its living, loving God.


All this activity on our liturgical street is worth pondering as we prepare for the arrival of the new translation of the Roman Missal on the first Sunday of Advent. The process, so far, does seem somewhat similar to a street undergoing renovation. First, there’s been the arguments between various architects and preservation societies about the character of our liturgical street. Some argue against the way the street has looked for the past 40 years, saying we discarded beauty in favor of a bland utility (like giving up Victorian character for 1960s boxes with aluminum siding), and the best thing we can do is move away from the previous “remuddling” and restore the best of the old. Others argue that the street is a place where contemporary people live, and we can restore its beauty without turning it into a museum of bygone language and outdated spiritualities.


Somewhere in this contentious process, a plan was approved, construction workers moved in, and a date was chosen for the work to be finished. But if you’ve ever added a room to your house or had your kitchen remodeled, you know how quickly plans can fall behind schedule.


For the past year translators and publishers have been panicking to meet the renovation deadline of November 27. “We need the texts! We need the texts!” the publishers cry, like construction workers waiting for their materials. “We’re working on it! We’re working on it!” cry the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship, like over-capacity factories struggling on overtime.


Finally the materials — the texts — arrive, but they’re followed by a stream of correction sheets that leave the workers (publishers) wondering just how much work they’ll have to tear out and do over, all the while feeling that November 27th date creeping up.


But slowly it all gets done. The inspectors check over the work, ink goes on paper, and soon the new look of our 2011 liturgy street will be ready to be shown to the world.


Some of us will walk down the street oohing and aahing, greatly pleased with the new look and feel. Others of us will cringe at some of the styles. Still others will ask, “Why couldn’t we keep it the way it was?” For many it will be a while before they feel completely at home again on our street.


But as our brief walk through the entrance rites showed, it’s always been that way. Our liturgy street is always changing, and there’s always been a tension between the old and the new.


Sometimes the new is a welcome change from fossilized older styles. But as the work of today’s local and national preservations societies show, there is often a natural longing in the human heart to stay with the old and push back against the new. Think of St. Jerome. He worked long and hard to translate the Bible into Latin, but many people at the time thought his translation was too modern, too low-brow and vulgar (just as the gospels were not written in the literary Greek of the time but in the common Greek spoken by the people), and for years afterward they still preferred using and copying older, clumsier, archaic Latin translations. It was probably the pope’s decision to use Jerome’s texts in the liturgy that saved his translation from being dumped in the trash and eventually made it the highly revered Vulgate of our Catholic tradition. 


These things happen on our liturgy street. As our little tour of the introductory rites showed, they’ve happened before, and they’ll happen again. Things come and go and often come back, sometimes in new forms.


But the most important thing to remember is that, through it all, the street remains the street — our street. It’s where we live and where we conduct our sacred business. It’s the primary place where we recognize and deepen our life in Christ, and where we get both the inspiration and the grace to bring, and to be, Christ for the world.


So let us live — fully live — in and from our street. Let us breathe our lives into the prayers we pray there and the actions we do there, whether their styling is familiar to us or not, or immediately appeals to us or not. And as we, the people of God, continue to shape our liturgy, let us always be open to God shaping us through it. In the end, that’s why the street is here in the first place — then, or now.




P.S.: The 2011-2012 Living with Christ Sunday Missal is a great (and affordable) personal resource for getting familiar with, and then praying, the new translations of our prayers. Along with all the Scripture readings it contains all the Sunday prayers of the new Roman Missal and many helpful explanations of their less familiar words and phrases. It will give you a chance to read through the prayers and get used to saying them out loud. It will also give you an opportunity to read over the prayers the priest prays so that when you say “Amen” to them at Mass, you will have really made them your own.

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