Saturday, February 8, 2014
Domesticating God by the words we use in worship. . .
It is a tension within the faith -- the desire to communicate clearly and the pursuit of language which is eloquent and lofty and not simple. Nowhere is this more in tension than in the liturgy. When Vatican II came along it unleashed (unwittingly) some of the most trite, trivial, and banal language for worship that the world had ever heard. The great collects of old were dismantled, their language dumbed down, and their eloquent phrase replaced by the most uninteresting an pedestrian speech. It was positively jarring to the ear to a culture accustomed to Latin, which, whether or not you understood it, conveyed a serious and awe-full sound to the untrained ear. The great musical tradition of the Latin Mass was single handedly replaced by folk music accompanied by a strumming guitar. But it is not merely the sound that got changed but the text itself. Lutherans were not far behind.
An example of the thoroughness of our penchant for simple and straightforward prose is the shift from the poetic imagery of the Proper Preface for Lent to a hollow and ordinary vocabulary in the name of being understood:
Who on the tree of the cross didst give salvation unto mankind that, whence death arose, thence Life might arise again; and that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome... Became
who accomplished the salvation of mankind by the tree of the cross that, where death arose, there life also might rise again and that the serpent who overcame by the tree of the garden might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.
Have you noticed that simplicity required more words, not less, than the concise language of the poet which it replaced?
Our passion for understanding has slowly but surely dismantled the mist and mystery to leave God exposed and vulnerable to the simple, the mundane, and the domestic. Now this is far different than God's use of the simple element to become the sacramental agent and instrument of His grace. God chose the ordinary (water, bread, wine, etc...) to be sure but it did not remain ordinary. His grace transformed the element into the majestic means of grace in the same way His incarnation took flesh into our Lord's divinity (to quote the Athanasian Creed: not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God).
I firmly believe that language can do much good and much harm to the enterprise of the Gospel and nowhere is this more clearly felt than when we dumb down the texts of worship and end up dumbing down the God whom we worship at the same time. Such is the difficult legacy of the modern liturgical movement. An economy of language requires us not to explain but confess the Mystery. Would that we had time to think this through before the books were published and a couple of generations raised up to know God and worship Him in language which is more simple than it is faithful. The same could be said for translations of Scripture. While there might be a place for a version of the Bible set to a third grade reading level, it is definitely not the Divine Service nor the worship setting for the people of God.
The churches that are the modern heirs of the liturgical movement are even now realizing what it cost us to modernize worship in this way and are almost universally at work attempting to recapture some of the eloquence that was lost -- Rome with the new translation of the Mass is but one serious example. It almost makes you long for the sound of Latin again!